Foreign TV tackles U.S. tragedy

Al-Jazeera, other news orgs examine Sept. 11

LONDON — The shock of watching airplanes fly into the World Trade Center, leaving smoke and flames billowing from the Twin Towers, is among the most defining moments in television. A decade later, international broadcasters are gearing up for coverage of the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, and those images are still haunting attempts to put the moment in perspective — challenging established networks like the BBC and Sky News as well as more recent players, like Al-Jazeera, which grew up in the shadow of 9/11.

“With hindsight,” says Dan Korn, senior VP of programming at Discovery Networks U.K., “TV can look back and reflect on the impact of 9/11, and by using long-form narratives ask whether any progress has been made in dealing with conflict resolution, and tell some of the human stories of these horrific events.”

The attacks took place at a time before social networks like Twitter and digitally driven citizen journalism emerged to augment and challenge 24-hour news networks — and before broadcasters like Al-Jazeera bowed to provide a non-Western perspective on the complexities of Middle Eastern and African politics.

Al-Jazeera English has been praised for its coverage of the Arab uprisings; the channel can be seen online in the U.S. and via Time Warner Cable in New York.

It may also win plaudits for its contribution to the 9/11 anniversary, where it is competing with more established players such as the BBC, CNN Intl., ITN, Sky News, ITV, Channel 4 and Discovery.

“9/11 was deliberately created as a media event,” says Paul Eedle, director of programs at Al-Jazeera English. “Part of the purpose of this act of extreme violence was to create images that would grip the imagination of people around the world.”

It’s a theme examined in “The Image War,” one of three 60-minute documentaries under the “9/11 Decade” umbrella — executive produced by Jon Blair — that the network has made inhouse to mark the 9/11 anniversary.

” ‘The Image War’ shows that Al Qaeda had a remarkably efficient propaganda machine but threw it all away,” says Eedle. “A small group of people without a state built a propaganda machine that took on a superpower.” The other two films in the trilogy are “The Intelligence War” and “The Clash of Civilizations?” All the docus were directed by Dominic Streatfeild, who helmed Discovery’s “Age of Terror.”

While many U.K. news outlets are expected to broadcast live from Ground Zero and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, with some traveling to Afghanistan, Al-Jazeera hopes to broaden the perspective. It’s sending reporters to other, unspecified parts of the world (it declines to give details for fear of alerting rivals) to see how these countries are reacting to 9/11 10 years later.

The BBC, too, hopes to add some less predictable elements to its mix of human interest and hard public affairs coverage

On its U.K. news website, it will use text and video to present “Artefacts,” details of six items that survived the attacks and the stories behind them.

The U.K.’s other pubcaster, Channel 4, is prepping several docus for the anniversary.

These include “Children of 9/11,” produced by Darlow Smithson, following the lives of children from six families across the U.S., some of them unborn at the time, all of whom lost a parent in the attacks.

“Mosque at Ground Zero,” produced by CTVC, explores how a proposed mosque and Islamic community center, two blocks away from the site of the attacks, has sharply divided opinion in the U.S.

Meanwhile “The Fireman’s Story,” produced by Testimony Films, recounts the experiences of some of the 343 New York fire fighters who died on 9/11.

“For a decade, 9/11 and the war on terror have been the backdrop for every major international policy call this country has made,” says C4’s chief creative officer Jay Hunt. “The 10th anniversary is a perfect opportunity to revisit the personal and political stories of those involved.”

Commercial web ITV1 has set a two-hour film, “9/11: The Day That Changed the World,” from Brook Lapping, which attempts to reconstruct how U.S politicians and other power players reacted to the attacks.

In addition to the usual suspects, like President Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Rudolph Giuliani, there are also first-hand accounts from Laura Bush and Lynn Cheney.

Among the shows Discovery is lining up for the anniversary is two-hour docu, “9/11: Colliding Lives” from Darlow Smithson, exploring the links between a group of strangers following their fight for survival inside the World Trade Center.

“For people of my generation,” Korn says, “(9/11) was like JFK’s assassination had been for an earlier generation — the single most horrific episode of our lives.”

Tenth anniversary of 9/11:
9/11 lessons: Patriotic themes proliferate | A time for restraint | Foreign TV tackles U.S. tragedy | Decade’s Brit pics take nuanced look at 9/11 | Cacophony of voices dull anniversary