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Do Cable News Networks Have an Obligation to Rebroadcast September 11th Footage?

MSNBC is discontinuing its annual tradition of replaying the network's breaking 9/11 coverage. Is that the best decision?

In most major American newspapers, the coverage of the 18th anniversary of December 7th, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack—with 2,403 military personnel and 68 civilians killed, the most symbolically devastating attack on American soil since the torching of Washington, D.C., in 1812—was surprising muted. Though many metropolitan papers told local stories of American valor, the Associated Press' nationally syndicated commemoration totaled a few hundred words: a small group of troops, accompanied by a "lone bugler," raising the stars and stripes atop the scarred wreckage of the USS Arizona. In contrast to the wall-to-wall coverage that accompanies modern national tragedies, Pearl Harbor seemed to flit across the national conversation with little fanfare, receding into the distance of American historical memory. It was a far cry from President Franklin D. Roosevelt's prediction that the Japanese bombing would "live in infamy."

With the September 11th, 2001, attacks and subsequent Global War on Terror nearing adulthood in American historical memory, America's hyper-accelerated modern media ecosystem has made it almost impossible for the post-9/11 generation to not "never forget." The Internet has brought with it a seemingly endless deluge of commemorative content, which, as is usually the case with the Internet, is a result of a desperate attempt to monopolize the public's fragmented attention span.

But one network's decision to pivot from its traditional tribute suggests an unusual moment that, as with Pearl Harbor, marks a change in how we talk about such a major world-historical moment. For the last decade, MSNBC has re-aired the network's Today live coverage of the September 11th attacks, a moment-by-moment reliving of the day that changed everything. But this year, the network will "move away" from the broadcast, choosing to maintain its attention on Hurricane Irma and "focus on other ways of commemorating 9/11 such as long-form documentaries," a spokesman told CNN's Reliable Sources.

The MSNBC's annual September 11th rebroadcast has always been a mixed bag: In 2011, Dan Abrams recalled how his decision as the network's general manager to re-run its 9/11 coverage was almost immediately deemed "gruesome or ghoulish" or "death porn" by irate viewers. The rebroadcast spurs controversy every year. In recent years, research has suggested that the repetition of the gruesome footage can re-traumatize those affected by attacks; for some New Yorkers in particular, the exercise feels phony. "It's like corporate branding," one New Yorker tells me. "I was here. I won't forget."

Wall-to-wall coverage of traumatic events has a substantial contagion effect on everything from mass shootings to PTSD and suicide.

It's (near) impossible to forget. September 11th was a disaster unique to the 21st century in that it was thoroughly and unambiguously documented from millions of different ears and eyes, one of the first disasters to be defined by bystander cell-phone footage as much as conventional media. All modern catastrophes since the Holocaust have placed a premium on historical testimony as grief and mourning, a crucial condition for civil society to move past a collective trauma—why should the first draft of history scrawled in breaking news reports be any different? "New York City is spending well over a half billion dollars to create a memorial to ensure we never forget that day," Abrams argued in 2011. "What better way to assure that happens, than by watching the event, as it happened for most, on television?"

"It's powerful and disturbing because it's so real," he added. "There is no way to sanitize that day, and to do so would be a disservice."

The most powerful counterargument against MSNBC's 9/11 rebroadcast as traumatic death porn is choice: There are other channels, cable and digital, to choose from. While there's no escape from terrorism as an increasingly ubiquitous feature from modern civil society, the Internet has given the consumer avenues for escape. The opt-out tension was more salient in the murders of WDBJ-TV reporter Alison Parker and photographer Adam Ward by disgruntled co-worker Vester Flanagan, whose first-person footage of the fatal ambush in Roanoke, Virginia, was recorded and forcibly circulated on unsuspecting social media feeds thanks to Facebook and Twitter's autoplay features.

But there are other considerations for media outlets: Wall-to-wall coverage of traumatic events has a substantial contagion effect on everything from mass shootings to post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide, a phenomenon that's led to organizations like the American Psychological Association to beseech news outlets to "no longer share, reproduce or retweet the names, faces, detailed histories or long-winded statements of killers." And the dominant media thoroughfares like Facebook and Twitter are designed to induce sharing, an impulse that makes opting out near impossible. "The horror was the dawning realization, as the video spread across the networks," wrote New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo after the Virginia shooting, "that the killer had anticipated the moves—that he had been counting on the mechanics of these services and on our inability to resist passing on what he had posted."

In this sense, perhaps MSNBC actually has an ethical obligation to rebroadcast the 9/11 footage as it happened, to not only bear witness to history as it unfolds but to provide a careful, thoughtful understanding of that day marked with the wisdom of hindsight. As I wrote in 2015, every atrocity gets the portrait it deserves, from Eddie Adams' "Saigon Execution" to the "Falling Man" photograph of an anonymous man falling from World Trade Center that an American theologian dubbed "perhaps the most powerful image of despair at the beginning of the twenty-first century." Those are images presented with the tempered wisdom of the intervening years; even now, the Twin Towers are muted with the hindsight of two wars in the Middle East and a political culture in ruins—a reminder of the anger that marked a new era in American civil society.

The Society of Professional Journalists advises journalists to "avoid pandering to lurid curiosity" when covering violent crime, and with Americans more worried than ever about the threat of another terror attack and the Trump administration willing to capitalize on national anxiety, moderation may be more important than ever. Though the unfiltered, unedited footage of MSNBC's first draft of history holds a unique place in the broader historical canon of contemporary 9/11 coverage, perhaps the pivot to special "longform documentary" projects will give the network a new lens through which to discuss the most significant political moment of the 21st century—and a new way of talking about what comes next.