Television and our world

According to the new introductory screen to MTV’s The Real World, shots of the World Trade Center towers were left unedited because, and I am paraphrasing here, they are a testament to the power and spirit of the great city of New York. My initial reaction, which confused me at the time, was one of annoyance.

I wasn’t quite sure why I was annoyed or whether I had any right to be, but the interruption of my otherwise innocent night of entertainment upset me in a way I wanted to investigate. In sitting down to watch The Real World, the thought of the effects of Sept. 11 on the show had not even crossed my mind. What I began to realize interested me. It was not the decision itself that interested me, but why the producers felt it was necessary that they had to make the decision and announcement in the first place.

The terrorist attack was for many young people the first event of real magnitude that has occurred in their lifetimes. While this has many implications, one of particular interest to me, was the confusion I felt following the attacks – how to act, how to proceed, and how to think about what had just happened. In times of trouble, like many other times, we often turn to the media to explore how we should react.

We take their attitudes and make them our own and in many ways they determine what we feel is “appropriate.” We look to movie and music reviews to help shape our opinions on entertainment, we ask for political analysis and debate to form our political views, and in turn, I look towards the media to see just how to react to these events.

What is undeniably fascinating, although an admittedly trivial matter in light of everything else is to observe the reaction of areas of the media whose primary function is not to inform but to entertain. It was this that captivated me about The Real World introduction. The Real World is not primarily a show about New York and certainly not a show on current events. Similarly, the premiere of Friends on NBC finished with a dedication to those who lost their lives in the attacks. Friends is a show almost solely for entertainment purposes and it seemed to me out of place, and again frustrating, that they had slipped in a reference to the attacks. I was struck by insignificant material alluding to such a serious event. I felt as if the attacks were trivialized through connections to otherwise irrelevant shows.

In retrospect, I think the fact that I was bothered about these references was a result of a certain kind of selfishness. Shows such as The Real World and Friends have become for many a manner of escape in light of current events, a way of forgetting the crisis for a moment of leisure and distraction. These references, then, served only to remind me of difficulties I sought to ignore by watching in the first place and I think my frustration resulted from my entirely self-driven want to remain ignorant, if only for a half hour. Yet I do not believe my desire to escape was a wrong kind of selfishness, but more a natural way of coping with events that we can’t possibly think about for 24 hours a day. To quote Frank Deford from the Sept. 24 issue of Sports Illustrated, “We should not be ashamed to be transported briefly from our sorrow and this mad encounter with evil.”

It has also been interesting to see how publications devoted to entertainment have reacted. There was a difficult choice of either completely ignoring the events or dealing with them in the context of their field. Sports Illustrated and ESPN: The Magazine both dealt admirably with the attacks and always in the context of their original focus of sports. Similarly, Entertainment Weekly asked if “Comedy Can Still Be Funny?,” bringing the attacks’ effect on entertainment to the forefront.

These horrors have presented great challenges to all of us in how to conduct our daily lives. My point, if I have one, is that this is not only a time to give, to help those in need, but also to be selfish. The events are a trial not only for the world, but also a challenge to our individual ability to cope with very emotional and volatile surroundings. Coping can entail escaping from what scares and troubles us through distraction, but also necessitates dealing with the events in our own contexts, on our own terms, as much of the media has done. I wasn’t directly affected by the attacks, thus trying to react like someone who was would be inappropriate to say the least.

The media reaction is, as always, helpful in guiding our feelings, but is equally useful in allowing us to see the scope and variety of what our feelings as a nation really are. To finish with Deford, who seems to capture the essence of America quite easily, “this is a land of diversity and just as we celebrate in different ways and worship in different ways, so too do we mourn in different ways.”