Test of the Fourth Estate

Facing Danger, Media Puts Self-Interest on Hold

Terror's next unsuspecting victim was celebrity gossip. Prized during peacetime as a harmless sweetener, gossip is now considered more like crack, a toxic substance that leaves readers jonesing for more. Thus, on September 12, Page Six was missing from the New York Post, and it has been relegated to the back pages ever since. Even editors who typically eschew gossip have grown wary of too much silliness or humor: The New Yorker ran only one cartoon in this week's issue, and on the front page of Sunday's Times, the editors apologized for any article or ad whose tone might be "inconsistent with the gravity of the news." (Certain sections had gone to press before the attack.)

Finally, fans of Dave Eggers, beware: NYU professor Mark Crispin Miller is already predicting that the onset of war may signal the end of the age of irony, which he calls "a posture that just won't work . . . in a world where everyone's survival is at risk."

Let's not make too much of this paradigm shift: We still need gossips and satirists, if only as relief from the dire business at hand. But their influence will surely diminish as the heavy thinkers in the news industry are facing the test of their lives: identifying and punishing the culprits while honoring constitutional rights and the rule of law, admitting the difficult truth that U.S. foreign policy helped to bring about this disaster, and restraining the rabid voices that demand swift and bloody retaliation. In the meantime, as Giuliani has said, "The life of the city must go on."


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