Katie Couric, her eyes thickly lined with black kohl, seemed to have one intention on the fifth anniversary of 9/11: to make us cry. She and CBS were instantly criticized, after her debut, for turning their nightly news broadcast into a news magazine stocked with feel good, soft news features, and 9/11 was no different. After a story about how much progress there has been in Afghanistan (which directly contradicted a piece that had aired on Couric’s first night about the dangerous re-arming of the Taliban), Couric turned to a tear-jerking story (repurposed from the previous night’s “60 Minutes”) about a boy who had lost his father on 9/11 but had found a new father figure through a program called “Tuesday’s Children.”
We were also treated to an on-air op-ed by Rudy Giuliani (in CBS’s new “Free Speech” segment) who insisted we must be unwavering in our fight against terrorism, as if we didn’t know that. But the piece was also a veiled endorsement of the war in Iraq, which he linked to 9/11. “After September 11, we went on offense against the terrorists. We must remain on offense. … If we remain steadfast, if we do not surrender to frustration and remain committed to overcoming terrorism, then those who died on September 11 will not have died in vain.” Why do terrorists attack us? Giuliani intoned the same old bromide: “This is a war with people who seek to eliminate our most precious freedom.” Perfect segue into Bush’s widely flogged “non-political” address to the nation in which he insisted that the war in Iraq was crucial to protecting Americans from terrorism.
Like much of the broadcast media, the two dominant messages from CBS’s commemoration of 9/11 were Cry, Cry, Cry and Persevere in the War On Terror. Bathos trumped analysis and nowhere were we urged to think instead of feel. The most glaring omission was any reflection not on the road to 9/11, but the road since 9/11. Were such a piece to air, the news media’s conduct of the past five years would not come off well at all.
A central text in the remembrances was ABC’s controversial “The Path to 9/11.” Denounced by Bill Clinton, Richard Clarke, Madeleine Albright and a group of historians for inserting scenes that never happened, ABC made minor adjustments that eliminated the most glaring falsehoods. But few have noted the broader ideological work of the show. “The Path to 9/11,” written, we now know, by conservative Cyrus Nowrasteh, friend of Rush Limbaugh, is a passionate argument for executive power in the Dick Cheney mode and an indictment of the Fourth Amendment. At one point, when officials operating outside the United States are about to examine the laptop of a suspected terrorist, one of them complains that you could never get away with such a search in the United States without a warrant. Ergo, the constitutional prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures is cast as a troublesome barrier to the war on terror.
Also left in the show was the lie that Bush authorized the shooting down of hijacked airliners by U.S. fighter jets. Such an order never came in real life, but clearly the conservatives behind “The Path to 9÷11” long for such executive power and decisiveness. In contrast, the docudrama failed to show Bush continuing to read “My Pet Goat” after learning of the attacks, or being swept off into hiding. This helps occlude the fact that the administration that has done more than any other to expand the powers of the executive was, at that moment, headed by someone who had no idea what to do.
How might the broadcast media have analyzed the path since 9/11 if it were non-commercial, not so craven for ratings and had the stomach for self-examination? Might we see an examination of the collapse of journalistic skepticism and backbone in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, or an expose of the Bush administration’s blanketing the media with propaganda and PR techniques, or an explanation that Bush squandered every ounce of goodwill we had in the aftermath of 9/11, or a reflection on the unnecessary killing of so many U.S. troops and Iraqis, or a condemnation of our country’s use of torture?
The tragedy of 9/11, the one we did not hear about on this fifth anniversary, is not only the losses we sustained on that day, but the complete shredding of whatever remained of what many of us like to think of as American righteousness. And the tragedy is deepened by those in the media who still attempt to divert us with tears, with outright lies and with fantasies of the more authoritarian state that we should never, ever become.
Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.