Guest Commentary: TV searching for its voice after the attacks

Oct 1, 2001  •  Post A Comment

I’ve been reading that the Sept. 11 catastrophe spells the end of irony on TV.
Sounds good. I have no idea what it means.
Does it mean that David Letterman will forever feel our pain and turn into a late-night imitation of Oprah Winfrey for the remainder of his career? And if he did, wouldn’t that be ironic anyway?
Journalists habitually work the short end of the temporal scale, which leads to emphatic pronouncements with short shelf lives.
For three weeks, we’ve tried to identify ways that Sept. 11 changed everything for all time. Or at least until November or December.
We’ve declared that Americans lost their innocence along with their irony, which also could be seen as ironic. In my own journalistic niche, television criticism, we’re speculating that Americans will only want to see this kind of show or that kind of show. Whatever this and that are, they won’t be what they were on Sept. 10.
My own suspicion is that what died on Sept. 11 are, sadly, the dead themselves. Anything else is in live motion and could eventually settle anywhere, including its place of origin.
I’ve changed seven or eight times since Sept. 11. First I couldn’t get enough of the news, then I felt I had to escape it. I didn’t want to be entertained. Then I needed to be entertained.
In the depth of my grief, I particularly didn’t want to watch bubble-headed Hollywood sycophants chirp and trill their way through celebrity puffery.
But then that scruffy wing of journalism has always seemed obscene to me.
We’re wondering, too, if the country is in the mood for “Survivor: Africa.” For the moment there’s been an eruption of comity and plain courtesy on American streets. Even in New York, or maybe especially in New York, strangers are greeting one another in passing. It doesn’t seem to square with the conniving and backbiting we’ve adored on “Survivor.”
I don’t know what this means for “Survivor” or for the “reality” genre in general. I do know that it’s odder than ever to call these shows reality and that NBC’s “Lost” is unlikely to drop its next batch of clueless contestants into Afghanistan. Mongolia was creepy enough.
I hope the Sept. 11 attacks do kill one aspect of television, and that is ostrichism. It’s too dangerous for Americans to be blithely ignorant of the rest of the world, a trait that the broadcast news divisions have kowtowed to and helped perpetuate. We’ve been like the star high school quarterback who’s so busy preening that he doesn’t notice how much the nerds in chemistry lab resent him.
Led by NBC, the networks have closed foreign bureaus and whittled international news from the airwaves because viewers didn’t want to watch it. But the news was always there: poverty, repression, revolution, resentment, envy, cultural clash, fanaticism-much of it involving, one way or another, the world’s sole superpower. You and I.
I’m not certain whether forewarned, in this case, would have translated into forearmed. But it’s a possibility, and for that our media have to accept the blame along with our educators, our political leadership and, well, ourselves. It’s all right to be fat and happy, but there’s no excuse for dumb. It would be strange if it took a benighted network of hateful, myopic terrorists to waken us from our own provincialism.
Strange, but not the least bit ironic.
John Carman is the TV columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.