Fighting Ephemerality: The 9/11 Television News Archive

October 10, 2011
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Recently, I had the opportunity to speak at a mini-conference co-hosted by NYU and Internet Archive. The topic was Internet Archive’s revamped 9/11 Television News Archive, which allows users access to 24 hours of 9/11 coverage from the U.S. and abroad. Like all things on Internet Archive, the 9/11 TV News Archive is free—a tremendous help to anyone wishing to reevaluate how the events played out on TV. So I chose to speak a little about the issue of access and the singular experience of watching television in an archive. Below is an excerpt from my remarks.

I’m a media scholar, so I approach TV news a bit differently than other folks. First and foremost, I’m interested in television news as television—as a ratings-driven commercial artifact that juggles the responsibility of journalism with the stylistic and narrative demands of television. As a result of this primary interest, I’m also concerned with the way the demands of television often adversely affect the information we get, particularly during times of crisis when the appeal of liveness and breaking news can overwhelm little things like facts. It’s the fog of live television. The archive has a tremendous role to play in helping researchers reconstruct the past as seen on television, but it also helps us pinpoint precisely how history’s televised narrative is already a construct—a carefully crafted and complex set of signs and symbols. So I’d like to talk about the television news archive in terms of accessibility and analysis and why both of those things matter.

When I started researching Ugly War Pretty Package in 2004, I was in the third year of my Ph.D. program, meaning I was relatively poor. I didn’t realize this would factor so heavily into my ability to access news coverage of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I actually had no trouble finding CNN’s coverage. My university’s media center maintained its own collection of CNN coverage, but—in a move that makes perfect sense to some but was a bad decision in the long run—they neglected to archive Fox News. CNN had become the newscast of record, so why collect anything else? I needed over 100 hours of Fox News coverage, so paying the Vanderbilt Archive for that amount of time was out of the question. Vanderbilt had just started putting clips online, but I needed days of coverage. I had to rely on the kindness of strangers, namely a journalism professor from the University of Arizona who didn’t think twice about mailing me every single Fox News tape her department had made. This was just seven years ago, and it was all very low tech. Video tapes. Snail mail. It got the job done, but not without anxiety.

Once the problem of access was solved, the next one revealed itself when I was transcribing the coverage and conducting my actual analysis. It was less of a problem and more of an intellectually complicated new experience—the experience of watching five 24-hour cycles of news. Nobody does that. As a television scholar, this was an exciting prospect. It forced me to argue that the basic unit of analysis of cable news is the 24-hour cycle. It’s not one particular program or even one daypart. Most people, even news junkies, consume news in snippets or in hour-long blocks. When you decide to study news with an eye to its aesthetic and narrative attributes, you’ve made the decision to remove news from its normal context. Even though much of my motivation was to reinsert news into the television context, the experience of watching hours of news in a cubby in my university’s media center, and the sadness of re-watching the shock and awe bombing next to strangers who were all watching something else, highlighted the very odd artifact that news becomes when it is placed in an archive.

So why does any of this matter? Television news has always been considered an ephemeral text. Certain clips, and I emphasize the word CLIPS, live on and pop up again and again: the moon landing, Cronkite’s announcement of President Kennedy’s death, the Challenger explosion. But aside from those morsels, there has been little effort to save, to catalogue, and to archive. When CNN released its Persian Gulf War coverage on home video, it was composed of highlights. Again, these were the morsels that stood out, but those morsels probably accurately represented how most people experienced the war in their living rooms. Researchers can’t live on morsels. It’s only when you can lay out every moment of concentrated coverage and truly study it as a coherent text that you can detect and explain the patterns and motifs in the genre of television news.

See, I’ve come to believe that the “ephemerality” of 24-hour news encourages sloppiness. I’ve worked in live television, and I know that screw-ups happen. Couple liveness with the pressure of covering a breaking story, and the potential for disaster is huge. The idea is that everyone will forgive CNN or FOX for living in the heat of the moment and speculating wildly. One news cycle simply replaces the last, and short of the satirical interventions of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, no one will really hold TV news accountable for the problematic statements, characterizations, and images that can dominate during moments of crisis.

The archive changes this. The archive replaces ephemerality with permanence and gives television the same respect as the written word. When TV news becomes institutionalized in this way, it is easier to study. This is a gift to people like me and especially to students and independent scholars who lack the resources that a university job often provides. And, of course, the 9/11 TV News Internet Archive is a gift to people like my students, who were barely old enough to grasp what was going on in 2001. It opens up so many avenues for research and discovery, critical or casual, and that value can’t be overstated.


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