Not for a second would I ever suggest I feel anything but the deepest sympathies for those lost and those who lost and I really think everyone was touched by what happened on September 11, 2001. But I must voice a dissenting opinion on the news media as a whole industry for how every editor and executive is driving this saturation anniversary coverage and single-tracking their products.
Today in my multimedia journalism class, the anniversary packages gave us incredible material to review. Phenomenally talented producers and storytellers pulled out all the stops to create some incredible pieces of work from which we can admire and learn from for that pure, arbitrary stance. But as we go through them one after the other, it starts to blur and the common methods and techniques stand out and the content wears and even becomes thin and repetitive as the same angles, the same devices, the same contrivances keep showing up. They become cliche.
Let’s really think about what we do here as a collective culture. Some stories are perennials and some are annuals. I have seen first hand in many editorial meetings the editors’ calendars come out and the anniversaries get plugged in, big and small. We have to come up with new angles on them all the time, some are quite a stretch.
For the decade edition of the 9/11 anniversary, folks have been planning for a year or more. I’ve been in a lot of those meetings too. These packages are like the monster wedding, and the journo bridezillas have been sweating and fretting over every detail from the napkin rings down to the boutonnieres for months on end. 9/11/2001 is their big day and all their wall-to-wall coverage is going to walk down the aisle after all the build up and expectation. There will be tears, right where they should be. Formula, expected, a sure thing.
And at what cost? How many hours and dollars went into these projects and packages and specials? How could that effort, skill and talent have been applied on pressing and current issues with deep significance and meaning to the whole society? While we covered a circus of politics that plays daily in the tents we raised just for them, how many journalists could have done more to inform rather let pols and pundits wag on? Could we have our national spending, deficit and budget debate covered with such artistry? Would we have understood healthcare reform better if half the effort from 9/11’s anniversary been spent there? Or the Arab Spring? Or something about the watchdog of democracy or whatever?
But those are hard stories to tell. Anniversaries of death are easy pickings. And we’ve gone all out on this one every single year leading up to this big bang, just a look through major foreign media is a gut check with how heavy handed we are. We can all tell ourselves that it is what the people want, because that’s what we think, and we’ll get re-enforced by the people who look and talk about it. We’ll say with long faces that we’re performing a service and stepping in with rather than setting the conversational agenda with our bombardment. We’re playing to the crowd.
And then the big industry and corporate PSAs and viagra ads will roll. And we’ll count up the ratings and page views and copies sold. We’ll cash in on the anniversary of tragedy. Because that’s what the business end of our business has become. That’s what the seasonal hackneyed editorial and traffic drivers have driven us to, the business model of the annual back to football sections, or the memorial day content for the appliance sales. And I can’t help it, these are the times when it gives me a bad taste in my mouth. This isn’t saving democracy, it is playing on people’s fear and grief.
This is a significant event and a big story, no doubt. And I’m sorry for what happened on 9/11. I was a part of it. I have deeply painful and conflicted emotions about it. But no matter how close or far or what you lost on that day, you all know that fear and terror and death and loss happen in small and big ways all over the world all the time. Bad things happen, terrible things happen, tragic things happen.
It isn’t the tragedy though, but how we react after the tragedy that defines us.