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Aftermath television

Sep 24, 2001  •  Post A Comment

No, we aren’t prepared for terrorist attacks. Not as a nation and not, alas, as individuals. Broadcast news hasn’t done enough to prepare us, for one thing. Did the average American have any idea how significant or horrible a role Afghanistan might be playing in our lives and our future?
The public doesn’t seem to “like” foreign news so, too often, the networks refrain from giving it any. The news should be what we need to hear, not what we want to hear. As obvious and simple as that is, it hasn’t been the guiding principle by which network news divisions seem to have operated.
Honestly, I don’t recall having even heard the word “Taliban” on TV before the crisis occurred. If I had been asked what Taliban was, I probably would have guessed it was a new nicotine patch. Or perhaps recalled it as a line from Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song”: “Come, Mister Taliban, tally me banana. …”
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Ironically, one casualty of the crisis and the continuing coverage of it was “Nightline’s” five-part series on the ongoing wars, famine, murder and oppression in the Congo. Here was an attempt, a valiant one, to bring a little-told story from a little-covered region to America’s attention, one that showed the “Nightline” crew and host Ted Koppel at their enterprising and courageous best.
Part 1 aired the Friday before the terrorist attack. Part 2 was to air the night of Tuesday, Sept. 11. Koppel says he has no idea when time will be found to air the series now, but he is determined that it will be shown.
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Many networks, broadcast and cable, pulled movies and shows from their scheduled air dates because, under the circumstances, it might have appeared offensive to show them. CBS yanked the pilot of its new series “The Agency,” which celebrates the brilliant work of the CIA, but, unfortunately, the show, one of the worst of the new fall crop, will premiere this week anyway. Some other episode has been substituted for the pilot.
You might think that in light of what is being called a titanic, catastrophic intelligence failure, CBS might scrub the whole series. But no-“Agency” and two other CIA-themed shows on two other networks may be postponed but will air, network spokespeople say.
Someone on the House or Senate intelligence committee might want to look into how many CIA man-hours went into helping CBS with “The Agency,” the series that can boast-if “boast” is the word-the greatest amount of agency cooperation.
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Meanwhile, standards-and-practices personnel are going through upcoming programs to remove potentially troublesome dialogue or situations. CBS sent this memo to critics on Friday: “In light of the recent tragic events that occurred on Sept. 11, we would like to make you aware that we have omitted a line of dialogue from the pilot episode of `The Ellen Show,’ which will broadcast this Monday, Sept. 24. …
“The line, which was delivered by Cloris Leachman, was in reaction to Ellen’s comment about the recent collapse of her dot-com business.”
You might think CBS publicity would have told us what the line was.
You’d be wrong.
Critics had to dig out the tape and find it. After Ellen DeGeneres says, “My business collapsed,” Leachman says, “Well, thank your lucky stars you weren’t there at the time.”
The business was located in Los Angeles but even so, cutting the line was a good call.
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Perhaps it seems trivial to criticize the mad profusion of graphics in network news coverage of the crisis, but it’s also awfully hard to overlook it. One network had such a mountain of graphics along the bottom of the screen last week that “talking heads” became literally that; people on camera were sliced off at the chin, or even at the lower lip. They had no necks.
This isn’t a matter of mere aesthetics. It impedes the information flow. You’re distracted when the talking head, say, bobs a little and the person’s entire mouth is cut off, and meanwhile headlines are flying by on one line, the man’s identity is displayed on another line, the network’s “title” for its coverage is on another line, and the next thing you know, the guy who controls the computer graphics might be saying “Hi, mom” on another line.
Is the public happy with this kind of visual anarchy? Are the networks trying to cram as much information as possible onto the screen-or, more likely, are they trying to hold onto viewers by whatever means possible? If a viewer isn’t interested in the talking head’s talk, maybe he’ll busy himself reading the streaming headline. Or be transfixed by the digitally waving flag.
We are probably only half an inch away from having some form of advertising appear on one of those lines.
One network, incidentally, briefly renamed its coverage of the crisis “Operation Infinite Justice” last week when the name was adopted as the official term for America’s response to the terrorism. Then Pentagon officials realized the “Infinite Justice” part could be deemed offensive by Muslims and so it was scuttled-first by the government, then by the network.
Fox’s big bold caption “AMERICA UNITED” is succinct and emphatic-but since the two airlines involved in the hijackings that became suicide bombings were American and United, it also seems unfortunate.
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The drug companies that make antidepressants such as Zoloft and Paxil seem to have greatly increased their commercial presence in the days since the assaults on New York and Washington. People are not panicking, for the most part, but they are feeling helpless, frightened and incurably-or so they may think-sad. The general public is getting an idea of what clinically depressed people go through all the time.
As a result, the taking of medication to treat depression is likely to become even more widely accepted than it is, and people who have scoffed at the notion of depression as an illness, and a potentially debilitating one, will probably have second thoughts.
Many lines in George W. Bush’s speech to Congress and the nation commanded attention. A very simple declarative statement kind of leaped out at me when I heard Bush say it:
“We will rebuild New York City.”
Why did that one hit me so hard? Because it is the kind of remark you never thought you will hear for real-another unthinkable thing that now has to be thought, another bit of science fiction that has become shocking fact.
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Everyone watched, and nearly everyone is still watching, and of those people, many have probably settled on preferred alternatives to watching coverage when you just have to take a break from the horror and the heartbreak of it all.
What I found myself doing one night was this: I got out my DVD set of the three “Flash Gordon” serials that Universal made in the ’30s, and I cued the last disc up to the last chapter of the last serial in the trilogy. Because in that episode, Ming the Merciless is destroyed at last.
As it happens, a rocket ship loaded with explosives is aimed at the tower control room in which Ming is trapped. Flash Gordon bails out of the rocket ship in, of course, the nick of time.
It may sound childish I know, but I wanted to see an evil leader punished, I wanted to see him destroyed and his evil destroyed with him. I think I watched that scene two or three times. Then I had to go back to television and its all-too-real world-and its evil villains still defiantly and maddeningly at large.