Yesterday morning, for the 9th year in a row, MSNBC re-aired its broadcast footage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Starting from the collision of the first plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 AM and ending with the collapse of that same tower, the rerun of this national tragedy–which started in 2006–is billed as a “Living History” broadcast.
Dan Abrams, then General Manager of MSNBC and now leader of Abrams Media (Mediaite, The Mary Sue, etc), faced much criticism for this programming decision. Gawker has called the tradition “PTSD-inducing” and many on Twitter dubbing it “death porn”.
Dan Abrams, for his part, has defended the decision. In 2011, during the 10th anniversary of the attacks, he wrote:
No one was forced to watch MSNBC coverage. I watched it for the fourth year in a row. Many others will have chosen to change the channel. But in a world where cable news is often consumed with internecine and sometimes invented squabbles, seeing one of the most important moments in American history as it aired, in real time, seems to be exactly what cable news can and should do best.
I, too, have made a small tradition of watching the coverage if I can. I’ve also spent time on Youtube watching news break of the JFK assassination, the death of John Lennon, and the Columbine shootings. These are monumental historical moments and, with the historical record so easily accessible, it’s an invaluable if difficult opportunity to even simulate the experience of having history unfold upon you.
In no time at all, you can relive any number of disasters, natural or otherwise. What separates this practice from listening to FDR’s speech shortly after the surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor? In fact, recreating the historical record is exactly what we call history. When we visit Gettysburg, for example, most of what we learn comes from very personal accounts of the deadliest battle in US history.
The passage of time plays a major role, as Abrams points out in his defense, but so does the graphic nature of the content. Footage of 9/11 is quite dramatic and shocking, but it’s not what we might call violent. Footage of people jumping from the towers is certainly more violent; the famous “Falling Man” photo being the most prescient example. In it’s recent write-up about the publishing history of the image, Motherboard cites the public outcry for the images notoriety:
Readers were incensed. Had the press no decency? Tasteless, crass, voyeuristic. From the Times to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, dailies pulled the image and were forced to go on the immediate defensive as they wiped the image from their online records. Don Delillo didn’t use the image on the cover of his 2006 novel Falling Man, though in 2007, the Times would run it on the front of the Book Review. But mostly the image hasn’t been seen in print since 2001. Drew has called it “the most famous photograph no one has seen.”
That said, there wasn’t a newspaper in the country (or in the world) that fretted over publishing more large-scale images of the tragedy. Fireballs rising from the towers or the antenna of the North Tower descending into smoke and debris were and remain very commonplace. Although troubling, they merely seem to represent the thousands of deaths occurring in that moment. They allow us to subconsciously pretend these events aren’t happening, that lives aren’t being quite literally crushed before us, while still experiencing the event from a safe distance. Seeing one person fall to their death, however, feels a bit too personal.
Distance, in fact, also seems to play a major image in how we observe such events. Newspapers will readily publish images of brutal violence abroad they would never run if that individual were from the United States. How many gruesome scenes of car bombing or tsunami victims have we seen plainly laid on the top fold of The Wall Street Journal?
Peter Maass for The Intercept:
It is a different thing when the victims are ours. When it comes to our own citizens, the consequences of war are preferably represented in elliptical ways that do not show torn flesh or faces of the newly dead. Instead, we see townspeople lining up and saluting as a hearse drives by, we hear the sound of taps at a funeral, we remember the flag as it was placed in a brave widow’s hands, or we see a wounded veteran with a handful of pills for PTSD.
When Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over the battlefields of eastern Ukraine, images from the scene were grisly and morbid. In response, cable TV news outlets blurred out the bodies of the passengers, even if that meant presenting no more an image than a formless cloud of pixelated grays and whites, giving viewers no more information than a picture of a cloudy sky.
Print and online media had no such restraint. Buzzfeed compiled the uncensored images for your viewing (with a click-to-view trigger warning). So did TIME.
So the moving (as opposed to still), personal image of death is the media’s limit, but is it ours? Liveleak has famously made an entire business out of having little to no censorship, meaning there exists a strong audience for brutally violent real world content. When video footage surfaced of events shortly before a 9-year-old girl kills an instructor with an Uzi in a gun range accident, many Redditors asked of the video “Soooo….where’s the Liveleak version?”
This hunger for “snuff” footage isn’t new to the Internet. In 1963, Many newspapers went with the now-famous photograph of Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation in protest of the persecution of Buddhist monks by the South Vietnamese government.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Shortly afterwards, the release of the Zapruder footage of JFK’s assassination would become the most recognizable piece of media surrounding that event, brain viscera and all.
Both images were very important to their respective stories. Thích Quảng Đức’s message was the brutality of his death; simply writing that a man burned himself in protest does not carry the power of his message like the iconic photo. The Zapruder film is possibly the most analyzed piece of media ever.
But the Internet’s insistence to spread graphic media–even the ones that represent no notable news or historical value–speaks to a core interest within the zeitgeist for images that have nothing to do with historical moments or messages of philosophy. Millennials like myself might remember being quietly introduced to Rotten.com, perhaps the most famous early aggregation of violent content online. In a 2001 profile of the site, Salon cited Rotten’s average daily traffic as 200,000 unique visitors–a tidy sum for that time.
As I remember it, Rotten was an endurance test. Kids scrolling through the site in a computer lab might as well have been having a staring contest. I still remember the image that made me swear off the site: A man’s face lying in the grass–sans the rest of his head–after being whipped off by a helicopter propeller.
Rotten’s founders see it differently, billing the website as a statement against censorship online:
We cannot dumb the Internet down to the level of playground. Rotten dot com serves as a beacon to demonstrate that censorship of the Internet is impractical, unethical, and wrong. To censor this site, it is necessary to censor medical texts, history texts, evidence rooms, courtrooms, art museums, libraries, and other sources of information vital to functioning of free society.
What drove us there? Is it any different than watching a massive terrorist attack unfold or bodies wash on shore after a hurricane? Why do we (a large number of us, anyway) actively seek out the grotesque ends of a story, newsworthy or not?
The question’s been bugging me since the release of two videos showing the beheading of American journalists James Foley and Steve Sotloff. Many sites, including Twitter, Youtube, and Liveleak have banned the videos or images from the videos.
Many applauded the move. Chris Taylor at Mashable wrote:
When we look at something so shocking it’s impossible to erase from our brains, we give power to the person who wants to gain the notoriety of having made you look. Every time you choose not to look, not to share a link, or to share another remembrance instead, you’re restoring a little bit of decency to the Internet and removing power from the perpetrator.
Peter Maass from earlier would disagree:
I wish we didn’t have to ask these questions — that there were no loathsome images to flash on our screens — and I wish we didn’t have a responsibility to look and think deeply. But we do, if the depravity of war is to be understood and, hopefully, dealt with.
It’s a difficult question to handle. Foley and Sotloff’s families had to deal with the fact that this was the how many Americans knew their sons:
Source: New York Post
Certainly there’s no need to subject them to more reminders of their sons’ gruesome demise.
At the same time, however, Maass makes a good point: Images can bring to life the harshness of the realities of war in a way text simply can’t, giving appropriate gravity to how we form our views. In the Dalton Trumbo novel Johnny Got His Gun, the severely maimed main character begs for the opportunity to be toured through every senate and parliament to show off his tortured existence as a sample of the realities of war:
Remember this. Remember this well you people who plan for war. Remember this you patriots you fierce ones you spawners of hate you inventors of slogans. Remember this as you have never remembered anything else in your lives.
Dragging the reality of war before the eyes of the public, however, can also have unintended consequences. When images and videos are as free as they are now–and social media often mutilating the truth into a slippery abstract–they risk being taken and abused for nefarious purposes. In her epic 2002 essay about war photography, Susan Sontag wrote in The New Yorker:
To the militant, identity is everything. And all photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions. During the fighting between Serbs and Croats at the beginning of the recent Balkan wars, the same photographs of children killed in the shelling of a village were passed around at both Serb and Croat propaganda briefings. Alter the caption: alter the use of these deaths.
Indeed, the image below spread around the Internet as a true photograph of a Syrian boy resting between the graves of both his parents, fatalities of that country’s ongoing civil war.
It was, in fact, the work of a Saudi photographer.
Source: Also Buzzfeed
What about images more immersive than simple 2-D video and photographs? Project Syria uses virtual reality to simulate for anyone the streets of Aleppo during a bombing raid or daily life in a refugee camp. Developed by documentarian Nonny de la Pena, the “experience” uses photographs, videos, and personal accounts of a single bombing from 2013 to as accurately as possible recreate the traumatic experience of war:
She invited to the World Economic Forum in Davos–where titans of industry and government meet to discuss such things as war and disasters–in a Trumbo-esque wish to have those in power witness the wars they choose. This is also not the first such experience de la Pena has created; she’s also recreated stories of hunger on the streets of LA and being a Gitmo prisoner.
If there is value in her experiences, why would anyone submit themselves to be traumatized? Images of beheadings or terrorist attacks already have a negative effect on our mind and health. In a UCI study from 2011, researchers found being subject to images of 9/11 did effect individual’s mindset and increased their overall stress (PDF) for the long term. A report published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found the same thing, with geographic distance to the event being inversely related.
If we follow de la Pena’s view, perhaps the emotional effect of the news is less a warning for news media (as the UCI study states) and more a warning for news consumers. The world is gory and depressing. If we blind ourselves to that, are we not whitewashing human existence?
Not every murder or horrible incident needs to be unveiled. There’s not much public benefit in actually watching a 9-year-old girl become an accidental murderer. But watching the towers fall on 9/11–or even the devastating view of people leaping to their deaths rather than facing the flames–may actually inspire the appropriate amount of woe and misery such an event should yield.
The common refrain that “9/11 changed everything” is often mocked as being another sign of the American blindness to world events. Many of us willingly see these things–for cathartic fascination, rubbernecking, or otherwise–but many more of us choose to abandon the world around us as simply too morbid. The realities of our complex civilization can easily be hidden if you’d like, but that can have devastating effects on us culturally.
The average news consumer is already far too geocentric; If publishing nauseatingly vicious photos actually drives a news story through the thick egos we all carry, then perhaps its more than snuff.
Then again, text can often accomplish the same thing a photo can. Despite the widespread censorship of the ISIS beheading videos, the story of them has had wider penetration among the American public than any other news story of the last five years. But was it not driven by the cover stories on websites and newspapers of James Foley dressed in orange, stood on an ethereal desert hillside with a literal masked villain waving a knife at him?
You should feel miserable about James Foley, Steve Sotloff, and Flight MH17. We should feel compelled to question a culture that encourages a small child to practice fire an Uzi. We should be as fully aware of the horrors wrought by colonialism and globalization as we can. We Americans especially should, at the very least, allow ourselves to bare slight witness to the atrocities our decadence pays for.
This does not mean we need to turn every crime blotter into Rotten or the backpages of 4chan. Nor does it mean we should be apologists to purposeful exhibitions of violence and gore, from crush videos to bumfighting. But if we want to be world citizens, if we want to actively feel compelled to question the morals of our leaders and the fortitude of our enemies, nothing can heighten our sensitivity like allowing ourselves to experience it, if even from the comfort of our safely-guarded homes.