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The Highlight Reel

09.05.2002 | SOCIETY

In covering the first anniversary of September 11, network and cable news organizations are preparing a hybrid of P. T. Barnum and Oprah. This is the "quantity equals quality" approach, enormous spectacle performed under the premise that emotional healing is best done at excruciating length while observed by tens of millions. Fox News has planned a two-hour special, 9-11: The Day America Changed. NBC is expanding The Today Show to six hours of Katie and Matt looking concerned. The Discovery Channel has already begun airing a 14-hour series, Faces of 9/11. CNN is gearing up for 15 uninterrupted hours of coverage, utilizing 25 correspondents around the globe -- this on top of the two-part documentary, America Remembers, which aired in August. Even The Food Network and Home and Garden Television--cable channels that have absolutely no news programming whatsoever--plan to run memorial specials, as yet unspecified (something tasteful, no doubt, like Emeril Live from Ground Zero).

The networks have been proclaiming all summer long how they will not accept advertising during these marathons. Jon Nesvig, president for sales at Fox, told The New York Times, "I think it's too sensitive of a subject for anybody to attempt, and both we and the advertisers agreed it was best to go noncommercial." The ad freeze-out following the attacks last year reportedly cost media companies $300 million--a figure they have been more than happy to point out repeatedly as a means of displaying their magnanimity.

Not to be outdone in the altruism department, most major corporations have insisted that they will not pursue ad time for any of these specials. PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and General Motors have all publicly stated they will not advertise during any of the retrospectives. Sears-Roebuck is going so far as to shut down their telemarketing efforts for the day.

What both networks and corporations fail to mention is that no advertiser wants to touch September 11 with a ten foot pole. Stuart Elliot reported in the August 29 New York Times that "most of the companies that are choosing to advertise on Sept. 11...will keep their ads away from any coverage related to the anniversary of the attacks...companies that routinely ask broadcasters or publishers to alert them if their ads are to appear in programs or articles with so-called sensitive content have added language relating to Sept. 11 to their contracts." In other words, few companies want their ads to air immediately following the televised death of thousands.

As far as I can tell, no one has spared any words to ask this simple question: Is marking the first year anniversary necessary at all? For one thing, the sixth-month anniversary was already marked by plenty of public ceremony and media coverage thereof. New York shone "towers of light" in the World Trade Center's absence for 30 days, and CBS aired 9-11, a gut-wrenching documentary. Surely no American has gone a day without thinking of September 11 in one way or another. Even if you have been able to push that day out of your head, television news has been more than happy to remind you how horrified you should still be by showing endless footage of crashing planes and screaming pedestrians. The event is still very close to us, in more ways than one. Why the need to relive it?

In a sense, this business of reliving 9/11 has been going on even before the dust settled. In New York, as commercial stations switched over to non-stop coverage of every brutal moment, local broadcasters counted the days as they passed. "It's been five's been fifteen's been seventeen weeks..." As if to say, well, we got through another day. As if every day afterward were a significant anniversary in and of itself. Time passed, and the continuous coverage was scaled down to a few hours day, then finally restricted to 6 and 11. But whenever anything remotely related to 9/11 was mentioned, there was ample footage of fiery wreckage and tumbling masonry shown to jog one's memory.

Of course, this is hardly the first national event to receive such immediate reflection. For instance, Pearl Harbor Day (December 7) was celebrated loudly on its first anniversary in 1942, and subsequently throughout World War II. Civic events nationwide helped to keep a wartime public cheery and promote war bond sales. (It also kept up the seething race hatred of the Japanese, but that's another story entirely).

Today, however, we live in a society that is completely media-saturated. In 1942, parades and bond rallies were needed in the absence of a ubiquitous visual medium like television. If Pearl Harbor happened today, we would have been treated to constantly repeated footage of the USS Arizona sinking slowly into Hawaiian waters, along with protracted coverage of sailor funerals so we could all see how strong the widows were.

Fox News is calling their documentary The Day That Changed America. We are not in the past tense, however, as far as its effect on all of our lives is concerned. That day is still changing America. Stuffing all of 9/11 into a neat little package relegates it to a distance it has not yet achieved. Certainly not when the biggest city in America is still suffering from post-traumatic stress. Certainly not when a full-scale assault on Iraq is being contemplated in its name. And certainly not when our civil liberties are quickly being stripped away under the cloak of a collective public fear.

Americans are good at many things, but reverence and patience are not our strong suits. We need to sum up something immediately, and we need to do it in the splashiest, gaudiest, Big-Gulp-sized way possible. Anyone who saw last year's Super Bowl and its halftime McMemorial (celebrated, curiously enough, by rock stars from England and Ireland) knows that we want spectaculars, not soliloquies. What I personally fear most of all is that the news media is taking many other tips from sports coverage that are unhealthy to a nation's collective memory.

Rehashes of 9/11 will undoubtedly taken the format of the Great Moments Video, the highlights reel you can order as soon as the last seconds tick off the clock. The Great Moments Video is a distant cousin of the Great Men theory of history, which says that it takes one single Napolean to transform the world (no matter how many soldiers fought in his army). The Great Moments Video reduces a gigantic, evolving thing that involves hundreds, maybe thousands or even millions of people--whether that's a football season or a massive tragedy--into a series of clips, with slo-mo footage of all the participants and an appropriate soundtrack (some Dave Matthews, maybe Springsteen).

In the case of 9/11, there are already stock images in place for every lazy news organization hoping to put a period at the end of their sentences. Planes crashing. Rushing fire engines. Falling stone. Dust-drenched pedestrians. Rescue workers hoisting the flag. Dubya in flannel with megaphone. What is implied by the Great Moments Video is that the events in the montage are the only ones that mattered. The small details never existed. It was all just one enormous, ossified block of history. What you did that day, the friends and family you lost, the damage to your own psyche and sense of well-being, they all mean nothing.

I have memories of that day and the days that follow, feelings that I do not want to taint with the hand-wringing of Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw, the bleating of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, the camera-trained hero-tude of Rudy Giuliani. A year may seem like a long time in our accelerated culture, but it in the historical sense of things it's barely a millimeter on the timeline, and it will be a long time before we really know how that day affected us all. Therefore, I am boycotting all television for the week up to and including September 11, 2002. I think anyone who has an actual shred of reverence for the dead--and their own sanity--will do the same. Because once the networks have constructed their retrospectives, views of last fall will stay cemented that way for the foreseeable future. And then there will only be September 11 the Proper Noun in a new, impoverished vocabulary.

About the Author
Matthew Callan blogs daily at MSN Sports Filter. He has contributed to the NY Press, NPR, and "Excelsior You Fathead", a biography of Jean Shepherd. His Freezerbox piece "The Lemon Pledge" was given honorable mention in the 2003 edition of "Best American Non-Required Reading," and his fiction has been shortlisted for contests in Zoetrope: All-Story, Bomb magazine, and other publications.
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