Monday, September 12, 2011

On anniversaries, in the media and in our lives

(Originally I posted this to my collective departmental blog, but it's more appropriate on a site that I take full responsibility for myself, I think.)

Like many of you, I've paid close attention to some of the media retrospectives on the ten year anniversary of the tragedy of September 11, 2001, and I've intentionally ignored others. I've managed to avoid seeing those film clips of the twin towers falling again, but somehow I keep hearing replays of the aftermath sound bites from then-President George W. Bush. I listened to a bit of the NPR coverage this Sunday morning, and skimmed most of a New York Review of Books essay, but I declined to take a free copy of my hometown Wisconsin State Journal, with its commemorative cover page. For me, I guess, 9/11 is less something that happened ten years ago, and more something that is still happening today — in the form of an economic crisis across the globe, two frustratingly complicated wars that have yet to end, and ongoing news reports, almost weekly, of anti-Islam, or anti-Middle Eastern, or anti-Arab, or anti-anybody-who-looks-like-my-Hollywood-movie-idea-of-a-terrorist prejudice here in the US.

We all personalize such global media events, I think. (And I mean no disrespect in calling 9/11 and its ongoing aftermath a "global media event" — after all, terrorism is by definition meant to grab headlines, soundbites, and video clips, in order to inspire fear and provoke a response; wars against terrorism, whether noble, misguided, or both, are inevitably waged with marketing campaigns alongside, and seem to wind down only when public-opinion polls turn negative.) This anniversary is all the more difficult for me because, like many of my friends at UW-Madison, it is also the tenth anniversary of my first semester on campus as a teacher and researcher. September 2001 was the first month of my first "real" faculty job, in the new career in public service education that I had chosen several years earlier (and not without a great amount of anxiety) over the private corporate ladder.

The academic decisions that I made in the hours, days, weeks, and years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks — with much assistance, advice, and inspiration from my colleagues — still stay with me. Do we continue teaching courses on the day of the disaster? (We did, but we allowed students to go home to be with friends and family.) Do we work these events into our syllabi that semester, even in courses without a direct connection to the topic? (Absolutely, though hopefully we did so without dogma and prejudice.) Do we return to the event each year or do we let it fade from memory? (We keep it alive, though with each new class comes the realization that our students were younger and younger on that horrible day.)

The events before, during, and after September 11 became a regular part of my syllabus for "Introduction to mass communication," in a series of lectures and readings that slowly morphed from "Media responses to tragedy" to "Media engagement with war". The research project that I was working on for most of this period, an historical study of the human/machine practice of automated stenography, ended up being grounded by an introductory vignette of the ways that live television closed-captioners dealt with the non-stop news cycle on 9/11. And the final unit of my newest course, "The information society," now deals with the threat of "cyberwar" and the constantly-changing definitions of terror and justice in a world with both robotic Predator drones and crowdsourced Wikileaks archives.

It seems almost inappropriate for me to use this forum to call on my friends and colleagues to remember this day, to honor those who were lost, and respect those who continue to work for a better, more peaceful world ten years later. Other leaders, activists, and writers will call on us to remember these things with much more grace, authority, and power than I can. But maybe I can call on readers of this blog post to simply offer their own perspectives on how that day ten years ago ended up changing their work as academics — or their work as students — and how it again may inspire us to change our curriculum and our university for the better. We still need such ideas, more than ever.


  1. Anonymous1:13 PM

    I would challenge you on the almost weekly anti-Islam/Muslim response from the American public. As noted in a Washington Post editorial this weekend, our national response has been fairly mute, if not outwardly positive. No Korematsu-like decision from the Supreme Court, rioting or lynching, no legislation noted for particular anti-Arab discrimination. TSA treats grandmas and Arabs alike.

    You may point to Mosque controversies, but they're limited, so far from the view of ordinary Americans, lasting a mere set of weeks within the 10 year span since 9/11.

    I would encourage you to be more optimistic about the American people and their response. This is not to say we are without fault. It's to say the 9/11 response by ordinary Americans is amazing, given our history and that of nations around the world.

  2. Dear Anonymous, thanks for reading and for leaving a comment. You're correct, I was being loose with the term "weekly"; I don't have an accurate count of such reports across the nation over the last decade, though I've followed the waxing and waning of news features on such issues over that time in order to make sure to treat this issue seriously in my courses. Many good articles on both the positives and negatives of our national response after 9/11 can be found at the New York Times "topics" archive here: []

    But I don't think "Mosque controversies" that remain both national and local news for weeks and months can be categorized as "limited"; neither were the controversies over the Danish cartoons a few years back (which hit ground particularly on this campus with one of the student newspapers), or the bizarre accusations that our current President had forged his birth certificate to hide his true nationality or religion. Even now, it appears to me that several of the Republican candidates for presidential nomination regularly and strategically bring these issues forth in their campaigns, and sitting legislators hold hearings on Islam as a special threat to the nation.

    Discrimination happens not just in street protests or on cable news talk shows, but all through our social world -- especially in the site where we spend so much of our time and energy, the workplace: "At a time of growing tensions involving Muslims in the United States, a record number of Muslim workers are complaining of employment discrimination, from co-workers calling them 'terrorist' or 'Osama' to employers barring them from wearing head scarves or taking prayer breaks. Such complaints were increasing even before frictions erupted over the planned Islamic center in Lower Manhattan, with Muslim workers filing a record 803 such claims in the year ended Sept. 30, 2009. That was up 20 percent from the previous year and up nearly 60 percent from 2005, according to federal data." []

    More pessimism, right? Actually, I am quite optimistic about the future; however, at the same time, that optimism doesn't mean that I am willing to gloss over our failures in the recent past or present (and for full disclosure, I think our war in Iraq, and the human toll that it continues to take for soldiers and civilians alike, counts as the largest of these). I think it's possible for us to be both congratulatory and critical of ourselves at the same time. The complicated nature of our global society demands more than a simple "for us or against us" response.

    I think my greatest source of optimism comes from reports like this one: "A decade after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a Gallup poll released Tuesday found that the vast majority of Muslim Americans say they are loyal to the United States and optimistic about the future, even though they are more likely than other religious groups to say they recently experienced discrimination." []

  3. Anonymous7:19 PM

    This is exactly the sort of 9/11 response I would expect from someone who has neither expertise as a professional journalist, nor a journalism degree.

    Yes. Yes, ignore coverage. What a great lesson for our future reporters.

    I am beyond exasperated that you "lead" my J-School.

  4. Dear Anonymous #2, thanks for reading and for leaving a comment. I'm disappointed that someone would be exasperated with me for my honesty in revealing that I did not consider every single bit of the 9/11 anniversary coverage as material that I wanted to spend my time consuming -- quite honestly, I think much of it was sensationalized to grab page views or to sell special issues, without significantly adding to my understanding of the issue, ten years along. (Others may feel differently about any given piece, and that's fine.) But let me make clear, since you have questioned my integrity and qualifications, that I have spent, and continue to spend, a great deal of time reading news reports both past and present on all of the issues that I research, teach, and write about in the course of my academic work -- including war, terrorism, discrimination, and our societal responses to these. And while I am not a professional journalist -- nor do I claim to be -- I have in fact authored and edited several books which I take quite seriously as contributions to knowledge production and public debate. This work has been peer reviewed by experts and is published under my own name, for all readers to judge just as I might judge the value of any given news report. So I don't think I have anything to apologize to you for.

  5. Katy Culver8:44 PM

    Greg, I was with our first anonymous commenter that "weekly" was ill-advised, but I agree that only through recognizing and owning our failings do we move on to do better as a society (to wit: in CBS interviews during election 2008, both vice presidential candidates were asked to name Supreme Court decisions that were regrettable and *neither* mentioned Dred Scott or Korematsu).
    But I am posting to reply to the second anonymous comment (and by the way, were I ever posting something this critical to your or any other blog, I'd own it and not be anonymous).
    As someone who did work as a reporter and editor, interacts daily with working journalists and teaches every single undergraduate who wants to go into that world, I have been inspired, impressed and refreshed by your leadership. (If anyone wants to interpret this as sucking up, Greg does not decide my pay grade.)
    These are brutal times in journalism. Some of us are looking at young pairs of eyes and saying, "Now is when journalism needs you most" while others are saying to them, "Why would you go into a dying industry?"
    Those students -- who most decidedly want to make a contribution to their world by challenging institutions and generating new ideas -- need to look to the front of classroom and see someone who not only loves teaching, but also believes in the nobility of doing journalism well.
    I have watched you teach, and I have felt you support my own teaching. We share a bond of belief that great journalism can change lives for the good, and that great teaching can move journalism toward that noble goal.
    Willard Bleyer once said that the future of our nation's democracy depends upon the character of its newspapers. You would add a few more media platforms to that, as would I on my iPad, but I know you feel the same.
    As someone who knows your work and shares your students, I am beyond proud that you lead my J-School.