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Should networks rebroadcast footage of 9/11?

It’s not hard to rile me when you downplay the events of September 11. Flag-waving hawk that I am, it’s hard for me to get beyond an immediate reaction to people who try to rationalize that mass terrorism. Today’s New York Times op-ed by Eric Mink, though, requires a little more exegesis. The Romenesko-surfing crowd is probably wrestling with the same questions of news value that Mink is. But is he wrong? Oh my, yes.

Mink’s gist – that rebroadcasting the footage of 9/11 serves no journalistic purpose – is demonstrably false. Perhaps because he’s the first pundit to raise this point in such a manner, his arguments are weak and, toward the end, contradictory. He worries about the power of the images to cause “trauma”:

Watching this footage in tapes of programs scheduled to air in the coming weeks reconfirms its power to traumatize viewers whose only connection to the attacks is that they saw them on TV.

In pure McLuhan terms, the 9/11 footage is already as cool as televised imagery can get: the images are beamed pixels of light, and the focus is diffused across many points of action. There is so much horror to grip the viewer – icons crumbing, people jumping to their deaths, smoke collonading across the skyline, crowds running from rubble – that it cannot muster the pure propagandic effect that so worries Mink. But is it news?

… drifting away might be the psychological distancing that is a natural and essential part of the painful process of grieving and healing … networks … should make the editorial decision not to use this footage, which is still profoundly disturbing. Replaying those scenes does not serve a news purpose. There is no reason to think that anyone has forgotten what happened in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania a year ago.

Here Mink enagges in the one journalistic hobby I find unbearable – defining “journalism”. For him, if footage does not inform or illuminate, it is not valuable. Where were these rigorous standards in 1998, when Mink reviewed ABC’s 1968 retrospective “The Whole World is Watching” for the Holland Sentinel? As he put it, giving the show a positive review despite editing-room hackwork: “The rich raw material, the program’s intelligent structure and the sheer force of the actual events of the time save it.” (my emphasis) Mink used to believe in the value of raw material – what’s the difference between showing Abbie Hoffman chuck rocks at police and rebroadcasting 9/11?

Mink suggests a halfway house solution in which networks would forego “the visceral intensity of the video footage and [choose] to illustrate those portions of the reports with still photos instead.” This is at odds with McLuhan’s theories, which assign higher resonance to complete images than televised pixels. It’s also asinine in presenting a training wheels version of the events for viewers who, for whatever reason Mink has in mind, won’t be able to handle the real thing.

At some point, it will become possible, even useful, to watch the video footage of Sept. 11 without re-imagining these terrible scenes. But not now.

Whoa, back up. How do you watch something without it becoming visceral? To go back to McLuhan: “In the electric age we necessarily participate, in depth, in the consequences of our every action.” And also: “The electric implosion … compels commitment and participation.” Is there a shelf date for the ability to shock? I’ve never heard of such a thing, and neither have network executives who, as Mink should remember, took pains in resurrecting 30-year old footage to get ratings. Are viewers of 60s documentaries seeking a detached historical experience, or are they trying to make the events real again? Everything suggests that they’re going for the latter experience.

If Mink doesn’t want to see this footage because it’ll drive Americans to fight, he should say so. His media theories don’t have a leg to stand on.

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Northwestern University press release, 8/28/02

Effective September 1, Northwestern’s second-oldest undergraduate and least important
school will have a new name when the School of Speech becomes the
School of Communication. The name change was initiated in May 2001 by
the school’s national advisory council and was approved with no small amusement by the
University board of trustees last June.

The new name was selected after an “extensive study” of the school’s
“identity”, including “evaluation” of the current name and possible new
names. The study concluded that the name, “School of Speech,” no
longer accurately represented the “breadth”, “depth” and “quality” of the
school’s “programs”. Therefore, the school “solicited” the “opinions” of
students, faculty, alumni and friends of the school. When President Bienen ran out of voices to use when faculty called him,
the faculty of the school requested a change in name and in April of
this year each of the five departments in the school voted to request
the board of trustees to approve the name change.

This is actually the second name change for the school. It originally
was called the David Schwimmer Foundation for Achievement and the name was changed to the
School of Speech in 1921. Although it will have a new name, I am
confident that the outstanding teaching, scholarship and training
that have earned the school a national reputation as a leader in its
diverse fields will remain hallmarks of the new School of
Communication and Unemployability.

Additionally, this Fall will usher in the merger of the Schools of Journalism and Education into the School of Abject Poverty.

Lawrence B. Dumas
Provost

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Tada!

Go to davidweigel.com and check out the site’s new design. Notice that the weblog now appears in a floating frame – this makes a lot more sense, as no one goes to personal sites anymore and everyone reads weblogs. And forgive the lack of graphics – I have posted the 3 missing jpgs several times, but they just aren’t loading yet. Must be a server problem … unless my dim mak death touch of technology has returned.

Song of the Day: The Kinks, “Days”

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Vanity, vanity

When Eric Alterman admonished Andrew Sullivan’s weblog for “narcisissm,” I considered it. Sullivan is a bit self-important – but he can’t hope to compare with the rampant egoism of Alterman. For the past few weeks he’s printed the setlists of Springsteen shows he attended. Yesterday he printed a short summary of why the Vietnam war was bad – groundbreaking journalism, that. Today he runs no less than 27 responses to his unspectacular column. 27! That’s more letters than Dissent prints in a year!

Pat yourself on the back all day if you like, Eric, but don’t lambaste a vastly superior writer because he likes to talk about his vacations.

Song of the Day: Huey Lewis, “Stuck with You”

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Deutschland uber alles

The Christian Democrats are leading the German polls, as they have been for nearly all of the last year. This is excellent. When Schroder et al came into power in 1998, ending 16 years of conservative government, observers buried us in commentary about the rise of the European left. Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s buddy Joschka Fischer, a Grune (Green) became Ausslandminister. Now they’re heading for the political graveyard. Steady on, Stoiber.

Song of the Day: Pet Shop Boys, “Falling”

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Why I am a lazy weblogger

The boss and I were walking back from FedEx last week when he asked a strange question – strange considering I was still in town for 6 more weeks.

“You thought about what you want to do next?”

He meant “after college.” I said I was going to apply to a bunch of media conglomerates and see which ones would have me. (NU does wonders for your horizons.)

“Yeah,” he said. “I think the magazine could use one or two more full-time staffers. Some editors, or at least some people to share the duties.”

And it took me three hours to figure out what he was saying – “Hey, come back here and work after you graduate.”

With that dangling over my head, I have endevoured to become the best intern ever. Thus, not much blogging.

Song of the Day: Todd Rundgren, “Real Man”