Many ill-advised things were said in the days immediately following Sept. 11, 2001. From a media and cultural perspective, none were more conspicuously wrong-headed than notions that terrorism on U.S. soil would fundamentally reshape news and entertainment, such as Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter assertion, “It’s the end of the age of irony.”
The normally sober Smithsonian Channel is marking the 10th anniversary of the attacks by airing a spec with a monster-movie subtitle, “9/11: Day That Changed the World.” Yet closer inspection of media content suggests Sept. 11 actually changed precious little, and what alterations did occur were mostly cosmetic.Pundits can be forgiven their hyperbole amid the emotion and pressure to analyze what transpired at the time. Other than forever amending perceptions of terror threats, though — which previously seemed mostly the stuff of science fiction — there’s scant evidence of lingering effects on TV or movies traceable to those events.
Think back to “True Lies” — the 1994 James Cameron-directed Arnold Schwarzenegger film, where Islamic terrorists pursue nuclear annihilation. Or the terror-themed pilots commissioned in early 2001 that premiered after the attacks: “24,” featuring an exploding passenger jet; and “The Agency,” which specifically referenced a plot masterminded by Osama bin Laden.
Terrorism wasn’t a new concept prior to Sept. 11. Audiences were merely accustomed to James Bond intervening before anything terrible happened.
As for news, the parallels between this summer — in our ostensibly forever-changed world — and the silliness witnessed a decade ago are eerily and depressingly familiar.
In hindsight, news organizations were second-guessed for their trashy and inconsequential coverage leading up to Sept. 11. The most ostentatious examples included the media scrum surrounding missing D.C. intern Chandra Levy and a trumped-up outbreak of shark attacks breathlessly transformed into a “trend.”
Compare that to this summer’s preoccupation with Casey Anthony’s trial, or Donald Trump’s mythical presidential bid and suspicions about President Obama’s origins. News execs pretend they can simultaneously pat their heads and rub their stomachs, but the truth is salacious scandal or celebrity conflict overwhelms debt-ceiling fights and Arab Springs again and again.
Major events inevitably pull media — from screenwriters to news producers — in certain directions for a period of time. Like the bar in “Cheers,” there’s a comfort level — especially in an age of fragmentation — in planting a flag where everybody already knows your name.
Those very dynamics, however, are why such shifts will always be temporary and short-lived. Indeed, the only enduring certainty about media remains that works will be copied — a Hollywood maxim followed as faithfully as any in the Bible or Koran, and thus a means navigating pop culture twists far more reliable than other attempts to divine the public mood.
One can rightfully argue Sept. 11 helped polarize American politics, complicated travel, compelled a debate about security versus privacy, unleashed new apprehensions, and heightened feelings of vulnerability in public spaces. In TV news, it also birthed the 24/7 news crawl on news/talk channels (and remember, Fox News and MSNBC were just five years old when Sept. 11 happened), contributing to the media’s emphasis on urgency without context, as witnessed during the recent storm buffeting the East Coast.
What it has not done — in some ways reassuringly — is radically change what amuses or distracts us. Nor has it given our news media the backbone to focus on what’s important — as opposed to what’s interesting — in a brutally competitive, ratings-and-clicks-driven modern age.
Notably, Graydon Carter wasn’t alone in his “The party’s over” assessment. In Time magazine, Roger Rosenblatt said the attacks ushered in “a new and chastened time.” Tell that to Harvey Levin, who successfully launched TMZ in 2005.
Fortunately, others maintained perspective during those early days. A temporary bout of post-Sept. 11 sobriety “won’t and can’t last,” David Beers wrote on Salon. And speaking on “Nightline,” author Haynes Johnson presciently predicted that despite the pain and fear of the moment, the nation would soon “go back to our delights and diversions.”
That resiliency of spirit is the good news. Tragedies come and go, but people always want to be entertained, and the template — while ever-evolving — is never completely remade.
By contrast, the more salient problem is a news media so committed to share in keeping us diverted and delighted, we’re no better at recognizing news of genuine consequence until it lands at our doorstep.