A Quaker Perspective On Media Coverage Of The 9/11 Tragedy Anniversary
by Dana Kester-McCabe
Most people I know were intent on watching very little TV this September 11. Being somewhat of a contrarian, I decided that I would watch as much as possible of the coverage of this tragic anniversary. I wanted to see if there was something worth writing about that was not covered by the multitudes of pundits and media personalities. I also wondered how much my perspective as a Quaker would set me apart from the rest of the viewing audience. I started the day in prayer and from there I tried to be as objective as possible - in fact I tried to be down right analytical. I got ready for the day by writing some questions that would help me look for trends. I intended to take thorough notes on the things that I thought were interesting and I made special forms to track a number of things. I even tried to rate the level of my emotions through out the day. I probably peaked at 8:30 in the morning, though I nearly reached that level a number of times.
People wanted - in fact needed - to share what they had gone through. And, even amidst the overblown hype and instances of profiteering by corporations and politicians, the public by and large wanted the level of coverage that they got. If anyone wanted an opportunity to witness a sampling of the heroism and sacrifice that happened that day, they had ample chances. Anyone who did not want to see it simply turned the TV off. But according to Neilsen ratings, viewing numbers were up slightly for all channels on the evening of the memorials.
All of this has brought home to me that people were not driven only by some sort of morbid co-dependent empathy, but rather a sincere compassion and desire to unite with their community in healing. Sharing the stories helped. I had expected to spend my time documenting subtle but intentional anti-Arabic sentiments and pro-war provocation. Even on the most conservative channels I sampled this did not happen at the level I was worried about. The ability of the stories to connect us as people was impressive.
My only wish was that a broader spectrum of ethnicity had been portrayed. If you look at the statistics, there was a clear majority of middle aged - middle class white males who died. But this was a truly international tragedy. People of all walks of life from 26 countries died as a result of these attacks. It was important that we heard their stories too - but the moment has probably passed. It will be important to continue to seek out the stories of how this tragic event affects the way we treat each other - locally and globally. This includes both the positive acts of compassion and healing as well as the experiences of those who have already become the scapegoats.
The people who attended these ceremonies were allowed to make that connection their last communication with the victims in a way that was very real. In fact any memorial or legacy is just that: a communication. The people, who make these shrines, whether they are temporary arrangements of flowers, flags and photographs, or permanent edifices made of stone, are creating a lasting communication between the living and the dead; helping those lives to continue to speak beyond being one of over three thousand souls who suddenly were taken away uder such terrible circumstances.
It was also interesting to me, how the three crash sites provided distinctively different styles of commemoration. The scene in New York was extremely personal allowing for the broadest spectrum of participation by the loved ones, as they filed down a long ramp wearing flowers around their necks - donated by the state of Hawaii, to leave mementos at marble "circle of heroes." The site in Pennsylvania also allowed individuals to interact generously with each other, but it was much more subdued than the others. The music in both these places felt (to me anyway) to be very much a reflections of the feelings of the public. These included the mournful strains of "Amazing Grace" played on bagpipes through out the day and during the reading of the names a plaintive classical string quartet played a variety of selections. By contrast, the ceremony at the Pentagon was much more formal. The hymns and anthems performed there by a military band felt more like they were meant to inspire a stiff upper lip. I mean no disrespect in this characterization. But there was clearly a different cultural influence at work.
Acting with bravery during a crisis means that you have to have a faith great enough to act with out question. When the crisis has passed, faith into action should be easier, but it is often not. Given the time to worry, to compare, to make choices, we often hesitate. A year ago, I was in a news room reformatting wire copy and posting it on a local television news website, so that people in offices with out TVs would know what was going on. I know they relied on it because our site traffic was as high that day as during any weather emergency. I did not think specifically about my faith or God that day. In retrospect I know that it was my faith that kept me working with a minimum of tears and a strange absence of fear.
There was talk of faith through out the day of the anniversary, in very general terms. Only a few specifically religious ceremonies were covered; with invocations by Protestant or Catholic ministers. The only religious leader that I recognized was Reverend Desmond Tutu. I found his words and presence reassuring, given his work for truth and reconciliation in his homeland of South Africa. I am pretty sure the Pope also made a statement, but I cannot recall it. That evening PBS re-ran an edition of Frontline reflecting on changes in religious life in America since last year. The biggest surprise for me there was that a Lutheran minister had endured a lot of hate mail and a call for excommunication by his colleagues because he appeared and spoke at a 9/11 memorial with clergy of other religions. I guess have been na´ve in my impression that our country had the same attitude about religious toleration that I grew up with in the Religious Society of Friends.
I have to admit that I was so intent on watching the news coverage that I did not even think to turn to the only religious channel available on our cable service. Until I sat down to write this, it did not occur to me. I guess that in itself says something, though I am not sure what. I did not expect to find any particular religious point of view put forth. My intention was mostly to reflect on how the news coverage would affect me as a person of faith. And I also wondered how it might inspire me to be a better communicator.
I do not think being a Quaker made my reactions to the coverage too radically different, but I have no real way to prove that. I was disappointed that obvious and enlightening answers did not really present themselves in this endeavor. For all my efforts to be clear headed and objective, the emotions of the day still swept over me. I guess I do not feel bad about that. But, I wanted the day's work to count for something. Over the last year I have rededicated myself to working in this field with a higher level of integrity. Maybe that is enough. I also have a sense that my urge to write this is really a leading to call for the reflections of other communicators on this topic. I am not sure I have put forth any great insight. So dear readers, I present you the following queries and turn this over to you and the leadings of the spirit as they might inspire you:
offer additional perspectives relative to this anniversary.
Copyright 2002 - Dana Kester-McCabe - All rights reserved.
Published with the author's permission by
Faithful Witness - Journal of the Friends Media Project