Radio Killed the Video Star

One year ago yesterday:

The then roommate and I (now blissfully wedded) were driving to our morning ritual of physical exercise. We, being former Liberal Arts majors, enjoyed the NPR program, Morning Edition on our 20 minute drive. As we are pulling away from our domicile, we were informed that a plane had hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York. We listened intently and were informed that another plane had struck the other tower. It was at this point that our media experience diverged drastically from those witnessing the events on live television.

The announcer posed the question that since the odds of two planes striking these two buildings was so astronomically high, could there be a navigational problem? Terrorism was brought up, but only as one of several possibilities.

Getting out of the car, we performed the workout, anger towards the always irresponsible media filling my head. How could they make the leap so quickly that it was terrorists? Sure, the buildings had been attacked before, but it took more than 30 seconds for terrorism to be brought up.

Following the workout, we drove the 30 minutes (LA traffic had thickened to it’s usual 7 a.m ish sludge) home. During the drive, we were informed that a plane may have hit the Pentagon and that one of the towers of the World Trade Center had collapsed. I looked over at Heather in horror: “What in the hell is going on?”

It is at this point I realized that my mother was flying back from her once-in-a-lifetime trip to England. “My mother is in the air today.”

Heather was quiet at first and then consoling.

At this point, we had seen none of the video, heard no screams, seen no chaos. It was all an image in our heads. This image, created by radio and our own imaginations, couldn’t come close to the horror we saw on television.

We dashed upstairs to turn on CNN. We watched the replays. I was a complete mess, wondering if my mother was on one of the planes that had crashed. I didn’t know her itinerary and was trying to tell myself that the odds of her being on one of the planes was small and I should not be freaking out. That conversation with myself was a difficult one.

Heather got ready for work and I sat transfixed, in a state of complete limbo for 2 hours, staring at the television. Heather left for work and returned at noon. Only six people had shown up in her office. My oldest brother called me at 11 am, to inform me that my mother had called him from a cell phone. She was on a plane that had been redirected to Halifax, Nova Scotia. You can see and read about what Halifax went through here. Look in the sidebar at the right for the link “Halifax, Canada, opens its doors to stranded passengers”.

It wasn’t until I watched this video that I fully understood what my mother went through on that day. My mother returned home the following Saturday, having been put up by some very kind Canadians. She has not flown on a plane since.

So you’re probably wondering about the radio/TV thing… In the 1960 U.S. presidential race, there was a debate of JFK versus Richard Nixon. Those who heard the debate on the radio thought that Nixon won the debate. Those who watched it on television thought JFK won, based on Nixon’s refusal to wear makeup and the buckets of sweat coming off his head. That JFK was a hotty didn’t hurt, either.

I think my experience with this catastrophic event was made wholly different by the media contact I had. Radio changed the event from violent shock to a more measured, quiet approach that still painted a terrible picture, but didn’t have the cathartic, dulling effect of watching the planes strike the towers again and again and again. Had I seen that second tower being hit live, and realizing that my mother could have been on that plane… My quiet mania wouldn’t have been so quiet.