Therapeutic Patriotism and Beyond

By Pat Aufderheide

I was attending the Toronto International Film Festival when the September 11 attacks occurred. The crowd of filmmakers and film buyers, including many New Yorkers whose offices were in lower Manhattan, was just as attracted and appalled as anyone else. Our professionalism was overwashed with the shock of the unthinkable. And also perhaps a touch of guilt, for our moviegoers’ awe at the spectacularity of it.

The festival had posted large television screens in key rooms, to showcase press conferences and panels; they were all turned over to the news of the moment. But on what channel? There was a profusion of choice of local and national channels, but furthermore Toronto is close to the U.S. border, and picks up U.S. networks as well as Buffalo local television.

The international crowd regularly reverted to its lowest common denominator, CNN, where throughout the day the same dreadful images—the second plane hitting the tower as if it were a model; the people running through the streets in a hideous echo of Independence Day; the towers imploding as if effortlessly, as if it were an exercise in digital imaging; the smoldering murk at the Pentagon—brought the same stunned, wide-eyed wonder. It was incomprehensible, unless it was a movie. Tentative conversations about the horror-movieness of it would begin, only to stall as people turned back to the spectacle, astonished again in rerun.

After the first few hours, the staff started switching the channel back to Canadian channels, and particularly the CBC. We were, after all, in Canada, they would point out in their genteel Canadian way. On the CBC, life was happening on the ground. In leisurely takes, sober reporters were interviewing sober officials, and gesturing to parked planes crowding the runways of Canadian airports. Those of us who were trying to get home in the U.S. kept sneaking back to the Buffalo reporters, who had news of the border crossing but more often were finding links in the story to Buffalo residents. Back at CNN, it seemed that the tragedy was on permanent loop. It was All Apocalypse, All the Time.

CNN rose above the contemptuous moniker it had earned, "Chicken News Network," with the Challenger space shuttle disaster. CNN had the only cameras at the launch (better-funded networks had better things to do), and so got the story and the viewers. It rode the spectacle-of-crisis strategy into legitimacy, although the ride proved bumpy (viewers who came for the spectacle of crisis often left when routine returned).

Along the way, it pointed other programmers to the fascinating pull disaster has. The Weather Channel, the very concept of which had struck critics’ funny bone at the outset, turned itself into The Natural Disaster Channel. People watched, it turned out, not to find out how the weather was or would be over by them, but how thrillingly bad it was somewhere else. Networks married the disaster concept to the game show concept and came up with Survivor and other stunt-reality shows.

And now here we were, in real time, in real life, only we were still watching a screen. This reality show was All Apocalypse, All the Time.

In the following days, U.S. networks assumed a public role of funeral director and mourning counselor for a nation that had, once again, had its innocence shattered. New York Mayor Rudoph Giuliani became the hero of the day for appearing several times a day on camera, often with the simple message that bad things had happened to good people, good people were helping, and we were still here. Television channels that ran and reran horrific images of the planes, the crashes, the towers collapsing now also ran interviews with experts on how to talk to your children about this crisis, and how to manage stress.

The disaster story from the front lines of apocalypse had become, by Day Three, a therapeutic one. It was about picking up the pieces. In that story, survivors and relatives, the immediate victims of the attacks, were featured and profiled. Their human faces of tragedy were connections to emotional expression for viewers groping to make meaning out of the extraordinary events, and the implied promise of victim-by-victim coverage—which had a voyeuristic pleasure in itself—was that empathic participation in grief and trauma was the road to recovery. The updates on blood drives, charities, and the celebrity telethon were tools to turn grief into action, to liberate the will to do something to help.

Television, an emotion-soaked medium and one that provides not only information but a gestalt, an access to experience, has become the primary public space in national American culture, for better and worse. Worldwide, television is the medium of choice for expressing cultural and political unity in crisis, to act as a reminder of What We Stand For. In the U.S. in this crisis, network newsmakers assumed a therapeutic role as grief counselor for the nation’s inner child, nurturing insecure viewers who had been stripped of their adult self-assurance by the shock of the attacks.

Journalists became icons of sentimental patriotism, resisting this role at their peril. Anchors wore flag lapel pins to express their solidarity not merely with the American government but with Americans feeling embattled and anxiety-ridden. The pins became gestures of reassurance, a reminder of Things We Stand For by caregivers to the social psyche. When The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer anchors refused to wear pins, arguing that reporters needed to maintain a distance from the government on which they reported, viewers called and wrote in to denounce them as unpatriotic. They should rather have denounced them for failing to be consoling enough. When CNN went to the logo, "America’s New War," initially with a day count that echoed Nightline’s approach to the hostage crisis in 1979, there was both critical and popular alarm at the phrase. On Fox News Channel’s "Fox News Watch," critic Jane Hall noted that the phrase might add to the bellicose climate, and further suggested that when Dan Rather openly said, "He’s my president," and vowed his support, he might have gone too far. Some viewers responded to the show with outrage. The alarmed response surely had at least as much to do with a perceived failure to nurture the viewer’s damaged self-assurance as with patriotism. It was a moment when the training of professional journalists to use skepticism in the service of accuracy clashed with the role of the only national mass media—the television networks—to provide emotional reassurance.

The concept of shattered innocence recurred in TV news coverage, to describe the shock of facing a minefield of unknowns in daily life. You saw it in the solemn pronouncements of announcers, and you saw it in interviews with the emotionally shellshocked. You saw it in focused reporting on children, now embodiments of innocence and hope betrayed. You saw it in the hastily whipped-together October 3, 2001 episode of the sitcom "West Wing," in which a teenager plaintively asks, "Why is everyone trying to kill us?"

Why, indeed? And why would we the citizens of the most open information society in the world be so baffled? A whole raft of dark new issues—Islamic fundamentalism, terrorist networks, biological warfare, diversified nuclear weaponry—suddenly seemed to fly into our range of vision just like the second airplane had on our TV sets.

Television news programmers are now faced with a set of hard choices, in a news environment that is newly unstable and also newly open to change. Therapeutic patriotism was the first response. The therapeutic approach presumes a model of healing, which reflects the realities of emotional stress and recovery. It can also excuse forgetting, and has in the past. Americans have their innocence shattered with astonishing frequency, and reconstruct it with remarkable swiftness. American innocence has been shattered, for instance, with the quiz show scandals, with the assassinations of public leaders, the Vietnam War, Iranian hostages, the Gulf War, the Oklahoma City bombing, with terrorism, computer hacking, and Y2K. And somehow it has been there to shatter again later.

This investment in our own innocence is a feature of deeply-held, widely shared, enduring values of American culture. Cultural historians and literary figures have noted among the myths of American culture the intertwined notions of American exceptionalism, a removal from the ordinary process of history, the ability to have a fresh start that wipes away the past, and anti-intellectualism that is paired with confidence in the practical and empirical. The assumption of American exceptionalism among other things exempts American citizens from perceiving the U.S. as a nation among nations, with a history of geopolitical relationships that are remembered elsewhere, and with ongoing diplomatic entanglements that preclude wiping the past away and having a fresh start. The reverence for the plain spokenly empirical makes it easy to discount the role of ideology in shaping anyone’s worldview, especially our own.

At crisis points, mass media do cultivate the national psyche, do reassure us that we are who we are. And then, next and later, comes the question of who we will become. Television journalists have a stake in that question, because in a national mass medium they are both responding to and agents of national self-images and values. The rupture of daily life with the September 11 attacks potentially offer an opportunity to consider the cost of willful ignorance and to apply both money and imagination to an enduringly patriotic cause: informing the American public.

Coverage of international affairs is surely a good place to begin, in a country where geography test scores are abysmal and isolationism a convenient fig leaf over ignorance. But the foundation to build on is small. Certainly, two decades of cost-cutting in the newsroom have eroded resources. Furthermore, public appetite for international news is historically low. Even most public television audiences, whose numbers are pretty small (about 2 percent of the U.S. viewing audience in an average week), probably missed the only extended background information on TV about Osama bin Laden and the regional politics that helped to create him, Frontline’s 1998 Hunting bin Laden or its 2000 Future of War. Fortunately, PBS affiliates were able to rerun these programs and other, related news analysis programs created in one of the most underfunded corners of an already underfunded public broadcasting system. They also provided, thanks to reruns of other specials, precious background on culture and religion, such as Islam: Empire of Faith. And finally, they provided, through their websites, banks of resources ( both therapeutic and informational. At the same time, producers of quality, social documentaries are the Don Quixotes of the television world, and even within public TV they only grudgingly get resources. After all, it is Antiques Roadshow and opera stars, not Frontline, that keep its viewers’dollars coming.

International coverage is also hobbled by a narrow definition of news, which focuses on events and conflict rather than on issues, beats, and relationships. Crisis not only is a narrow peephole but a distorting one; in this crisis, terrorism is the lens through which decades of U.S. geopolitics in the Middle East and the Islamic world are now viewed. Crisis also rips through routine coverage. Even on public television’s premier news show, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, which normally devotes about 30 percent of its airtime to international affairs, programs until September 28 were exclusively devoted to issues related to the September 11 attacks.

One scans the horizon for signs of corporate will to invest in change, and instead encounters the alarm of conglomerate parents of TV journalists’ news organizations at the loss of advertising revenue in the days after September 11. Journalists working for commercial media companies need time, money and imagination to experiment with the kind of reporting that gives viewers an understanding of large conflicts and issues in the world before they become the stuff of catastrophe. They need ways to bring other voices into their coverage, and to explain the implications and differing readings of U.S. government behavior. They need a relationship with viewers that permits them to introduce disturbing and conflicting perspectives.

The current loose association between the authority of TV network news and political authority certainly militates against the building of trustworthy relationships between viewers and journalists on television. It is an association boldly cultivated, before as well as after September 11, with computer-generated logos, brass trumpetry, red-white-and-blue color schemes, and portentous newsreaders, not to mention deference to official spokespeople, marginalizing of dissent, and adoption of official news agendas. The association has been useful while cutting costs and creative energy. But it forms an obstacle to the work of building relationships with viewers that can challenge their curiosity and conscience as well as tickle their self-regard.

The public culture of mainstream network TV is both a fact and a responsibility, one that until now has been worn lightly and occasionally by television executives. TV networks are only some of the communications networks operating in an interconnected world, but they are highly visible, widely shared platforms. Viewers who are alienated and suspicious of an officialist media now can participate in semi-private networks of information and misinformation on the Internet, via videocassette, and newsletters. Osama bin Laden’s own recruiting tape—it reassembles images taken from international news programs, to inspire his followers to commit hate crimes—is perhaps too extreme an example of alienation, but it is painfully relevant. Polarization between officialist and underground news is far too dangerous to tolerate, just as it is too dangerous to indulge in structured ignorance. But it will take real courage to change.


Pat Aufderheide is a Professor and the Director of the Center for Social Media in the School of Communication at American University, Washington, D.C.

Copyright © 2001 by the Author. All Rights Reserved.

In accordance with The Copyright Law of the United States of America, Chapter 1, § 108(b)(3), this work may be protected by copyright.

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