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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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