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Media Circus

Beating the Drum

By Michael Anft | Posted 9/26/2001

Federal Communications Commission regulations state that "broadcast stations have an obligation to serve their local community's [sic] needs and interests . . ." The national-psyche-shattering events of Sept. 11 provided the electronic media with the strongest test in generations of their ability to inform the public during emergencies. How did they measure up?

Initially, fine. Some news organizations--led by ABC and its usually calm, reasoned anchor, Peter Jennings--kept up with changing-by-the-minute stories admirably, switching among the various scenes of carnage and offering some perspective on what it all means, who might be responsible, and how it happened. But as the days following the multiple tragedies passed, the quality of coverage waned, turning toward the repetitious and emotional. As there were fewer and fewer events to report, network news operations continued to commandeer the airwaves, giving President Bush multiple chances to rattle the saber. Media conglomerates took the opportunity to prove they could pass some imaginary patriotism litmus test by waving flags and getting caught up in hysteria instead of reporting trenchantly on what created it.

One would think this lessened (though still considerable) flow of breaking events would give news gatherers an opportunity to deepen the story--to look unblinkingly at matters that did not cause but certainly had a hand in creating the conditions that led to thousands of deaths (say, how the airline industry effectively eviscerated airport security, or how U.S. foreign policy fueled the hatred that led to assaults on American soil). But once the initial mystery of "who?" was partially solved, such reporting and analysis largely withered away. As the American psyche darkened, the media provided little illumination. The news industry's commitment to allegedly objective reportage gave way to a desire to reflect what Americans were feeling, going beyond the denotation of the FCC's charge to one of its connotations: Rally the populace in the name of serving the "community's interest."

Behind the commercial stations' graphics and logos--"America Under Attack," "America Fights Back"--and public TV's videotapes of flags waving while "God Bless America" plays in the background lies the duality of war-mongering. Sharing primacy, in the world according to a deconstructed, jingoistic media, are our need to heal and our simultaneous need to punish the transgressors and whoever helped them. Only stories that express, but do not fully explain or question, that duality are deemed appropriate right now.

The smug Scott Simon, anchor of National Public Radio's Weekend Edition, embodied this on the Saturday following the suicide hijackings. In an interview with E.L. Doctorow, during which the novelist eloquently and indignantly tried to provide context for the tragedy, Simon sounded bored. As Doctorow argued that the root of the murders is a cultural clash between fundamentalists who believe only in one ancient text, the Koran, and a secularized culture (ours) that believes its story is still being written, Simon hurried the writer off, apparently concluding that airing audio of the World Trade Center crashing down--yet again--was more important to the healing process than analysis of the larger issues.

Here in Baltimore, the members of the Fourth Estate, print division, lined up to express a need for togetherness, for the reflexive, nonreflective emotional unity that is patriotism. Scoundrels at The Sun found last refuge in full-page replicas of flags and co-sponsorship of a "United We Stand" rally at the State Fairgrounds. "People have a need to get together and express their emotions publicly," a Sun flack explained to the paper's radio/television columnist, David Folkenflik. And, one can extrapolate, it's a newspaper's job to help make that happen. Are we reporters, or medicine men?

Not to be outdone on the emotional-bellwether beat, Sun TV critic David Zurawik turned journalistic precepts upside down by looking at that paragon of information and insight, late-night talk shows. His finding: feelings good, asking questions bad. "Late-night talk-show television," Zurawik wrote, "has long been a fairly reliable gauge of what Middle America is feeling" (emphasis added). He welcomed the lachrymose catharsis of Dan Rather's appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman while bemoaning the lack of "emotional resonance" in Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher's defense of the fundamental right to criticize our government, even in time of war.

Of course, Americans can be forgiven for feeling violated, assaulted, challenged, even lessened by the events of Sept. 11. This was a watershed event, a transforming tragedy. And the media should report on those feelings. But once news outlets allow that to become their raison d'être--while in the process giving our rulers a free ride--they give up whatever claim they may have held, even ostensibly, to being guardians of truth and purveyors of perspective. Quests for patriotic unity have their price--and the media, even with their chronically short memory, should know that. The last time news outlets permitted a president to set the tone for their coverage they were basically forced to sit out a war.

Another Bush was in charge then, but there's little indication that Bush the Second, elected by a minority, will be subject to much wartime scrutiny either. It's frustrating as hell to see a neutered media. It's even worse when they're doing the castrating themselves.

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