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Five Years Later, 9/11 Remains A Thorny Subject

The terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, will soon be marked with a slew of five-year-later retrospectives and remembrances. It's also going to generate a fair amount of controversy. The media has long had its share of difficulties dealing with some issues from that terrible day. Those images are seared into most of our minds and we can play back the loop over and over – the smoking buildings, that second plane crashing into the tower, the collapse. But those same images haven't gotten all that much airtime in the years since. We'll see them again these next few days, then they will be boxed up and put back on the shelf for another anniversary. It's odd that an event which has had such impact on the nation would be treated that way.

You can argue that the media shies away from the footage because it simply is not news – that the event has happened, it was seen and consumed by the public so what's the use in showing it? True, but it's also a matter of taste and a judgment that showing it too much violates something. How should the media treat a subject filled with so much horror and yet is so important? Similar controversies earlier this year centered on movies about 9/11 – "United 93" and "World Trade Center" and debate over whether it was too soon for such movies. Now, CBS affiliates are struggling with an updated documentary about 9/11 that may push the official limits of taste. From the AP:

Broadcasters say the hesitancy of some CBS affiliates to air a powerful Sept. 11 documentary next week proves there's been a chilling effect on the First Amendment since federal regulators boosted penalties for television obscenities after Janet Jackson's breast was exposed at a Super Bowl halftime show.

"This is example No. 1," said Martin Franks, executive vice president of CBS Corp. (CBS), of the decision by two dozen CBS affiliates to replace or delay "9/11" - which has already aired twice without controversy - over concerns about some of the language used by the firefighters in it.

"We don't think it's appropriate to sanitize the reality of the hell of Sept. 11th," Franks said. "It shows the incredible stress that these heroes were under. To sanitize it in some way robs it of the horror they faced."

According to the article, about a dozen stations have decided against running it altogether while another dozen are running it in a later time period. More:
The documentary first aired on the six-month and one-year anniversaries of the Sept. 11 attacks on the trade center and the Pentagon. This latest showing, on the eve of the five-year anniversary, includes new interviews with many of the firefighters featured in the original, describing how their lives have changed.

Franks said it was an easy decision not to edit the language in the documentary, especially since it has won a George Foster Peabody Award, among others. "It was a much more difficult decision five years ago when the emotions were much more raw and fresh," he said.

Franks said it seemed "dishonest somehow" for the network to cover up the real language five years later because of the current regulatory environment.

Affiliates are on the hook for FCC fines and with new laws that up the maximum fine to $325,000, the caution is understandable. But this is an award-winning documentary, one that has largely all been aired before. While it isn't exactly news (and doesn't belong to the news division at CBS), this is a documentary that is real – real people and real events. The fact that this is even an issue illustrates a strange and strained relationship between broadcasters and federal regulators.

Of course there is a political strain involved with the media's portrayal of 9/11 as well. Liberal bloggers are incensed over reports about an ABC mini-series, "The Path To 9/11." According to the buzz, the series inaccurately depicts the degree of opportunity that the Clinton administration had to capture or kill Osama bin Laden in the 1990's. Like the documentary and the feature films, the series isn't news, but deals with all-too-real events. Expect to hear more about this in the days to come. Five years later, 9/11 remains a thorny subject for all media.

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