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America watched N.Y. tragedy — live

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When tragedy strikes America, Americans turn on their TVs.

As events unfolded Tuesday, Americans gathered around sets in their homes, schools and places of work to see the stunning aftermath of the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history. And not just the aftermath. After the first plane hit the World Trade Towers, the major networks had cameras trained on the building in about three minutes — and captured the second jetliner hitting the building.

Television also carried the collapse of the towers live as viewers gasped in shock and horror from one end of the nation to the other.

When Americans remember the events of Sept. 11, 2001, it's the television images they'll recall. The immediacy of those images made them impossible to forget. Images that, oddly enough, looked more like movie special effects than actual events.

In terms of television's impact, this was this generation's equivalent of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

As is its wont, television immediately placed titles on the tragedy — "America Under Attack," "Attack on America," "Terrorism Hits America." And anchorman after anchorman compared the attacks to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Broadcast and cable networks immediately abandoned their regular schedules and went with round-the-clock, commercial-free coverage interrupted only by local news inserts on some channels. In Utah, some of those local inserts were clumsy at best, as coverage was almost unavoidable even on cable as media conglomerates shared news feed with sister networks — including CBS News showing up on MTV, VH1 and CMT; ABC News simulcasting on ESPN and ESPN2; Fox News being carried on FX; CNN sharing its feed with TNT and TBS. Various home shopping networks went off the air, leaving messages expressing "heartfelt concerns" or turning their channels over to news coverage.

The TV news coverage remained, for the most part, calm and measured. And that wasn't easy, given that events lurched from one tragedy to another — from New York to Washington, D.C., to Pennsylvania, as one, two, three and then four hijacked planes crashed.

And there were reporters on the scene in New York with more than a hint of panic in their voices. And a bit of hyperbole as some reporters declared that America was under siege.

Some of the images were so horrifying as to call into question the judgment of the news producers, as when CBS showed videotape of someone falling to his death from the World Trade Towers. (The impact, at least, was obscured.)

And not all the reporting was perfect. Early reports that a car bomb exploded outside State Department headquarters proved to be false, and some outlets passed along false rumors that the jetliner that crashed in Pennsylvania had been shot down by the military. And there was immediate widespread speculation that the United States was attacking Afghanistan when explosions rocked Kabul.

As the day wore on, the networks went from active reporting to talking-head speculation, as various politicians and "experts" discussed events about which they knew little more than anyone else who was watching TV.

And President George W. Bush took to the airwaves at 6:30 p.m. MDT to try to calm the nation's fears.

Television remained the focus of American life as Tuesday stretched into Wednesday and Americans struggled to come to terms with what they were seeing.

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com