You ever get sick of eating in restaurants? After a while it doesn’t really matter how good the food is, or how impressive the surroundings. It doesn’t even matter if the food’s for free. You just get sick of eating away from home — but, you don’t get sick of eating. It’s probably an awful analogy, but that’s sort of how I feel about the coverage of 9/11. I want to know more about 9/11 and its aftermath. But I’m getting sick of the way it’s served up.
Some of the coverage is very good. Some of it is plain awful. Most of it lies somewhere in the middle. And yet all of it is starting to grate on me. The souped-up graphics, the well-practiced stiff upper lips, the various victims who’ve shared their tragic testimonies so often they’ve taken on an unfortunate polish — all add up to an expertly prepared dish I find just a bit too clever to be palatable.
Obviously, the worst are the television networks which constantly promise to be the place where America grieves or remembers or just talks about 9/11 — like the high-school guidance counselor too intensely interested in “being there” for “the children” to know when to shut up. The anchors may be in a no-win situation, but the constant straining and yearning to be somber-yet-uplifting, modest-but-reassuring, invariably turns them into parody. When I listen to Jennings and Rather, for example, I can almost hear the network staff buzzing about, like so many Hollywood carpenters hammering up the clapboard façades of a “real” Potemkin village, in order to get the authenticity “just right.”
I’ve spent much of the morning wading through a sea of hand-wringing media stories, all of them fretting over the press’s wall-to-wall coverage of the 9/11 anniversary. And it will be wall-to-wall. Long thought to be a sign Hell had arrived on earth, The Today Show will be expanded to six hours. CBS will restrain itself with a mere five-hour-long Early Show. On ABC, Peter Jennings will host a special Answering Children’s Questions, which will no doubt feature plenty of Mr. Jennings’s intriguingly anti-American barbs for the children — and parents — to swallow as distilled wisdom.
But to their credit, at least ABC is distinguishing which programming is for children and which is not.
On NPR this morning, Marvin Kalb of the Center for Journalists — who thinks journalism is God’s Holy Writ (I’m paraphrasing) — sagely agreed with Susan Stamberg (a High Priestess of the Faith), who then returned the favor by agreeing with Kalb that the networks could go overboard showing the World Trade Centers collapsing too much. Kalb warned, and Stamberg concurred, that networks had a responsibility not to show the footage too much because, well, it could have a numbing effect. They further agreed with each other that we’ve already seen such footage too much and that showing it much more might make for desensitizing overkill.
The first problem with this appraisal is that it is based in a lie. The networks have not shown the footage of the Towers collapsing over and over again during the last year. They did show the footage of the crash and implosion a great deal in the first days and weeks after the collapse, but then all of the networks agreed to sharply curtail the use of it. Perhaps one reason we think we’ve seen it so many times is that the event and the image were significant enough to stay fresh with us all.
In fact, within 48 hours of the 9/11 attack, the American networks collectively agreed to ban footage of men and women leaping to their deaths from the World Trade Center (see “Bring Back the Horror“), believing such footage was too emotional — an argument which was sorely lacking during the Rodney King episode, when those same networks deliberately ignited passions night after night after night after night. Perhaps when the video “shows” America as barbaric, the press see nothing wrong with stirring up passions, but when America is attacked by barbarians, responsible restraint is required. Around the world, men and women of good will rose in solidarity with the United States largely because they saw images few Americans had seen.
“I hope that television and others who are presenting these memorial anniversary services in September would keep their sense of balance about it all,” Walter Cronkite told reporters. “It seems to me it’s the thing to do, and I think we’ll have responsible people in charge of the coverage.”
I agree. But what do the “responsible people in charge” believe needs to be balanced? Is it ideological balance, between Left and Right? Between jihadist lunatics and sober Americans? Between those who believe America “invited,” i.e., deserved, this attack, and those who don’t?
In the hundreds of hours of coverage there will undoubtedly be plenty of that sort of thing to look for. But the real need for balance will be in the one area where I can guarantee it will be lacking: emotional balance.
It seems that when it comes to weeping and hugging, there is no such thing as too much. Perhaps because the networks believe that’s what their predominantly female audiences are looking for, they see no problem with an endless parade of grief. Or perhaps wallowing in remorse and self-pity is simply all the rage in the self-help culture that dominates newsrooms.
But the one thing that’s not all the rage is rage itself. We will be, and already are being, subjected to countless hours of grieving and mourning, and heartbreaking stories of fathers who never met their sons and mothers who outlived their daughters. But when — as is the natural and correct way of things — we try to translate this grief into righteous rage, we are told that such feelings are unproductive, unenlightened, or, most likely, simplistically “patriotic.”
“So overwhelming is the sheer volume of this anniversary coverage,” writes Charlie McCollum in a recent and typical front-page article about 9/11 anniversary coverage for the San Jose Mercury News, “that questions have been raised about whether what should be enlightening or inspirational will instead become emotionally numbing or even traumatizing for the American TV audience.”
To back up his worry that that “American TV audience” might be traumatized, McCollum cites the reaction of the widow of an NYC firefighter: “Watching this footage over and over again — for me, very personally, it re-traumatizes me,” says Marian Fontana, president of the 9-11 Widows and Victim’s Family Association. “I don’t sleep after I watch the towers fall. It reawakens the terror.” That’s understandable, of course. But — the networks’ best efforts notwithstanding — the American public is not comprised of 270 million grieving widows.
Regardless, what will be numbing, I assure you, will not be the images of the events themselves. What will desensitize viewers is the “balance” or context the “responsible people in charge” will provide. We will watch, in awe, the bravery and the sacrifice and the suffering on display a year ago — and then some guidance counselor with important hair will come on the screen to put everything in “perspective,” which is to say they will tell us that wallowing in grief is a permanent entitlement. But doing anything about it — that’s a complicated question for a country with such a troubled past as ours.
Ideally, C-SPAN would do what makes it such an invaluable contribution to American civic life: It should run 9/11 footage with no commentary whatsoever (and it may be doing something along these lines). No balance. No experts in the studio. No answers for the children, be they actual children or simply the nation of widows we are imagined to be. Let people draw what they want, how they want, from the actual events of that day. We have 364 other days of the year for balance and arguments and context.
But, if C-SPAN won’t do it (and to borrow a line from PBS: if C-SPAN won’t do it, who will?), there’s another option: your mute button. The networks will have amazing stories to show and tell. But the moment we hear Peter Jennings or Dan Rather or anyone else tune in, I, at least, will tune out. That’s the best balance I know how to provide.