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With the Media, We Get What We Ask For

September 12, 2002|NORAH VINCENT | Norah Vincent is a New York writer and a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank set up after Sept. 11 to study terrorism. Web site: www.norahvincent.com.

Last weekend, when I got the idea for this column, I was going to call it "Enough Already on 9/11." I was going to say that I, who for months watched and smelled and tasted the towers burning, was now 9/11ed out. I had binged on tears. There were no more in me. I'd had it with all the gearing up for pageantry and the ostentatious hyping of grief.

Last weekend, this seemed like an original thing to say.

But as this week has worn on, everywhere I've looked, alongside all the anticipatory memorializing, there has arisen a strain of distaste among the public and, more surprising, media commentators.

Everybody, it seemed, had been getting as sick of it as I was. The media had, like haywire kangaroos, started boxing themselves to the point where the mea culpas about coverage were almost, at times, eclipsing the coverage.

On Tuesday morning, for example, WNYC radio host Brian Lehrer practically talked his listeners out of listening. He suggested the unthinkable: Limit your media intake on Sept. 11, he said. Don't overdo it. Don't get numb. Then, in what I can only suppose was a reversion to type, he added that those who felt overloaded by the network coverage could always find solace by calling in to his show.

Meanwhile, National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg advised us to get the mute button ready, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer television critic John Levesque opined that "piling on the 9/11 programming is an odd way to pay respect."

It was starting to look as if the media bashing was going to tell us a lot more about what Sept. 11 had done to the media than what the media had made of Sept. 11.

Of course, this blame-the-media-first jeremiad has been going on long before Sept. 11, 2001, and it has some validity. Back in 1996, for example, in his book "Breaking the News," Atlantic Monthly national correspondent James Fallows made the stunning claim that what the public thinks on a range of subjects "depends on what journalists tell us." This is undeniable. Fallows also may have been right when he damned "the values of journalists" and "their current practices," which he said undermine press credibility.

But this isn't the whole story.

As much as we depend on the media, the media depend on us. Because of the sheer scope of the 9/11 attacks, the media are on the defensive now for their purported excesses. But whose excesses are they? Theirs or ours? After all, as much as they inform, the media also hold the mirror up to nature. Far from choreographing current events and attitudes, media outlets also scrabble for ratings, a sport that caters entirely to us.

If the networks don't give us what we want, or at least more of what we want than their competitors, they flop.

So what are we really decrying here--the media's relentless juggernaut of coverage, or our own morbid curiosity? We're overdoing it, fueling the glut every bit as much as they are, rubbernecking the whole mess all over again and disliking ourselves for it. Hence the louder outcry.

The media have always been reflections of our twisted sensibilities. We simply haven't been willing to recognize them as such. The sheer magnitude of Sept. 11 and its redux changed all that. How could we help but acknowledge our own greed for footage when the world was coming down around us?

By what they choose to show us and how they slant the news, the media, to a large extent, tell us what to think. But we, in turn, tell them what we are able to hear. The relationship is symbiotic, the need reciprocal.

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