I’ll admit that I’ve been glued to the television all week.
It’s certainly not something I’m proud of. I’ve skipped classes, neglected homework and become antisocial so that I can take in the non-stop, never-ending coverage of last Tuesday’s tragedy.
It wasn’t until three or four days into my television binge that I began to think that at that point perhaps I wasn’t as interested in watching the events that were taking place as I was in observing the way the media were covering them.
Granted, I’m a bit of a media junkie. I think Chris Matthews would be a fun guy to hang out with, and I find Cokie Roberts disturbingly attractive.
But I attribute my inability to function outside a 10-foot radius of a television last week to something far more unsettling than interest in media, considering the gravity of last Tuesday’s attacks.
After seeing the footage of the second plane crashing into the second tower for the first time, I knew what had happened and I knew it wasn’t good. So what forced me to flip from channel to channel in search of more revealing camera angles? Why did I sit and watch the footage again and again?
The answer, I believe, is that I was sickeningly, horribly and completely unconsciously entertained.
It is the unfortunate side effect of two factors unique to our generation.
First, television news has become, though quite gradually, far too soft. No longer do the networks worry about impact and reporting. They worry about ratings. As such, broadcast news is intended to capture one’s attention, not deliver information.
Ten years ago, Tom Brokaw sat behind a desk and read half an hour’s worth of news. Today, strolling through a digitally created set with floating colors and eye-catching graphics, Brokaw touches on the headlines and heads straight for fluffy human-interest stories. Nightly news is now about delivery and dramatization, not content.
So when word of the terrorist attacks roared into New York newsrooms, the networks had an infrastructure in place that was entirely inappropriate for dealing with a story of such enormity. There was no need for brilliant banners reading “Attack on America” swimming across the screen. There was no need for the hyper-repetition of plane crash footage.
What there should have been, but was not, was a focus on reporting, not production.
Second, our generation is used to being entertained by plot lines that start out with events like last Tuesday’s tragedy.
Think about “Armageddon,” “Air Force One,” and “Die Hard.” The list goes on and on. Movie makers know that audiences respond to violence that they perceive to be unthinkable.
On paper, Tuesday’s tragedy sounds like the script of a Jerry Bruckheimer film.
The problem, of course, is that this isn’t a movie. These are real people, and real places.
And, unfortunately, this story won’t resolve itself in the course of two hours. For this story to come to an end, more real blood will be spilled.
It wasn’t until this weekend, long after the smoke had cleared and the cleanup efforts were well underway, that the full impact of the disaster hit me. I was watching NBC on Saturday morning, where they had put together a segment on the families searching for their missing loved ones. Face after face of the victims flashed across the screen, as interviews with relatives and friends punctuated the stature of the loss.
“I’m looking for my dad,” said a younger man in a matter-of-fact tone, as he held up a picture of his father. “We used to meet for lunch, and he didn’t show up after the collapse.”
Finally, I thought, the media have put a human face on the story. It’s a shame it took them so long.