Distant Replay

Expect the anniversary of 9/11 to bring out the media's worst.

When the history of 21st-century journalism is compiled, the days and weeks immediately following the September 11 terrorist assaults may well be seen as the era's golden moment.

During that brief period, reporters and the like -- folks who are usually held in subterranean esteem by the general public -- became the eyes and ears of America in the truest sense, transmitting vital images and information at the speed of modern technology. Better yet, a surprisingly high percentage of correspondents got out of the way of the story, letting the events speak for themselves -- and news consumers were grateful.

Since then, however, the status quo has gradually reasserted itself. Saturation coverage of the attacks and their aftermath, epitomized by incessant rebroadcasts of planes smacking into the World Trade Center and terrified Manhattanites trying to outrun rubble as the towers collapsed, produced an inevitable backlash. Charges of exploitation followed, and whining from the news industry about lost revenue due to advertising that was pre-empted (or that evaporated in the subsequent economic downturn) elicited zero sympathy, especially from viewers who felt abused by the media's excesses. Even news purveyors weren't immune to such reactions: CNN's Aaron Brown, quoted in a recent Minneapolis Star Tribune article, admitted that he had to turn away from some clips included in America Remembers, a documentary aired in August.

Mark Andresen

The way the media handles the impending first anniversary of 9/11 could change these opinions for the better, but probably not. Much of the reporting done on and shortly after September 11 was outstanding in large part because of its spontaneity. With the cameras rolling and the clock ticking, journalists had no opportunity for self-conscious reflection, and as a result, the rawest and most genuine emotions were expressed live and in living color.

Now, however, the giants of news both nationally and locally have had a year to think about what to do -- a frightening prospect, to be sure. Amid pledges of sensitivity, there have been double-edged promises (or threats, depending on your point of view) about expanded 9/11 programming. According to the Star Tribune, Brown will be on CNN's airwaves for around fourteen hours that day, and he's unlikely to spend much of that span talking about how sick he is of the very coverage his network is providing. Moreover, CNN and many other networks will run all or part of these segments without commercial interruption, thereby giving overwhelmed viewers no chance to catch their breath. They'd almost certainly appreciate one: After another serving of misery and pain, who wouldn't enjoy watching Cedric the Entertainer accidentally spray his gal pal with Budweiser?

A Boston Globe roundup of scheduled 9/11 broadcasts reveals a few places of respite for the disaster-weary; for instance, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central anticipate airing their ordinary fare. But the major networks will stick with catastrophe from morning until night, and many entertainment-oriented channels are making substantial nods in a similar direction. MTV has assembled a collection of "thought-provoking and inspirational videos" (oh no, more Creed). The History Channel is countering with six -- count 'em, six -- post-9/11 specials, with titles such as The Day the Towers Fell and Inside Islam. (Evidently, History Channel staple Adolf Hitler is being given a rare day off.) The Disney Channel checks in with a one-hour episode of the kiddie hit Bear in the Big Blue House intended to "explain to preschoolers how a community can cope with unexpected adversity." (Shudder.) A&E and its sister channels intend to briefly fade to black at 8:46 a.m. before spending most of the next two hours scrolling names of victims. And Home & Garden Television, the Food Network, Do It Yourself and Fine Living -- all owned by E.W. Scripps, whose properties include the Rocky Mountain News -- will feature two hours of "inspirational images, words and music" that morning, seemingly under the theory that, on September 11, decorating tips and Emeril Lagasse could be too traumatizing for the average person.

For some of us, decorating tips and Emeril Lagasse are always traumatizing.

Print specialists certainly aren't being left out of this particular game. Countless magazines will produce commemorative editions designed more for selling than reading. (Consumers often buy such products as keepsakes under the theory that they'll be of interest to their children or grandchildren decades hence -- a somewhat ghoulish but profitable side of the publishing biz.) In addition, Newsweek reports that Salon, a well-regarded but cash-strapped Internet site, will offer up an attack-themed book titled Afterwords, while the Chicago Tribune is set to release a CD-ROM built around its first ten days' worth of 9/11 coverage.

Other daily newspapers will be plowing this field as well, with New York-based publications guaranteed to go hog wild: Editor & Publisher, a media-industry mag, says Newsday is creating "a 76-page glossy tab devoted solely to victims" that will roll out on Sunday, September 8, plus a "16-page wraparound" on September 11. And on September 8, the Houston Chronicle is expected to feature articles of this sort on all seven of its section fronts, as well as its Sunday magazine, its TV-listings insert and its entertainment guide. Sounds like fun for the whole family.

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