News: The End of Decadence

Can the media, and the rest of us, adjust to a frightening new world?

Sep 20, 2001 at 2:06 pm

It's over. The easiest, sleaziest, richest, most meaningless decade we've yet known has come to an end, buried beneath the rubble and ashes and dust of the World Trade Center.

Officially, the 1990s died at 8:45 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north tower — thereby setting off a day of horror unlike anything we have seen before. In truth, though, the patient had been sick for some time.

Almost precisely 10 years ago, the fall of the Soviet Union ushered in an unprecedented period of social and cultural frivolity. With the threat of nuclear annihilation diminished and the need for military spending reduced, the '90s were a time of wealth, fun, and disengagement from public life.

No institution was more affected by this new decadence than the media, which — to oversimplify — devolved from the heroism of Vietnam and Watergate to the hedonism of celebrity scandal. From O.J. to Princess Diana, from JonBenét Ramsey to Monica Lewinsky, the media elevated the trivial over the serious, exalting pop culture to the detriment of the public interest. Our national symbol was Bill Clinton, who might have been a policy wonk at heart but whose wandering penis was always more interesting than his tedious 10-point proposals.

Yes, there were terrible moments, such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the various school shootings.

Yet even these were subsumed by the media beast. They came to seem more like made-for-television dramas than like actual events.

But you could tell that the '90s — which no doubt will be remembered as a wondrous interlude — were running out of steam when the media horde closed in on Gary Condit. There was something old, tired, perfunctory about it. It's not that Condit was caught up in something more awful and therefore less entertaining than the deeds that had ensnared his media predecessors.

After all, no matter what might have happened to Chandra Levy, it was surely no worse than the fate that befell Nicole Brown Simpson. Rather, it was that the cultural moment had passed, even if we hadn't yet realized it.

We realized it on Sept. 11, when the '90s finally, emphatically, sickeningly came to a close. And we entered, blindly, a terrifying new century.

Never a day like it
It's impossible to describe the experience of watching it all unfold Sept. 11 except to say this: There's never been a day like it. As television events go, neither the assassination of John F. Kennedy nor the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan comes close. Nor does the Oklahoma City bombing, which was similar in nature, but — hard as it is to believe — much smaller in scale.

In historical terms, the comparisons are mind-boggling. The terrorist attacks were the first significant foreign incursions on American soil since the British burned down the Capitol in the War of 1812. Sen. Chuck Hagel, echoing the thoughts of many others, compared the attacks to PearlHarbor; yet what happened this week dwarfs what took place on December 7, 1941.

CNN's Jeff Greenfield at one point observed that the 22,000 Americans who died at Antietam, during the Civil War, constituted the worst single-day death toll in the nation's history — and that the Sept. 11 casualty list could end up exceeding that.

We heard and saw things we've never heard or seen before. Think about this: A good chunk of the Pentagon was blown up by an airliner commandeered by foreign terrorists — and it's being treated as the sidebar, because the attack on Manhattan was so much bigger and more deadly. Yet if the Pentagon attack were all that had happened on Sept. 11, it would have qualified by itself as the worst act of terrorism in the country's history.

Or consider the air shuttle on which George W. Bush embarked. For the first time ever (a phrase that can't help but be used over and over again), the president of the United States was deliberately kept away from the White House because of fear for his safety. During the afternoon, there was a surreal moment when CNN's John King, who was traveling with the president, actually declined to reveal where he was, citing national-security concerns. And when Bush finally did decide to return, government officials reportedly refused to confirm it or even to reveal what time he would speak to the nation, until still more time had passed.

Surely it was the first time that giving a speech from the Oval Office amounted to an act of presidential courage.

Media did a solid job
In an increasingly fragmented culture, television can still be a unifying force in times of crisis. Around 11 p.m., ABC's Peter Jennings, wiped out and semi-coherent, called television "the national campfire." He was right, even if stress and overwork were taking their toll.

Overall, the media did a solid, respectable job under incredibly difficult circumstances. After the initial attacks, very little information was getting out, leaving commentators to speculate — always a dangerous proposition. Yet even though international terrorist Osama bin Laden's organization emerged early as a logical suspect, the talking heads were careful to note that there was no way of knowing for sure.

No doubt they had learned from Oklahoma City, when the early coverage focused almost exclusively on the possibility that the attack had been carried out by Middle Eastern terrorists. A particularly ironic moment on Sept. 11 occurred on the Fox News Channel, when an unusually subdued Bill O'Reilly asked terrorism expert Steven Emerson whether he suspected bin Laden.

"I'm not convinced. It's too premature," responded Emerson, who — as O'Reilly undoubtedly knew — had been especially vehement six years ago in blaming Oklahoma City on a Middle Eastern group. Of course, it turned out that the attack was actually carried out by domestic terrorists.

MSNBC has rightly been sneered at for its emphasis on young, attractive personalities and elaborate sets — epitomized by Ashleigh Banfield, the smiling blonde with the famous titanium glasses, who rose to prominence during the Florida recount. But Banfield proved on Sept. 11 that she can be more than just another pretty face. She set up shop on a sidewalk in Lower Manhattan early in the day and stuck around well into the night, even after the late-afternoon implosion of a third tower threatened to sweep her away. She was back on duty early the next morning, looking only slightly less disheveled and sooty than she had the night before.

And the always-odd Dan Rather was oddly reassuring, cautioning his CBS viewers, "Nobody knows who's responsible for this." When his colleague Bob Schiefer began talking about the "rage" being expressed on the streets of Washington, Rather retorted, "It's one thing to have that rage. It's another to know where to direct that rage."

If anything, the most inflammatory comments were delivered not by anyone in the media but by veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who popped up on several outlets virtually daring the White House to go after Afghanistan, whose Taliban government harbors bin Laden. Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard and a veteran Republican strategist, appearing on PBS's The NewsHour, urged Bush to consider a declaration of war, even though Kristol inconveniently did not appear to have a particular target in mind.

It was actually the bombastic Chris Matthews, on MSNBC, who sounded a welcome note of caution, reminding anchor Brian Williams that we are no more likely to be successful fighting terrorism than Israel has been. "The problem with retaliation is that you play into your enemy's hands. You radicalize your enemies," Matthews said. "Retaliation is part of the terrorism."

Who needs pesky reporters?
Ten years ago, the fall of communism was preceded by another major news event: the Gulf War, which put CNN on the map and which, arguably, set off the 24/7 culture that the news media have become.

The war was something of a triumph for the media, but it also marked a big step on its journey from attack dog to lapdog. News executives, with few complaints, went along with onerous logistical restrictions, allowing U.S. forces to carry out the ground campaign virtually unobserved.

Yet it was the military, not the media, that won the approval of the public. A memorable Saturday Night Live skit even mocked news organizations by depicting clueless reporters asking officers to tell them exactly where American troops were located, thus opening them up to Iraqi attack.

The danger now, as the media shift their focus from the silly to the serious, is that the public won't get the tough scrutiny of government that it needs and deserves. This is, after all, an emotional moment: We've been attacked by foreign forces, and we want our leaders to do something about it. Who needs pesky reporters getting in the way?

"You can't be too dispassionate about this, at least as far as I'm concerned," says Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School. "This is a moment of war, and I've got a feeling that's where we're headed."

Still, Jones believes it's essential for the media to counter the "hysteria" that's bound to break out in the coming weeks and not to get caught up in antidemocratic rhetoric to justify measures that erode privacy and free-speech rights.

Adds Bob Steele, a media-ethics expert at the Poynter Institute, via e-mail: "News organizations must honor the principle of independence during these difficult times. We should not be swept up in the patriotism nor the criticism. We should be professional and dispassionate in our reporting even when we have strong personal feelings."

Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum, is worried that the battle against terrorism will be used as an excuse to erode the media's constitutional protections.

"There no doubt will be some serious discussion about limiting civil liberties, including speech and press," he said in an e-mail. "Already, we're hearing some rumblings about leaks and aggressive/sloppy coverage of national-defense issues by the press as aiding and abetting terrorists."

(McMasters, by the way, came close to getting killed on Sept. 11: He was sitting in the Pentagon parking lot, listening to a radio account of the World Trade Center attacks, when the Pentagon itself was wiped out.)

What is lost
In a sad and eloquent essay in Slate on Sept. 11, New Yorker drama critic John Lahr, writing from London, compared the attacks with Pearl Harbor, the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War and even the death, at birth, of his twin sons, in the "existential sense that life can change on a dime."

He added: "I feel now like I did then — something has instantly and inexorably changed in American life. And there is no going back. What is being lost ... is — not an innocence (that's long-lost) — but a sense of containment and invincibility. Fear will now be our daily bread; and hatred has been given new license. I fear the hysteria and the distortion and the violence which will soon be acted out in all quarters."

The '90s are over. Welcome to a new decade. Welcome to a new century. The era of disengagement and decadence has ended.

Can the media — accustomed as they have become to celebrity trials and semen-stained dresses — return to the infinitely more difficult task of providing the information a self-governing people need? After years of sex and scandal, of shuttered foreign bureaus, of downsizing and profit-mongering, it's not going to be easy.

Yet this is a time of crisis, and that crisis is not going to be solved next week, next month or even next year. We require a media that can report on our frightening new world accurately and thoroughly, neither playing into public hysteria nor serving as a conveyor belt for government propaganda.

In other words, the media, like the rest of us, are going to have to change.

DAN KENNEDY writes for The Boston Phoenix, where this story originally appeared.