Telling Us How to Feel: The Press and 9/11

This article was originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on September 20, 2001.

Perspectives: Telling us how to feel
How news coverage of last week’s terrorist attacks morphed into media manipulation

Thursday, September 20, 2001

By Mike Dillon

On Tuesday Sept. 11, as midnight approached, I reluctantly reached out and turned off the television. Like every American, I felt shocked, sickened, dispirited.

As I reflected on all I had seen and heard since 9 a.m., it occurred to me that the attacks on New York and Washington might just be enormous enough, horrific enough, to place them beyond television’s power to transform any event into a cliche.

In the 72 hours after the jets hit their targets, television dominated our senses and the medium’s journalists did an extraordinary job of informing the nation. They did so with an admirable lack of hyperbole, jingoism or mawkishness. With a few understandable exceptions, they delivered accurate information with remarkable composure. The fireballs, the panicked bystanders, the tear- and ash-streaked firefighters, the lost souls whose loved ones were nowhere to be found: None of it required enhancement. The images, words — even the silences — spoke for themselves.

By Friday evening, however, new developments had slowed to a trickle. The straight-ahead stream of news became a feedback loop and the television networks began to fall back on their old tricks: On NBC, Jane Pauley encountered a victim’s large extended family in standard group-interview formation — two rows, maximum close-ups. Pauley’s exclamations of pride, awe and incredulity at the strength of these survivors were elevated by her editor to the same level as the family’s expressions of grief. On ABC, an emotive Barbara Walters, too, began to crowd the events she was covering out of the frame.

Raw events that had needed no embellishment began to be packaged. It was no longer enough to show the rescuers picking through the rubble; now, a soundtrack — typically the soaring hymn from Friday’s memorial service at the National Cathedral — was deemed necessary. It was no longer enough to turn on the camera and let the relative of a victim tell his or her story; now, special effects were deemed necessary.

As a young bride-to-be told of her resolve to marry despite the loss of her stepfather, her grief-stricken visage was superimposed upon an image of the fireball in tower two; “Goin’ to the Chapel” — part of an audio e-mail the young woman had sent her stepfather previously — played in the background. In another report, a stirring narration of the events that might have occurred on the plane that crashed in Somerset County was accompanied by jumpy, grainy, indistinct video of people moving about on an airliner.

It is hard to resist the emotional impact of such packaging even when we recognize it as synthetic. It is easier to feel than to think.

There are as many theories about how media messages affect us as there are cable news channels. As I watched what had been a series of news reports turn into an ongoing television series Friday night, I thought of the words of journalist and philosopher Walter Lippmann, who pointed out that there is a real and tangible world out there and then there are pictures in our heads of that world created largely by the media.

The tragedy of the modern age, Lippmann wrote in 1920, is that the two so seldom resemble one another. Reality is not discovered and digested, it is constructed, and most things we “know” to be true are actually an amalgam of images made by others, our experiences and our prejudices. The phenomenon is not merely academic. The pictures in our heads determine our actions in the world. The image is father to the belief and the belief is father to the deed.

When media give us truthful accounts of the world, our reactions to them have the ring of truth. When media package raw reality into familiar genres designed to produce fear, outrage, pity or sadness, our reactions are rooted in illusion.

Tuesday’s attack is surely the first step in a long series of events that will continue to touch more and more of us in profound and, probably, tragic ways. We are no longer spectators to the ideological battles that rend nations; we are now both combatants in a shooting war and the spoils in a political battle for hearts and minds. The policies we support or accept at home or abroad — policies affecting military action, security, civil liberties — will be determined by the pictures we hold in our heads of events that occur far beyond our reach.

The confusing swirl of disbelief, shock and anger most of us felt as last Tuesday’s events unfolded were hardly comforting. But they were truthful. Our reactions, as painful and paradoxical as they might have been, belonged to us. No amount of slick packaging can change the fact that there are no pat answers to the questions haunting us all.

Once we concede power to the media to tell us what our emotions are and should be, we gain a measure of comfort and lose a measure of control over both the pictures in our heads and our actions in the world. Indulgence in false emotions can never lead to reason. And in the face of evil and insanity, we need reason more than ever.

With the stakes as high as they are, we should be screening the stories and pictures streaming forth from our televisions as carefully as our airports are now screening passengers and cargo.

Image of article from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 20, 2001

Image of article from Google News Archive.

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