Distant Replay

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

• November 9, 1990: a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The News marked this occasion with two wire stories and a column by Clifford May, who'd just returned from a tour of the new Germany, that was hyped on page one. The Post cared considerably less, printing only a single Associated Press article on page 23A, with no cover blurb.

• April 19, 1996: a year after the Oklahoma City bombing. This tragedy, which took place amid the proliferation of all-news cable channels, was among the first to spawn a media onslaught of the sort that are now commonplace, and on television, the initial anniversary came in for the same treatment. But although the coverage in the Denver dailies reflects this shift, it was still fairly modest by today's standards. The Rocky sported a page-one photo and two up-front references to large inside stories, as well as "Birth Eases Pain for Bomb Amputee," a de rigueur tearjerker. The Post's cover story wound up beneath the fold, but the paper devoted three prominent pages to profiles of every victim, complete with photos.

• December 26, 1997: a year after the murder of JonBenét Ramsey. An absurd amount of ink has been spilled by the News and the Post over this tyke's slaying. But for some reason (perhaps its proximity to Christmas), the first anniversary came and went with comparatively little ballyhoo. The News couldn't resist putting the most famous photo of JonBenét on its front page, but it was placed in the lower right-hand corner -- and just two stories turned up inside, with neither receiving big play. The Post also put a Ramsey story on the cover, but at the bottom, sans a photo prior to an inside page to which the story jumped. Furthermore, JonBenét wasn't name-checked in either the story's headline or deck. The other Post tie-in was, predictably, a column by the recent resignee Chuck Green, "JonBenét Can't Rest If Parents Won't Help." Betcha she's resting a lot better now that Green isn't publishing imaginary conversations with her anymore.

• April 20, 2000: a year after the shootings at Columbine High School. Of the historical dates surveyed, the one closest to the present is apt to provide the closest model for 9/11 coverage -- and if that proves to be the case, readers should ready themselves for some heavy sledding. The word "Remembering," printed in huge, flowery type, dominated the front cover of the News, which followed with oodles of Columbine stories about, for instance, the "farewell performance of the Columbine song" penned by two students. The Post also kicked out the jams with a huge headline, "A Day of Remembrance," over an arty photo of crosses on Clement Park's Rebel Hill. Of the flood of Columbine stories that came along for the ride, perhaps the dumbest was "Violent Entertainment Still Popular," whose photo depicted that most evil of contraptions, an arcade game. Keep those quarters in your pockets, kids, or you'll burn in hell!

There's no telling what kind of stories the Post and the News will cook up to fill their pages on 9/11. But those published to date have mainly been regurgitations of angles that backed up on readers many times since last September and are by now utterly lacking in anything resembling controversy. Project Censored, an annual report sponsored by Sonoma State University, just came out with its list of the ten biggest stories ignored by American journos, and number four on the roster was a report in England's Guardian about the George W. Bush administration blocking the FBI's attempts to investigate members of Osama bin Laden's family prior to September 11. No danger that will turn up in a Denver newspaper anytime soon.

If the mainstream media must spend an entire day wallowing in 9/11, at least it could take clear-eyed looks at still-developing concerns that rose out of the Trade Center's ashes: civil rights questions linked to new security measures, alternative views about how best to deal with Iraq and other countries in the Middle East, the distribution of charitable donations, or even a debate about the unwillingness of many entrenched journalistic organizations to truly challenge conventional assumptions in an atmosphere thick with wartime propaganda. But don't count on it.

What we'll get instead, most likely, are minute-by-minute rehashes of September 11 nightmares, complete with -- on TV -- supposedly restrained use of graphic footage. (ABC, which had previously announced a moratorium against the broadcast of planes-colliding-with-buildings shots, has decided to modify this policy for its September 11 coverage. Great timing.) Be prepared as well for an enormous focus on the relatives of victims and how they've tried to move on with their lives, with mawkishness turned up to the pain threshold. Such was the case with a report on last week's Prime Time, in which anchor Diane Sawyer gathered dozens of babies born to fathers killed in the Trade Center for a group picture; then, after Sawyer "sent out" this simulated snapshot to their dads, wherever they are, a lachrymose ballad began playing.

Thanks to quick instincts fueled by nausea, I was able to change the channel before I could identify the tune, but I know it wasn't Enya's treacly "Only Time," which became the unofficial 9/11 lamenter's anthem. The network's undoubtedly saving it for a segment in which psychiatrists and grief counselors explain the best way for people to deal with repressed emotions -- the type of package practically guaranteed to make just about everyone else feel worse.

So much for golden moments.

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