TV and 9/11: How To Remember a Day You Want To Forget

The 2001 New Britain Rock Cats were a really good baseball team.

As the Double-A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins, the Rock Cats’ roster included, among others, Michael Cuddyer, Dustan Mohr, Justin Morneau, Juan Rincon and Grant Balfour, with a cameo by Papi Ortiz.

They finished 87–55. They were exciting to watch. When they beat the Norwich Navigators in the playoff semi-finals and were facing the Reading Phillies for the Eastern League championship, my friend Mark and I bought tickets to the opening game.

It was a Tuesday and I was working at the Daily News in New York, so I drove to the office around 6 a.m., with the idea I’d leave early and pick up Mark in Hartford before the game.

As dawn broke it was looking like a perfect day, warm with clear blue skies, which is what everyone always says about New York on Sept. 11, 2001. Clear skies, warm late summer air, perfect day.

A few minutes after 8:30 I was talking with my editor, Bob Heisler, about a couple of stories for the next day’s paper. Michael Jackson had performed the night before. Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft album was being released.

Aerial view of the 9/11 memorial on the World Trade Center site in New York.

Then the TV channels cut away from their regular morning programming and well, we all know why.

“I guess we won’t be writing about Michael Jackson tomorrow,” I said to Bob. “We’ll be writing about this.”

“I don’t think we’ll be writing or talking about anything except this for a long time,” Bob replied.

He called that one. Bob is gone now, sadly, but as we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, it feels like most of television is cutting away from its regular programming again to explore the aftermath of a day that shaped many of America’s actions and much of her thought in the 21st century.

Disney+, Apple+, Hulu, Wondrium, Netflix, PBS’s Frontline, Vice, ABC’s 20/20, MSNBC, Paramount+, Discovery+, Reelz, Start TV, Fox Nation, CBS, and Showtime all plan 9/11 specials over the next few days. CNN plans several. History plans four. Spike Lee has directed a four-part documentary for HBO Max.

Meanwhile, in the world outside television, our awkward exit from Afghanistan puts an exclamation point on the whole enterprise by ending a war sparked by 9/11.

Now no one of any ideological persuasion would argue that 9/11 doesn’t have the historic and contemporary importance that merits this attention.

For television purposes, however, that’s almost incidental. Television is drawn to this story like a teenager to a phone for the simple reason it’s irresistible.

The official mission statement in the TV biz is that these are stories people should see and need to see, with still-unfolding dramas, subtle undercurrents, critical sidelights and world-altering consequences.

Left unspoken is that, while all those things are true, TV also has seen 9/11 from the beginning as the apocalyptic car wreck that every American, consciously or not, will slow down to see.

So it’s probably worth asking this question: Is that true? Twenty years later, even among people who were deeply affected by 9/11 and recognize its far-reaching significance, are we still as drawn to revisit?

Do we want to see the planes hit the towers again, figuratively or literally? Do we explicitly or implicitly want to reconjure the deeply unsettling hours that followed? On a primal level, is revisiting 9/11 like replaying a game that our team lost?

There’s also an argument that while all of America felt the reverberations from 9/11, it was more intense and visceral for 1) the media, and 2) people around New York and Washington. It wasn’t exactly abstract in Minnesota or Texas, but to an extent you have to think 9/11 wasn’t completely unlike earthquakes or hurricanes. Being there and seeing it on TV are different experiences.

In any case, many potential viewers may simply say, “I don’t need to see this again.”

Producers for television’s new wave of 9/11 programs know this, which is one reason they all stress their new shows are not simply vintage news clips with talking heads explaining what it meant.

These new shows have a more targeted focus, like the impact of 9/11 on women, or the push to ensure care for first responders, or the lives of children whose parents were killed that day, or where the FBI failed, or what lessons if any we have subsequently learned.

The message: 9/11 spawned countless subdramas that are instructive, heartwarming, uplifting and at times heroic.

The problem: At the end of the day, the other parts don’t go away.

I’m guessing pretty much everyone in America would, if given the power, rewrite 9/11. Me, I’d just go to the Phillies-Rock Cats game — which, like so much else in America that September, was never played.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”