NEW YORK — The searing film of a plane slicing into the World Trade Center and exploding into a fireball, and the towers collapsing in a cloud of dust will never be forgotten by those who lived through Sept. 11, 2001.
Television networks have been reluctant to show those disturbing images since that day but now, five years later, some of the restrictions are loosening.
When psychologists expressed concern in the days after the attacks about the impact of repeated showings — particularly among children who didn't understand they were reruns — the news divisions stopped. In some cases, strict bans were instituted. In others, top executives have to review and approve each suggested use.
Any use of the pictures by NBC News has to be prefaced by a warning that gives time for people to turn away, said Steve Capus, NBC News president. (MSNBC is a joint venture between NBC and Microsoft)
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"I don't think we will ever change our rules completely," he said. "But I think the fifth anniversary is an appropriate time, within limits, to show it, where you might not have done it a year or two ago."
The ban continues at ABC News. Paul Slavin, the division's senior vice president, said he suspects that will remain so until some producer makes a compelling case in a specific instance, but that hasn't happened yet.
Repeating real-time coverage
One trend this year is to repeat a network's real-time coverage of the events as they unfolded five years ago. CNN is making this available, for a fee, on its Web site. NBC News and Fox News Channel are planning at least some airings of their original coverage.
Fox has allowed the pictures only in certain cases, such as during the trial of World Trade Center conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, said John Stack, the network's vice president of newsgathering.
There are ways to do it appropriately, he said.
"What better way to remind ourselves that we are in a long battle against people or a philosophy that doesn't respect our way of life?" Stack said. "Unfortunately, we have to be reminded that there are lengths to which people will go."
What to show has been the subject of extensive discussions at several networks, including CBS News, which aired for the third time Sunday its "9/11" documentary that included the only known footage of the first plane striking the World Trade Center.
"I think you can be incredibly dramatic and just evoke the highest emotion without going all the way," said Susan Zirinsky, who produced the film. "It is a conundrum because part of me thinks the anger is greater when confronted with the rawness of an event. But often I think the pain it would cause after five years would be too much."
Brian Clark understands. He worked for Euro Brokers and was above the point of impact when the second plane hit, and managed to escape. He said he doesn't mind seeing those pictures, but knows some fellow survivors who are traumatized by them.
It's important not to sanitize the event, said Patricia Reilly, whose sister Lorraine Lee died in the attack. Reilly is chairwoman of the board of the World Trade Center United Family Group.
"I don't think images of people jumping out of the building are necessary," Reilly said. "But the planes crashing in, those are painful for me to watch. When the buildings collapsed, (those are) painful images. But I think when we don't look at them then we become complacent and that's the worst thing we can do."
Linda Ellman, director of the film "On Native Soil," said she spoke with several people directly affected by the attack before making it. Shown on Court TV, it is a documentary about the formation of the Sept. 11 commission.
Her film shows it all, including several pictures of people jumping or falling to their deaths — images that broadcast networks have avoided.
People involved in the film strenuously debated over whether that was right, with some believing it was too hard to look at, she said. But Ellman said it was an important part of what happened that day, and is particularly unforgettable for witnesses. There were no objections from Court TV, she said.
"We felt very strongly that what happened on Sept. 11 was awful," she said. "It was horrifying and tragic. To in any way not present it in its true form wouldn't be right."
The British-based makers of "Twin Towers," which uses both actors and interviews with real survivors to depict the experiences of people in the World Trade Center that day, said Discovery Network was wary about the project before becoming a partner and airing the film.
"The initial reaction was, ‘Oh, crikey, we couldn't do that'" when approached two years ago, said Richard Dale, creative director of Dangerous Films.
Time softens attitude toward images
Time seemed to soften that attitude, he said. The strong ratings and positive response to Discovery's "Flight 93" movie last year also convinced network executives that the time was right, he said.
Dale's film shows the plane striking the second tower, but only once. It shows one of the two towers collapsing. And, from a distance, it depicts one person falling to death.
"There are certain stories you couldn't ignore," he said. "One of the things that was most shocking was all of the people who jumped or fell, by some estimates as many as 200 people. That's the reality ... If you're trying to understand what happened to people on that day, you have to go there. But at the same time you have to do it in a way where it doesn't seem something like a snuff movie."
Once was enough, he said. To Dale, the more important shot was the look on the faces of actors portraying people trapped when they recognized what was happening.
Ellman, a former producer at NBC News, said she appreciates the difficulty these questions of sensitivity cause for networks, and are likely to cause for years to come.
It may be one of the reasons that CNN is sending its star anchor, Anderson Cooper, to Afghanistan instead of Ground Zero on Monday's anniversary.
"I'm biased," said CNN U.S. President Jonathan Klein. "I was working 10 blocks from the (World Trade Center) so it will always be evocative for me and I imagine it will be for millions of people. We're trying to do less dwelling on the past and more aggressive reporting on the future."
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