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A worthy effort

Lead, follow or get out of the way. Television actually did a little of all three last week when it effectively, and affectingly, covered the anniversary of 9/11.

It led, for the most part, by making the decision to drop most commercials and by generally avoiding oversentimentality or exploitive use of familiar images of disaster. Not that there wasn't a human-interest piece or two that bordered on the cry-for-me brand of journalism that makes us queasy. With so many networks and stations making their own individual calls about what was appropriate, there was bound to be some of that. Besides, this was one of the few times when almost any story of survival or loss had the potential for tears.

TV networks and stations followed President Bush as he made his way to all three crash sites, blending their spot-news coverage of the day's myriad events with reflections on how it felt to cover the tragedy. The latter in other circumstances would strike us as self-indulgent, but here it felt right. We were reminded again of how much a part of this story TV was and how much we relied on its coverage of the expanding rings of the horror on that day.

And the best of the broadcasts got out of the way when there was no need for TV to be anything but a window on the world's grief, a bowed head, a waving field of grain in Pennsylvania, the litany of names and the increasingly crowded "circle of remembrance."

We were particularly impressed with CBS's attempt to put faces to the names of the dead during the roll call, and its refusal to cut away from or abridge that list, as some other networks did.

Now that Sept. 11 is past, TV moves its focus to a new season and a new opportunity to push reality TV into some undiscovered corner of shame and exploitation. For one long and difficult day last week, though, we were reminded that, at its best, TV makes us all proud.

The first step

The FCC launched its most massive review of ownership rules to date. The chairman's goal is both to reconcile the rules with the real world and to satisfy the increasing number of appeals-court decisions that have pointed to the disconnect.

Just how all the rules will shake out, and what that will mean to broadcasters, is unclear. Even broadcasters don't agree on what they want. But the Powell FCC is starting from the right place, which is the acknowledgement, underscored by the court, that it's time to rethink the "voices" test. As anyone but a sand-eating ostrich knows, the number of "voices" in a market has grown exponentially since the rules were adopted (others were actually there all along but were unacknowledged by the commission). It's past time that the FCC regs mirrored that reality.