One of the great media cliches of the past two years is that Sept. 11 “changed everything.” The portentous idea soon became a truism for news outlets nationwide. At the end of 2001, the front page of The Chronicle asserted in large type: “Attack on the U.S. changed everyone and everything everywhere.”
But the shock of Sept. 11 could not endure. And the events of that horrific day — while abruptly tilting the political landscape and media discourse — did not transform the lives of most Americans. Despite all the genuine anguish and the overwhelming news coverage, daily life gradually went back to an approximation of normal.
Yes, some changes are obvious. Worries about terrorism have become routine. Out of necessity, stepped-up security measures are in effect at airports. Unnecessarily, and ominously, the USA Patriot Act is chipping away at civil liberties. Yet the basic concerns of Sept. 10, 2001, remain with us today.
Many of the front-page headlines that greeted newspaper readers on the morning of Sept. 11 seem timeless. The New York Times: “Violence in Mideast, Despite Plans to Talk.” The Washington Post: “GOP Seeks to Ease Fears on Economy.” A Los Angeles Times heading told of a “scramble to fix economy.” While one of The Chronicle’s headlines focused on a “milestone domestic partners bill,” in Sacramento, another referred matter-of-factly to the “bad economy.”
The nation’s current economic picture includes the familiar scourges of unemployment, job insecurity, eroding pension benefits and a wildly exorbitant health-care system that endangers vast numbers of people who are uninsured or underinsured. Two years later, the power of money is undiminished — notwithstanding every platitude that bounced around the media echo chamber after Sept. 11.
During the last months of 2001, many media powerhouses heralded the arrival of humanistic values for the country. Typically, the December issue of O — “The Oprah Magazine” — was largely devoted to the cover story, “We Are Family. ” In the leadoff essay, Oprah Winfrey served up a heaping portion of sweet pablum. “Our vision of family has been expanded,” she wrote. “From the ashes of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and that field in Pennsylvania arose a new spirit of unity. We realize that we are all part of the family of America.” Later in the glossy, ad-filled magazine, the “We Are Family” headline reappeared under Old Glory and over another message from Oprah, who declared: “America is a vast and complicated family, but — as the smoke clears and the dust settles — a family nonetheless.”
In politics, we’re told, perception is reality. To the extent that pundits and the average American believed that Sept. 11 “changed everything,” the notion gained momentum. But the pretense could be maintained only so long. Just as huckstering commercials returned full-force to TV and radio, the usual economic priorities kicked in for the nation as a whole.
From the vantage point of the present day, the late-2001 claims about a new national altruism invite disbelief if not derision. No amount of media spin about “the family of America” can negate the fact that gaps between wealth and poverty have never been wider. What kind of affluent family would leave so many of its members in desperate need?
As measured by poll numbers, President Bush’s fall from popular grace this year has brought him back to about where he was just before Sept. 11. That decline runs parallel with slumping myths about the transcendent aftermath of Sept. 11. Subsequent events have brought sobering realities into focus.
Recent news about Halliburton and Bechtel cashing in on the occupation of Iraq is a counterpoint to revelations that the White House strongly pressured the Environmental Protection Agency in the days after Sept. 11 to mislead the public about dangers of airborne toxic particles from World Trade Center debris. The EPA’s Office of the Inspector General reported last month that “the desire to reopen Wall Street” was a major factor in the Bush administration’s misleading assurances.
Although the public was told that everything had changed, powerful elites gave the highest priority to resuming business as usual. Apparently, people living and working in lower Manhattan have been viewed as expendable the past two years — by the same officials who’ve gone to great lengths to underscore their deep caring about the victims of Sept. 11. This wrenching scandal, which has caused visceral outrage in the New York area, threatens to pull scabs off festering wounds.
After Sept. 11, while many thousands of people grieved the sudden loss of their loved ones, a steady downpour of politically driven sentimentality kept blurring the U.S. media’s window on the world. Politicians in high office, from President Bush on down, rushed to identify themselves as representing the dead and their relatives. Cataclysmic individual losses were swiftly expropriated for mass dissemination.
In a cauldron of media alchemy, the human suffering of Sept. 11 became propaganda gold. Sorrow turned into political capital.
The human process of mourning is intimate and often at a loss for words; journalists and politicians tend to be neither. Grief borders on the ineffable.
News coverage gravitates toward cliches and facile images.
In tandem with the message that Sept. 11 “changed everything” came an emboldened insistence on the U.S. prerogative to attack other countries at will. In a bait-and-switch operation that took hold in autumn 2001, emblems of Sept. 11 soon underwent double exposure with prevailing political agendas.
Displayed by many as an expression of sorrow and solidarity with the Sept. 11 victims, the American flag was promptly overlaid on the missiles bound for Afghanistan. In TV studios, the Stars and Stripes, like angelic symbols dancing on the heads of pins, got stuck on the lapels of many newscasters.
Network correspondents routinely joined in upbeat assessments of the U.S.- led assault on Afghanistan that took the lives of at least as many blameless civilians as Sept. 11 did. Later, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which overthrew a regime in Baghdad with no links to the Sept. 11 hijackings or al Qaeda, took more civilian lives than Sept. 11 did. For the United States, moral reflection could not hold a candle to the righteous adrenaline of war.
“An unexciting truth may be eclipsed by a thrilling lie,” Aldous Huxley observed. But media perception is not reality — and Sept. 11 did not change the folly of confusing the two.
Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, based in San Francisco. He is co-author, with Reese Erlich, of Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You.