The Saturation Fallacy

As the 9/11 media coverage reached flood-tide level, something curious happened to the people responsible for that flood. The media class started turning sour on the anniversary coverage, suggesting it was overdone, exploitative, and verging on tasteless, a classic case of our business not knowing when enough is enough.

The backlash began over the summer, when journalists looking ahead to the big day could be heard grousing privately, in little diatribes full of dark self-loathing. I was at one August confab, a bunch of media types drinking after a day in the sun, when the talk turned to the dozens of 9/11 books that were about to hit bookstores. A huge embarrassment, everyone agreed, a shameless festival of opportunism and greed. One friend suggested I write a wicked column trashing certain beloved 9/11 figures, with the express goal of getting myself drummed out of the profession, which all of us should really abandon anyway now that it's gone so rotten.

I haven't seen anything quite that cynical in the news columns or on the air, but there are many signs of the trade's rising anxiety about whether it's given in to its own worst tendencies. "How much is too much?" asked the Associated Press in a TV-industry story a few weeks ago. "Network executives are asking that, torn between the need to mark the searing event and a concern that viewers will resent them for overkill." The phrase "saturation coverage" has been uttered more than once on the hack chat shows in recent weeks., a popular Web site for journalists, has been conducting an online survey on the state of the news media since 9/11, and one of the questions is, "Do you feel audiences are saturated with September 11 material?" As of this week, several hundred newsies had responded, a majority leaning toward yes.

The British press, which leaps on any opportunity to feel superior, has been having a field day at our expense, in some cases taunting us for caving to jingoism. "For America's print and broadcast media, the next 10 days will be far from ordinary," reported The Independent newspaper of London. "Whether out of a sense of civic responsibility or a simple rivalry, editors and controllers will swamp the land with coverage marking the terror strikes of a year ago. Or is the motivation different? Will every network, newspaper, and weekly magazine bulk up with commemorative pieces because no one has the courage not to? The remembrance of 11 September, the date of the catastrophe, is an exercise in flag-waving. Play this down and the cry will go out that you are failing in your patriotic duty." An American academic was duly quoted on the horror of it all.

Skepticism isn't just a personality quirk of journalists; it's a core value, the wellspring of all our best work. But there's smart skepticism and dumb skepticism, and as we near the fateful date, let's try to keep them straight. In one sense, we media people have an unusually clear understanding of the coverage—it's our stuff, after all—and are uniquely qualified to condemn it. We know all too well the motivations, including competitive and monetary ones, that lie just beneath the surface of everything we do. Let's face it, for us, 9/11 is more than a historic event. It's one of those rare, world-changing stories that can make a career—a potential source of rich prizes, book and movie contracts, and all the other goodies that add up to media fame and fortune. In short, it's a professional opportunity. This crass reality is no secret, but we're more aware of it than most people, because we live with it every day. And it colors how we view our own work. When hundreds of people are crawling over each other to sell their 9/11 product, as they are now, a little jaundice is healthy.

But just a little. The problem with much of the 9/11 queasiness is that it's based on a false model. I refer to the O.J.-JonBenet-Princess Diana Theorem, which says that the greater the mass appeal of a story, the more likely it is that journalists will cover it to excess. A corollary holds that all such stories inevitably become larger than they deserved to be.

This model holds up pretty well when you're talking O.J. and JonBenet, but 9/11 is an entirely different kind of story. Some news events are so enormous, so rich in authentic human significance, that it's actually not possible to exhaust them. They include all the great wars and revolutions, some natural disasters, and a handful of other events in which good and evil seem to be vying in various guises, with the fate of huge numbers of people, even entire civilizations, hanging on the outcome. Why, after all these years, do people still snap up books and watch movies about the Civil War and the Holocaust? A first-class story always remains a first-class story, no matter how many times you come back to it.

Of course, a great story doesn't guarantee great treatment. But for every bit of 9/11 nonsense, for every instance of mawkish, over-the-top exploitation, there's a countervailing case. I say bring it all on, and let the good stuff, of which there's plenty, prevail. It always does. Just a year ago, everyone seemed to believe-to know-that the whole media business was sliding into some dark pit of entertainment-obsessed frivolity, a new and virulent kind of nihilism. One night this week, I spent an hour poring over the new 9/11 articles and pictures in Vanity Fair and Vogue. Need I say more?