That was what we wanted, really, wasn't it? That was, in some unconscious place, the real reason we devoted a week's worth of newsprint and electromagnetic radiation to reliving, and reliving, and reliving, what we will now have to call last Sept. 11. Whatever our national yahrzeit achieved in understanding or emotional closure, it would at least isolate Sept. 11, 2001 as history, as a date when something really terrible happened, a discrete, awful event that left us stronger or more fearful or wiser or more foolhardy or changed or unchanged but that, finally, left us. That was the underlying purpose of sending Katie Couric to Ground Zero and Geraldo to Tora Bora, of news outlets from Good Morning America to Access Hollywood preparing their own mammoth commemorations. We would get it out of our system. It would be over.
For if we could just monumentalize that day as the worst that had ever dawned devote a week of TV to it, make CDs about it, maybe give it a national holiday someday then nothing worse could ever happen. (For the same reason, it became anathema after Sept. 11 to say that charities should hang on to some of the Sept. 11 relief funds in case of future terrorism since otherwise, how could we afford to compensate the victims of an even larger attack? To suggest that was worse than treason; it was a jinx.)
There has been plenty of talk about whether the media coverage of the anniversary has been "too much." The question is beside the point. Of course it was too much. The story was too much, and had been for a year. Yes, maybe there could have been a few more safe havens. Maybe I didn't need to open the New York Times Dining In/Dining Out section on 9/11 to find an article on food's role in grieving, complete with recipes for an "easy" plum crumble and pan-roasted chicken with end-of-season tomatoes to facilitate closure for foodies. Maybe it would have been a greater service for MTV to go on with business as usual rather than trying to play "meaningful videos." But there was no way not to observe the day, all the way even at risk of being redundant, repetitious and traumatizing without going into a bizarre form of denial.
The better question is whether we got the right kind of coverage. The major problem with the media's coverage of the anniversary especially in the prepared news segments and documentaries was how much of it was focused on looking backward, on remembering the trauma of a day that, truth be told, we were never in danger of forgetting.
"Remembering" that was the catchphrase of Sept. 11, 2002. "America Remembers." "We Will Never Forget." As practically applied, remembering generally meant, "making ourselves cry again." We saw and heard the wives who bore their dead husband's children. The firefighters and paramedics wiping away tears (with cut-away shots showing their interviewers nodding in grave empathy). The Today show taking a victim's son to Yankee Stadium to meet the players. The memorial poems. The "missing" posters. Maybe most excruciatingly, the cell-phone calls and answering machine messages from the doomed.
"Remembering" was what we owed to the dead, goes the popular thinking. (Never mind that the news hardly ignored these emotional stories in the last 52 weeks.) We are not called on to sacrifice in this war, and we cannot, most of us, take up arms against those who perpetrated the attack (if we could even find them). But if we "remember" if we go through the ritual of forcing ourselves to imagine unimaginable heartbreak and despair, 3,000 times over we can say we have done our duty. Then we can say we have "changed." And having changed, we can get back to, well, doing the same things we used to do.
Because again, comfortingly, the language of "remembering" puts the event for most of us safely in the past. But of course, it is not in the past. What "Sept. 11" represents is current news, as the continued terror warnings and the talk of war against Iraq show us. Obviously Sept. 11 was a day of memorial. But in all the man-hours devoted to the most-covered anniversary ever, we could have used more coverage that looked forward, like the PBS documentary "America Rebuilds," which gave an inside look at the Ground Zero recovery effort but also covered the debate over how to rebuild the site, which will reverberate years into the future. (Another exception was ABC's night of reports on the state of Al Qaeda and national security, including a chilling piece in which a news crew managed to smuggle a load of depleted uranium from Europe to New York, past the supposed safeguards of customs and radiation detectors.)
But talk about the future, about plans, about responses, and you get into controversy, which TV, on the day of the anniversary, was not interested in. Essentially, TV reverted, for one day, to the mode it was in those first days after the 9/11 attacks, when there were no differences of opinion on how to react, no reaction at all, really, but pulling together in sadness and shock and fury.
Is it horrible to suggest that the coverage was a kind of 9/11 nostalgia not for the murders themselves but for the feeling of unity that came afterward? A reliving of those early days when there were no partisans, no hawks or doves, when the tough decisions were yet to be made, when Rudy Giuliani was the president and the president was God and the whole world's people were Americans and New Yorkers? During the 9/11 coverage, there were no civil liberties standoffs and no second-guessing about Tora Bora or intelligence failures. No politics, no policy. CBS's 60 Minutes II uncritically aired interviews with George W. Bush and his administration candidly revealing how resolved and confident George W. Bush and his administration were on Sept. 11. The public-service announcements were about "standing together and shining as one." The news networks even reinstituted the American-flag motifs that they unfurled last fall to pander sorry, to show their solidarity with viewers. (Back then, remember, their ratings and popularity numbers were higher than they'd been in years. Why not try to relive it?)
The other much-asked question was whether the media, TV in particular, should re-play images of the planes crashing and the towers collapsing, which, after all, were live pictures of a mass murder. Sure, there were people kids, survivors who should not, or don't want to, see that again. But it's obvious that Sept. 11 was not a day that anybody like that should have been watching TV. In the end, TV coverage of the anniversary was news, not therapy. It's not the business of producers or editors to create work on the basis of whether it will make us feel better, and God help us when they appoint themselves national grief counselors. The video was sometimes gratuitous it was unreeled mawkishly on the nightly newsmagazines and used too casually as a visual shorthand (in the way that a news report on food prices will use video of a supermarket checkout as shorthand for, "This is a story about groceries"). But it would be impossible to recount the story honestly without it.
What TV finally did best on Sept. 11, 2002, was what it did best on Sept. 11, 2001: simply broadcasting the present, immediate and unfiltered. Whether you believe the morning ceremonies were overdone or appropriate, eloquent or tendentious, it seemed right that most TV news outlets simply broadcast them with minimal comment (and no commercials). For over two uninterrupted hours, speakers at the World Trade Center sitemany of them survivors of the deadread off the names of victims with no accompaniment but a few musical soloists and the rustling of the wind over microphones.
There were exceptions, such as CNN coanchors Aaron Brown and Paula Zahn, who could not stifle themselves, blathering over the reading as if worried that the mourners' list might bore us. Many of Brown's points were banal ("A year is a very important human and psychological marker"), some well-observed, as when he noted how the list of namesall those Patels and Gutierrezes and Ahmeds and Wongsshowed that it was a truly global, multicultural U.S., not a white monolith, that was attacked that day. But whatever you think of his trademark emoter-in-chief approach (I appreciate the notion of peeling back the facade of stoicism, but sometimes wish he would just suck it up and be a news anchor), this was the moment, if there ever was one, to let the scene speak for itself.
There was a grace note on CNN too, as the network turned over the "zipper," or "crawl," at the bottom of the screen to scroll a simple list of 9/11 victims. This was a fitting way to mark the year, with the TV graphic introduced to the cable-news networks to deal with the surfeit of news the day of the attacks paying tribute to its raison d'etre.
And yet this Sept. 11 saw another new graphic at the bottom of our news screens: the "terror alert" graphic the cable networks added Tuesday when the Homeland Security office upgraded the national threat level to "orange." No doubt news producers had those little boxes ready since spring (the color-coded system was introduced then, and had not changed from yellow since). There it sat, a neat little box, where you might put the current temperature or the pollen count. ("High chance of terror today, so be sure to bring an umbrella!") It was something you might expect to see in a movie parody of the dystopian future.
We are living in the dystopian future: this was the message of the actual news of the day, as opposed to all the packaged "remembrance." The Liberian ship halted near New York because it set off radiation detectors; the commercial airline flights diverted for security concerns; the government building in Ohio evacuated after bomb-sniffing dogs appeared to smell explosives in a van. All this reminded us that what happened last 9/11 was not an event that happened and passed and could be confined to a single date.
Ah, but we tried. And the comfort, if any, came from the fact that this was a 9/11 that we could anticipate, plan, and even, if we chose, avoid. And it went off on schedule and without major hitches. Gloria Estefan has sung. George W. Bush has cried. It's over.
Except, of course, that nothing is over.