It's over. The easiest, sleaziest, richest, most meaningless decade we've yet
known has come to an end, buried beneath the rubble and ashes and dust of the
World Trade Center.
Officially, the 1990s died at 8:45 a.m. on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, when
American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north tower -- thereby setting off
a day of horror unlike anything we have seen before. In truth, though, the
patient had been sick for some time.
Almost precisely 10 years ago, the fall of the Soviet Union ushered in an
unprecedented period of social and cultural frivolity. With the threat of
nuclear annihilation diminished and the need for military spending reduced, the
'90s were a time of wealth, fun, and disengagement from public life.
No institution was more affected by this new decadence than the media, which
-- to oversimplify -- devolved from the heroism of Vietnam and Watergate to the
hedonism of celebrity scandal. From O.J. to Princess Diana, from
JonBenét Ramsey to Monica Lewinsky, the media elevated the trivial over
the serious, exalting pop culture to the detriment of the public interest. Our
national symbol was Bill Clinton, who may have been a policy wonk at heart, but
whose wandering penis was always more interesting than his tedious 10-point
proposals. Yes, there were terrible moments, such as the Oklahoma City bombings
and the various school shootings. Yet even these were subsumed by the media
beast, coming to seem more like made-for-television dramas than actual
But you could tell that the '90s -- which no doubt will be remembered as a
wondrous interlude -- were running out of steam when the media horde closed in
on Gary Condit. There was something old, tired, perfunctory about it. It's not
that Condit was caught up in something more awful and therefore less
entertaining than the deeds that had ensnared his media predecessors. After
all, no matter what may have happened to Chandra Levy, it was surely no worse
than the fate that befell Nicole Brown Simpson. Rather, it was that the
cultural moment had passed, even if we didn't realize it yet.
We realized it this week, when the '90s finally, emphatically, sickeningly
came to a close. And we embarked, blindly, into a terrifying new century.
It is impossible to describe the experience of watching it all unfold Tuesday
except to say this: there has never been a day like it. As television events
go, neither the assassination of John F. Kennedy nor the attempted
assassination of Ronald Reagan comes close. Nor does the Oklahoma City bombing,
which was similar in nature, but -- hard as it is to believe -- on a much
In historical terms, the comparisons are mind-boggling. Tuesday's terrorist
attacks were the first significant foreign incursions on American soil since
the British burned down the Capitol in the War of 1812. Senator Chuck Hagel,
echoing the thoughts of many others, compared the attacks to Pearl Harbor; yet
what happened this week dwarfs what took place on December 7, 1941.
CNN's Jeff Greenfield at one point observed that the 22,000 Americans who died
at Antietam, during the Civil War, was the worst single-day death toll in the
nation's history -- and that Tuesday's casualty list could end up exceeding
that. Indeed, it's not inconceivable that the number of dead could approach the
50,000 Americans who were killed during the entire Vietnam War.
We heard and saw things we've never heard or seen before. Think about this: a
good chunk of the Pentagon was blown up by an airliner commandeered by foreign
terrorists. As I write this, the networks are reporting that some 800 people
may have died. And it's being treated like it's the sidebar, because the attack
on Manhattan was so much bigger and more deadly. Yet if the Pentagon attack
were all that had happened on Tuesday, it would have qualified by itself as the
worst act of terrorism in the country's history.
Or consider the air shuttle on which George W. Bush embarked. For the first
time ever (a phrase that can't help but come up over and over again), the
president of the United States was deliberately kept away from the White House
because of fear for his safety. During the afternoon, there was a surreal
moment when CNN's John King, who was traveling with the president, actually
declined to reveal where he was, citing national-security concerns. And when
Bush finally did decide to return, government officials reportedly refused to
confirm it, or even to reveal what time he would speak to the nation, until
still more time had passed.
Surely it was the first time that giving a speech from the Oval Office
amounted to an act of presidential courage.
In an increasingly fragmented culture, television can still be a unifying force
in times of crisis. Around 11 p.m., ABC's Peter Jennings, wiped out and
semi-coherent, called television "the national campfire." He was right, even if
stress and overwork were taking their toll.
Overall, the media did a solid, respectable job under incredibly difficult
circumstances. After the initial attacks, not much information was getting out,
leaving commentators to speculate -- always a dangerous proposition. Yet even
though international terrorist Osama bin Laden's organization emerged early as
a logical suspect, the talking heads were careful to note there was no way of
knowing for sure.
No doubt they had learned from Oklahoma City, when the early coverage focused
almost exclusively on the possibility that the attack had been carried out by
Middle Eastern terrorists. A particularly ironic moment on Tuesday occurred on
the Fox News Channel, when an unusually subdued Bill O'Reilly asked terrorism
expert Steven Emerson if he suspected bin Laden. "I'm not convinced. It's too
premature," responded Emerson, who -- as O'Reilly undoubtedly knew -- had been
especially vehement six years ago in blaming Oklahoma City on a Mideast group.
Of course, it turned out that the attack was actually carried out by domestic
MSNBC has been rightly sneered at for its emphasis on young, attractive
personalities and elaborate sets -- epitomized by Ashleigh Banfield, the
smiling blonde with the famous titanium glasses, who rose to prominence during
the Florida recount. So it should be noted that Banfield proved on Tuesday that
she can be more than just another pretty face. She set up shop on a sidewalk in
Lower Manhattan early in the day and stuck around well into the night, even
after the late-afternoon implosion of a third tower threatened to sweep her
And the always-odd Dan Rather was oddly reassuring, cautioning his CBS
viewers, "Nobody knows who's responsible for this." When his colleague Bob
Schiefer began talking about the "rage" being expressed on the streets of
Washington, Rather retorted, "It's one thing to have that rage. It's another to
know where to direct that rage."
If anything, the most inflammatory comments were delivered not by any media
figures but by veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who popped up on several
outlets virtually daring the White House to go after Afghanistan, whose Taliban
government harbors bin Laden. Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative
Weekly Standard and a veteran Republican strategist, appearing on PBS's
The NewsHour, urged Bush to consider a declaration of war, even though
Kristol inconveniently did not appear to have a particular target in mind.
It was actually the bombastic Chris Matthews, on MSNBC, who sounded a welcome
note of caution, reminding anchor Brian Williams that we are no more likely to
be successful fighting terrorism than Israel has been. "The problem with
retaliation is that you play into your enemy's hands. You radicalize your
enemies," Matthews said. "Retaliation is part of the terrorism."
Ten years ago, the fall of communism was preceded by another major news event:
the Gulf War, which put CNN on the map and which, arguably, set off the 24/7
culture that the news media have become.
The war was something of a triumph for the media, but it also marked a big
step on its journey from attack dog to lapdog. News executives, with few
complaints, went along with onerous logistical restrictions, allowing US forces
to carry out the ground campaign virtually unobserved. Yet it was the military,
not the media, that won the approval of the public. A memorable Saturday
Night Live skit even mocked news organizations by depicting clueless
reporters asking officers to tell them exactly where American troops were
located, thus opening them up to Iraqi attack.
The danger now, as the media shift their focus from the silly to the serious,
is that the public won't get the tough scrutiny of government that it needs and
deserves. This is, after all, an emotional moment: we've been attacked by
foreign forces, and we want our leaders to do something about it. Who needs
pesky reporters getting in the way?
"You can't be too dispassionate about this, at least as far as I'm concerned,"
says Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center for the Press,
Politics, and Public Policy, at Harvard's Kennedy School. "This is a moment of
war, and I've got a feeling that's where we're headed." Still, Jones believes
it's essential for the media to counter the "hysteria" that's bound to break
out in the coming weeks, and not to get caught up in antidemocratic rhetoric to
justify measures that erode privacy and free-speech rights.
Adds Bob Steele, a media-ethics expert at the Poynter Institute, via e-mail:
"News organizations must honor the principle of independence during these
difficult times. We should not be swept up in the patriotism nor the criticism.
We should be professional and dispassionate in our reporting even when we have
strong personal feelings."
Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum, is worried
that the battle against terrorism will be used as an excuse to erode the
media's constitutional protections.
"There no doubt will be some serious discussion about limiting civil
liberties, including speech and press," he said in an e-mail. "Already, we're
hearing some rumblings about leaks and aggressive/ sloppy coverage of
national-defense issues by the press as aiding and abetting terrorists."
(McMasters, by the way, came close to getting killed on Tuesday: he was sitting
in the Pentagon parking lot, listening to a radio account of the World Trade
Center attacks, when the Pentagon itself was attacked.)
In a sad and eloquent essay in Slate on Tuesday, New Yorker drama critic
John Lahr, writing from London, compared the Tuesday attacks to Pearl Harbor,
the assassination of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War, and
even the death, at birth, of his twin sons, in the "existential sense that life
can change on a dime."
He added: "I feel now like I did then -- something has instantly and
inexorably changed in American life. And there is no going back. What is being
lost . . . is -- not an innocence (that's long lost) but a sense of containment
and invincibility. Fear will now be our daily bread; and hatred has been given
new license. I fear the hysteria and the distortion and the violence which will
soon be acted out in all quarters."
The '90s are over. Welcome to a new decade. Welcome to a new century. The era
of disengagement and decadence has ended.
Can the media -- accustomed as they have become to celebrity trials and
semen-stained dresses -- return to the infinitely more difficult task of
providing the information a self-governing people need? After years of sex and
scandal, of shuttered foreign bureaus, of downsizing and profit-mongering, it's
not going to be easy.
Yet this is a time of crisis, and that crisis is not going to be solved next
week, next month, or even next year. We require a media that can report on our
frightening new world accurately and thoroughly, neither playing into public
hysteria nor serving as a conveyor belt for government propaganda.
In other words, the media, like the rest of us, are going to have to change.
Kristen Lombardi can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com.
Issue Date: September 14 - 20, 2001