In an article about “9/11 fiction” in Prospect, Adam Kirsch points out one difficulty in writing about that day: It was a television event, and that is the medium through which the vast majority of us learned about it. Of one writer’s experience escaping one of the towers, Kirsch writes, “Like everyone else, he had to watch TV afterwards to piece together what had happened.” (I previously wrote about Kirsch’s article here.)
I hadn’t realized just how true this was—just how attached the attacks were to television—until I heard Brewster Kahle and Rick Prelinger on Democracy Now! this morning. Kahle, a 2009 Utne Reader Visionary, and Prelinger are Internet archivists who have put together a project called “Understanding 9/11: A Television News Archive.” “[9/11] was a major event, that was really a television event,” says Kahle. “People understood this through television.”
The archive is a collection of 3,000 hours of television news from around the world from September 11 to September 17. The project is exhaustive and impressive, at times even overwhelming—seeing all the news organizations’ coverage in one spot. Watching Charles Gibson reference New York fashion week going into a break, on the other side of which would be footage of one burning tower, has an effect like nothing I’ve felt on the page. It brings you back to that exact moment.
Kahle and Prelinger are looking to television as “a medium of record,” which is somewhat antithetical to the way it is usually used. News on television is here and then it is gone, never to be referenced again, at least not with any depth and analysis. “When we can watch the real-time coverage [of 9/11],” says Prelinger,
not just the famous images that get broken out and repeated all over again, but capture the full stream of that day and see how consciousness developed and how events were covered, it gives us a lot of grounding and enables us to begin to really think kind of analytically, critically about these events and about the way that television works.