The Times Tells You What To Feel

Would anyone really be sad that the 9/11 death toll went down?

One characteristic common to all mawkish writing is that it leaves the reader feeling as though he’s been told what emotions to experience. Thus, for example, Little Eva on her deathbed in Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

“Here, Uncle Tom,” said Eva, “is a beautiful [lock of my hair] for you. O, I am so happy, Uncle Tom, to think I shall see you in heaven,—for I’m sure I shall; and Mammy,—dear, good, kind Mammy!” she said, fondly throwing her arms round her old nurse—”I know you’ll be there, too.” “O, Miss Eva, don’t see how I can live without ye, no how!” said the faithful creature. ” ‘Pears like it’s just taking everything off the place to oncet!” and Mammy gave way to a passion of grief.

In a brave essay published last year in the American Scholar, Thomas Mallon accused the New York Times of going for a similar effect in its Pulitzer-winning “Portraits of Grief” commemorating those who died on Sept. 11, 2001:

[A]nyone depressed over his weight became a “gentle giant” and every binge drinker was the life of the party. … As the Portraits accumulated over weeks and months, I began performing mental translations, from a sugary base 8 to a real-life base 10. The fifty-four-year-old vegetarian office temp, a bachelor with “strong opinions” who preferred “short-term jobs,” was, I would bet, an absolutely impossible man; but I would prefer to have known him rather than the bland reincarnation forced to share a page with the other murdered souls under headings like “The Joys of Fatherhood” and “Perpetual Motion.”

Some readers may find this judgment harsh, given the scope of the tragedy. They might argue that it isn’t sentimental writing, but inescapably stark facts that bring tears to their eyes. The Times writers’ tone and selection of detail don’t manipulate their emotions; the reality of what happened on 9/11 does. This is a legitimate and defensible argument, albeit one Chatterbox doesn’t happen to agree with.

Today, however, the Times takes one additional step. It tells readers—literally—what to feel about those who died on 9/11. A Page One “About New York” column by Dan Barry reports the New York City chief medical examiner’s announcement that 40 people had mistakenly been listed as dead from the World Trade Center’s collapse and will henceforth be removed from the total, lowering the death toll to 2,752. (None of the 40 had been profiled in “Portraits of Grief.”) Inevitably, there were rhetorical flourishes about “the breath of October” rustling trees, and so on. Chatterbox doesn’t even notice these anymore. But he did notice the story’s last two paragraphs:

The city will retain its records on the 40 names dropped from the list, just in case new evidence develops. But with only three more open cases, officials think that they are close to determining a final number of trade center dead—somewhere, it seems, between 2,749 and 2,752.How should that make us feel? The fewer the better, perhaps; the fewer the better.

The “perhaps” seems a last-minute attempt to inject modesty into the Times’ instructions about the proper way to react to the news it has just presented. But the sentence is insulting nonetheless. Indeed, it makes the reader feel entirely superfluous: If the Times knows how the reader is supposed to emote about the facts just laid before him, why bother having readers at all? Chatterbox feels perfectly equipped to feel for himself the relief that 40 fewer people died on 9/11 than was previously thought, just as he understands that a rebounding economy is good news and a small child falling down a well is bad news. He does not need the Times to say, “Be sad” or, “Be happy,” anymore than he needs a laugh track when he watches a TV sitcom.