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.
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.
Representatives of the Denver Post chose not to share their 9/11 plans with Editor & Publisher, using as an excuse competition with the News. But it's already obvious that such discretion was unnecessary, since the Denver dailies look to be driving toward the same destination: excess. The News initiated its coverage orgy on August 31 with a lengthy front-page column by Mike Littwin and plenty of related stories grouped under the "One Year Later" banner -- and each day since, more of the same has followed. Taken as a whole, the approach is reminiscent of a student who turns in a triple-length term paper under the theory that his busy professor won't take the time to peruse the damn thing, yet will give him an A based on its weight. The Post took longer to leap on this bandwagon, but on September 3, the paper ran an enormous house ad declaring that beginning the next day, "30 Denver Post reporters and photographers" would begin offloading special 9/11 coverage. Elsewhere in the issue, reporter William Porter wrote about "9/11 fatigue," ostensibly unaware that his paper would soon be making those suffering from the malady feel even worse.
This brand of irony is only enhanced by the knowledge that blanket coverage one year after a benchmark happening is a fairly new phenomenon at the Post and the News, as a prowl through their archives indicates. What follows are summaries of how the publications responded on the first anniversary of ten media events of notable national or local significance over the past century. Note how most of these dates were kept in context or largely overlooked -- until recently, that is.
November 11, 1919: Armistice Day, a year after the conclusion of World War I. The Post devoted practically all of its front page to remembering the war to end all wars, including a cartoon, illustrated silhouettes of generic celebrants, and numerous articles. The Rocky took a subtler tack, running a small front-page story below the fold; elsewhere in the paper, President Woodrow Wilson's Armistice Day statement and a program of events were spotlighted. But otherwise, the News concentrated on actual news -- chiefly labor strife in some of Colorado's mines.
December 7, 1942: one year after the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor. The News made the bigger splash, publishing a letter from President Franklin Roosevelt on page one and filling a sizable portion of the paper with politically incorrect bluster typical of the time: A banner over the section read, "We remember Pearl Harbor -- the Japs'll never forget." The Post limited itself to a front-page photo with a cutline reading "One Year After Pearl Harbor," as well as a chronology of events during World War II's first year. Other stories predominated.
August 14, 1946: VJ Day, a year after the U.S. victory over Japan, which brought World War II to a finish. Neither paper took much notice of this date. The only acknowledgment in the Post was "A Day of Peace or Delusion?," a small editorial on page 10 that used the anniversary as an excuse to complain about the inequities of Yalta, a conference at which WWII's victors decided how to handle post-war Germany. The News made its only comments on the topic in a page 23 piece headlined "'Twas a Year Ago Today We Celebrated War's End." Its final sentence stated, "Tonight, apparently, will be a normal peacetime Wednesday night in Denver, with most of the wounds of war bound up, memories once again grown short and the public mind preoccupied with problems and pursuits of peace."
November 1, 1956: a year after a bomb planted by John Gilbert Graham felled a United Airlines plane that departed from Denver, killing all 44 aboard, including Graham's mother. Graham, who was executed in January 1957, remains Colorado's worst mass murderer. Yet remarkably, neither the Post nor the News marked the anniversary of his act in any way. No update on the legal path that would lead Graham to the gas chamber. No profiles of his victims or interviews with family members. Nothing. Nada.
November 22, 1964: a year after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The News's front page didn't mention the anniversary. Inside, the coverage consisted of three smallish wire stories and one local report: "Denver Remembers the Sadness and Mourning." The Post, in contrast, put a bug about JFK on the front cover but devoted only one page, deep in the paper, to concise articles ripped off the wire. Its TV listings, meanwhile, divulged that NBC and ABC would be broadcasting separate two-hour specials about Kennedy, but nothing more. CBS, for its part, didn't let sentimentality get in the way of it beaming out The Ed Sullivan Show.
January 28, 1987: a year after the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle. Like 9/11, this calamity was witnessed on live TV by millions of Americans, and it had an area connection: Among the casualties was mission specialist Ellison Onizuka, a University of Colorado graduate. But the News's cover was dominated by President Ronald Reagan's State of the Union address. A shuttle illustration was relegated to the upper left-hand corner, with a total of four stories on the subject turning up inside the paper. The Post, too, led with Reagan, placing a shuttle story at the bottom of its front page. Also in the edition was a plug for an Onizuka tribute at CU; the item was so small it ran without a byline.
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.
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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.