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Chump Changes 

Journalists are playing into the hands of George Bush when they unthinkingly insist that everything is different since Sept. 11

Wednesday, Jan 2 2002
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Some people imagine writing for a living as a blessed existence. What fool, they surmise, couldn't chat with a few sources, type awhile, then take the rest of the day off? But the actual task at hand -- contriving meaning from life's meaningless occurrences -- becomes brutal with time. Sitting before a blank screen, next to a pile of useless press releases, with a Rolodex of bland sources and a story due in four hours, is as good a lesson as any about the pointlessness of existence.

For this reason journalists create, and propagate, Universally Portentous Events. Remember El Niño? For a while during 1997, newspaper readers could be forgiven for believing that every event under the sun and rain was somehow related to that year's harsh winter. Next came Y2K. I recall how easy life seemed when concocting a lead merely meant typing, "As we near the cusp of a new millennium ... Looking back over the closing century ... As another thousand years unfold ...," or some such piffle. Next came the New Economy: It's hard to believe now, but there was once a day when, according to the daily news, every bozo with a Web site was about to change the world.

These catch-all news hooks subsided, were forgotten, and for the most part did only passing harm. But the current monument to journalistic leisure -- "How Americans Have Changed Since Sept. 11" -- is different: It has allowed newspaper reporters to become field agents for the Bush administration's project to set America back 100 years.

At first the story seemed a harmless, occasional palliative for uninspired reporters. (1) But week by week, the "Changes" story seemed to spin further out of control. Now, nearly four months after the New York and D.C. terrorist strikes, much journalistic enterprise seems linked to showing that people, society -- even wine connoisseurship, (2) for God's sake -- has forever changed since the suicide attacks. Newspapers, apparently sensing that they, too, must transform, have become creepily sentimental.

A couple of weeks ago a San Francisco Chronicle writer ventured out with a photographer to interview people in the small California towns of Confidence, Freedom, and Tranquillity to find out how they'd changed since Sept. 11. I'm not kidding. Last week the cover of the Chronicle's pink Sunday entertainment section promised to describe how our appreciation of the arts has changed. I couldn't look inside.

It's not just a problem in San Francisco's journalistic backwater. The trend has taken hold nationwide. A man named Justin Barrett Hill published an essay in the Denver Post last month titled "A Time to Mend: A new America emerges from the ashes." He explained how "we go from being able to boldly challenge the world through our daily tasks, to wondering what the point of those tasks really is: Does the lawn really need to be mowed?" Which raised another question: Why would a Denver resident mow his lawn in December?

USA Today now has a logoed feature section along the lines of the New York Times' "America Challenged" in which reporters fan out across the country to ask people how things are different for them since Sept. 11. Given that America is a vast country of 230 million people largely unaffected by the destruction of the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon, USA Today reporters have been subjected to scouring the hinterlands for nuggets such as this: "Elya Baskin of Woodland Hills, Calif. Baskin is a veteran character actor who was looking forward to steady work on The Agency, the new CBS drama about the CIA. The show's terrorism-focused pilot and early episodes were rewritten after the attacks, and much of Baskin's turn as a diplomat from Central Asia got cut."

A new age is upon us, no doubt.

The silliest aspect of this treacly trope shows up when journalists attempt to interpret otherwise non-noteworthy events through the lens of a nonexistent brave, new world.

Take, for instance, the incident two weeks ago when students at California State University at Sacramento heckled the Sacramento Bee's publisher for discussing civil liberties during a commencement address. This flap has sailed across the nation's news wires, and has received feature-length treatment in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and even on ABC's Nightline, which titled its segment, "War of Words: Why Is It So Hard to Hear Each Other Since September 11th?"

The real story at CSUS is far simpler: There has been no change. As a former student there, I can attest that Sac State is a fraternity-driven commuter school whose students have never had patience for discussing current events. Decades ago, as now, CSUS was a bastion of the narrowly focused.

"One student came in after class and demanded to know what right I had to give him a C on a paper," recalled one former CSUS instructor I spoke with after the heckling event, who gave history classes there 20 years ago. "I told him it was my superior understanding of the English language. He didn't take that well. He was jumping around like he wanted to punch me."

But the harm of this story goes beyond filling newspapers with silliness. It provides a rationale for implementing our president's right-wing agenda.

Many of these "Changes" articles contain some version of the phrase "before, overt patriotism was considered somehow tacky," as if the hostile, flag-waving misogynists who ply America's back roads suddenly have become icons of erudition. Another bit of bollocks: "We never will look at police officers and rescue personnel the same way. We also never again will look at our military in the same light. Such men and women help define the word 'hero' in America" (again, citing egregious offender USA Today). The idea, I imagine, is that Americans now believe we should go back to the days before Vietnam and the Knapp Commission, when we were a nation of apologists for military adventurism and police brutality.

The following "Changes" story also distorts reality to suit cynicism: The country was once riven by a contentious presidential vote; we now stand behind our leader. While it's true that Americans have allowed George W. Bush to grossly violate the public trust in numerous ways since Sept. 11, the idea that we've all become patsies seems overly pessimistic.

It's no accident that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are the most faithful propagators of the "Changes" theme, intoning whenever they can that America will never be the same. They and their wealthy right-wing backers have always believed America should transform, and become the sort of country that existed 100 years ago, before we actually did change in myriad, profound ways. This has been George W. Bush's agenda from the moment he entered government.

Most of the last century was distinguished by events that provoked profound shifts in our national sensibilities, much to the consternation of wealthy conservatives.

The turn-of-the-19th-century corporate scandals and the muckraking journalism that followed inspired a permanent, widespread suspicion toward corporate behemoths. The Great Depression forged a national consensus about government's responsibility to care for the poor, aged, and infirm. The civil rights movement transformed the way the state was permitted to treat racial minorities. In Vietnam, Chile, Guatemala, and El Salvador, we found that putting blind faith in our armed forces can turn us into a nation of savages. After Watergate we learned to be suspicious of secretive politicians. And after the Watts riots, the Knapp Commission hearings, and Rodney King's televised beating, we concluded, as a people, that criminal justice must be exposed to public scrutiny.

The news business and our president have created an untoward synergy, each helping the other fulfill unrelated needs. But the "Changes" story won't suit journalists in the end. The Bush administration's goals of a more secretive government and a less closely supervised justice system will leave the Fourth Estate out in the cold. America at large, which invested a century in forging changes for the better, has even more to lose.

So if, as you walk to the store next week, you're approached by a desperate man holding a notebook, and he says, "Pardon me, I'm a reporter. Do you mind if I ask you some questions about how you've changed since Sept. 11?" be pleasant, but firm.

"I haven't changed at all," you'll say.


1 "Dawn of a New Day," Matt Smith, SF Weekly, Sept. 26, 2001.

(2) "After Sept. 11, a return to the world of wine," Jerry Shriver, USA Today, Dec. 21, 2001.

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Matt Smith

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