NPR Ombudsman
4:36 pm
Mon September 12, 2011

9/11 Anniversary Coverage: Profound, Moving, Dissensions

Originally published on Thu September 20, 2012 2:43 pm

The vibrancy of American democracy is such that the debates over how best to memorialize 9/11 have been fierce these past 10 years. So, it's not surprising that some listeners Sunday were disaffected by NPR's 13 hours of live anniversary coverage, too.

The complaints ranged from what was seen as disrespectful interruptions during moments of silence, to inappropriate voice-overs during the reading of victims' names, to simply too much.

"I expect that NPR, of all media, trusts its listeners' intelligence and patience," wrote Diana Krauss from Brunswick, ME. "Alas, (host) Audie Cornish needed to interrupt the first moment of silence TWICE to tell us that we were listening to a moment of silence, thus destroying it."

Jes Falvey from Bozeman, MT, said of the explanations: "We're NPR listeners, we probably can figure it out!" Like others, Falvey added: "The worst was the blabbing over the reading of the amazing Billy Collins poem. Be respectful, please be quiet."

Leta Hall of Silver Spring, MD, said that so many of the stories had such a "tenuous connection" to the anniversary that the coverage was more like "One Thing Considered," which she said "burns out any ability to hear any more about it."

Judy Neale, a producer of Hawaii station KHPR/KIPO, forwarded a listener complaint saying "that respectful attention and homage to heros is fine, but days on end will never bring back those who died and is driving away those who survived and try to find positive things in life."

I sympathize with the heartfelt emotions in many of the complaints, but disagree. To me, the coverage was moving, often profound, and certainly worth the time. It might help some listeners to understand the challenge of doing radio, and so I asked Margaret Low Smith, acting senior vice president of news, to respond to the complaints. She wrote:

In our planning, we thought long and hard about those moments of silence- They posed serious technical and production challenges, which we couldn't ignore. But most importantly, we wanted to show respect for the moment, the memory of the victims and their families.

Technically, radio stations have silence sensors that go off if they detect dead air. It's a way to alert station engineers of a dropped signal. We had to avoid that happening. And, for our radio listeners, when there is silence on the air, there is often confusion. All that added up to having to make some brief comment during the longer moments of silence. Our host, Audie Cornish, did that with great respect and sensitivity.

As for the reading of the names, Smith said:

Those were poignant moments, especially because family members were the ones at the microphone and made personal remarks about their loved ones. The reading of the names went on for a very long time and we knew it was important to capture other memorial events as they unfolded throughout the morning. So we carefully faded the name reading under as we moved forward in our coverage. So, there were times the listener could faintly hear the names fading out when our hosts or correspondents began to speak. We never just talked and talked over the names. We wanted to give as much meaning as possible to every moment... and to always maintain a thoughtful and respectful tone.

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