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The Selling Of 9-11

Has it now become acceptable to make a profit on the nation's greatest tragedy?

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It has been six months since 9-11 and already we have had a formal anniversary. Stilted moments of silence, child poets, giant laser beams, and solemn speeches brought out the ghosts that have yet to be put to rest and never will so long as there is a profit to be made on their continued haunting.

HBO, Showtime, and FX have all announced plans to produce TV movies about the events, but on March 10th, CBS took the lead with a commercial-free special, 9/11. An important documentary to some and exploitative reality programming to others, the nearly uninterrupted two-hour broadcast of footage shot inside the World Trade Center provided an insider's view of the results of the terrorist attacks. Gaining an estimated third of the American viewing population, 9/11 was profitable but at the expense of many of the victims' families who felt the timing was inappropriate. Although they publicly voiced their concern, it did not change the network's decision to air the program.

CBS defended the program by explaining that no deaths were filmed and that the footage would be "respectful." Yet this is completely untrue; death is heard over and over and over again, as people jump or fall from the burning towers. CBS' ignorant justification shows just how visual our culture is. As we hear a woman screaming while she burns to death, narrator Jules Naudet explains: "The image was so terrible; I made a decision not to film it. It's not something anybody should see or want to see." Isn't it also a sound no one should want to hear? One can only imagine how the families of the victims felt as they listened to the constant sound of bodies slamming against the pavement.

Or maybe CBS is simply looking at the "larger picture." Speaking to reporters after an exclusive media screening, producer Susan Zirinsky said that it's important we don't forget there's a war going on. Her attitude, borrowed from John Ashcroft, suggests the true function of 9/11 may be getting America's jingoistic blood boiling rather than paying tribute to the heroism of the New York firemen, which is what we were led to believe by the public-service announcements and photographic tributes that supported the program.

Yet it is doubtful that the thousands of families who lost loved ones in September or more recently in Afghanistan need such a reminder. The flags may be coming down, but no one has forgotten what happened, because it is still happening. And now, as the Bush administration prepares to take its "anti-terror" campaign even farther, into Iraq especially, the media is playing a large role in not letting us forget what happened on 9-11.

When Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and murdered by the National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty (a terrorist group that claimed responsibility), it should have surprised no one that the footage of his execution ended up in the hands of career sensationalist Geraldo Rivera. In between February's Olympic events, he went on NBC to announce that he possessed said footage but would not air it because it would "inspire" terrorism. Not showing it out of respect for Pearl's family seemed an afterthought. However, like the producers of 9/11, he aired the next best thing: footage of an unidentified Filipino man's head being chopped off and rolling into the bushes -- the same fate Pearl suffered. While Geraldo has always been the Jerry Springer of the news world, such media propaganda and exploitation are rarely so overt, which is precisely the case with CBS' 9/11.

The special was sponsored by Nextel, and the public-service announcements that segmented the program tried so hard not to be commercials that they came off looking even worse. The photographic tributes to the fallen firefighters that aired at the end of the program looked cheap. Nextel most likely had good intentions, but the idea that major corporations are putting conscience over profit as a result of 9-11 is laughable at best.

Of course, Nextel is working to give an impression that it is the leader of a new trend in responsible practice (the company did donate countless phones to aid the rescue efforts of 9-11). Such a PR trend is nothing new. Before Enron became a universal symbol of corporate and political crime, established corporate slogans like Chevron's "People Do" and Nike's "Just Do It" had long provided ironic messages in the context of what these companies really "do" behind their warped humanitarian disguises.

There were no commercials during news coverage on 9-11, so why did CBS' 9/11 need Nextel's sponsorship? The reality is that just as 9-11 has been turned into a pretext for the U.S. government to do whatever it wants, it has been turned into a product by networks to make huge money. It is naive to think the expressed wishes of those whose lives were most affected by the events would matter in the face of a massive, ratings-generating media spectacle. As a remembrance, the two silent beams of light in New York City were far more tasteful than the shocking and disturbing footage and sounds of 9/11.

September 11th is simply not yet history for many people and still too present to be co-opted and sold back to the rest of us. Of course, the same argument can be made for apartheid, East Timor, the Holocaust, and countless other semirecent atrocities. There will always be conflict over when "now" is appropriate and to whom, but, in terms of 9/11, perhaps the families of the victims knew best.

Chris Fitzpatrick is features editor at PopMatters, where this column first appeared.


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