Those of us born with high-gain news radar have already spotted a flotilla—make that several flotillas—of 9/11 anniversary stories just over the horizon steaming toward readers and viewers. During the next several days, hundreds of poorly executed newspaper articles and TV segments will arrive to commemorate the slaughter and refresh our memories about the attack of eight years ago.
The anniversary story is, in almost all instances, a media scam designed to exploit audiences by reviving memories—usually painful ones—to sell newspapers or boost ratings. In its most naked form, the anniversary article makes no attempt to advance the story or deepen the collective understanding of the selected anniversary event.
In the case of 9/11, manufacturing a cheap and effective anniversary piece need require no more effort than replaying the tape or posing the survivor next to a picture of a victim or otherwise drenching the hanky in tears. … Before and after snapshots of the Manhattan skyline. … The erection of memorials. … First-person pieces about watching from Brooklyn as the second plane struck.
I single 9/11 coverage out for anniversary abuse, but the press indulges in mawkish regurgitation of every disaster, killing spree, and other momentous and bloody historical event it can find in the almanacs—the Normandy invasion, the Lockerbie bombing, the Virginia Tech murders, Stalingrad, Oklahoma City, Kent State, the Kennedy and King assassinations, Katrina, the Tsunami, Mount St. Helens, Attica, the Tet Offensive, the Munich massacre, Hiroshima, Chernobyl, the Branch Davidian massacre, and so on. And then there are the less than incendiary anniversary stories the press force-feeds us—the Woodstock generation kicked out the jams 40 years ago, Hawaii and Alaska became states 50 years ago, NATO was established 60 years ago.
Defenders of anniversary stories will argue that newspapers have always reserved space to revive memories of things past, giving young readers a sense of history and allowing older readers to relive yesterday. Yeah, yeah, yeah, but does all that continuing education really belong on Page One?
Journalists love anniversary stories because they take no more imagination to find than dialing in a site like On This Day, picking a ripe anniversary, and banking the hastily assembled copy for the appropriate date on the publication calendar. No matter what a reporter’s beat—sports, business, politics, technology—there’s always a quick and easy anniversary story out there to execute. Just Nexis a few stories, make a couple of phone calls, type up the results, and hit send.
Readers and viewers—the unindicted co-conspirators in the anniversary story travesty—delight in the retreaded tales for the same reason kids want to be told the same nighttime stories. They’re lazy and they crave the psychological stimulation that the familiar brings. Like overworked parents, journalists are all too happy to indulge their readers.
The hollowness of the anniversary story is revealed in the press corps’ arbitrary embrace of anniversaries ending in zero or five—as if some numerology-inducing worm has eaten a hole in their brains. Why will the 50th anniversary of the shoot-down of Gary Powers’ U-2, coming in May 2010, be treated as more newsworthy than the 49th anniversary, which just passed? (See Anne Applebaum’s similar anniversary gripe.)
The 9/11 anniversary storm, which will rage through the weekend edition, will leave few stories unrecycled. A timeline of the attacks. Profiles of the attackers. The rebellion of the passengers on Flight 93. The many ways in which the steel salvaged from the tower site has been reused. More about the “forgotten” Pentagon attack and the Pennsylvania crash. Checking in with the 9/11 widows. Checking in with the surviving members of the FDNY. Checking in with Rudy Giuliani. Checking in with the journalists who covered 9/11. Acts of heroism. Acts of desperation. On the Web, a slide show of the 9/11 devastation. The Bush and Cheney response, etc.
Shouldn’t there be a statute of limitations for anniversary stories after which the press should be prohibited from reprocessing an old story without advancing it in any meaningful way? Actually, there does appear to be a limit. The press rarely extends anniversary blessings upon things no longer in human memory. For instance, when I was a kid, the newspapers routinely revisited the major battles of World War I. But as the last of the doughboys were laid down to take the eternal dirt nap, World War I became as irrelevant to newspaper editors as the Spanish-American War.
This means that the 9/11 show will still be running 80 years from now and, given the press corps’s love of decimal anniversaries, the 2011 edition will be more than I can bear.
Or maybe the nation suffers from amnesia and needs reminding. Please feel free to forget to send me e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and subscribe to my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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