If you’ve been keeping tabs on your e-mail, perhaps you’ve gotten word of some disturbing questions the mass media haven’t addressed about the fallout from the recent terrorist attacks. Is it true, for instance, that Osama bin Laden profits directly from sales of gum arabic, a food additive? Or that radio DJs are forbidden to play more than 150 popular songs now? Or that employees of the National Council of Compensation Insurance are banned from displaying American flags? Or perhaps that 4000 Jews were warned in advance to stay home from their World Trade Center jobs on September 11?
Wrong, wrong, initially right but not anymore, and oh come on, respectively. These and around 20 other rumors about the attacks are addressed on Snopes.com, an urban-legends site that specializes in debunking practically anything attributed to a friend of a friend. Snopes currently has a special page devoted to attack-related legends and hearsay. Turns out that widely circulated editorial by a Canadian who wants to know why everyone keeps dogpiling on good-neighbor-to-the-world America was written by Gordon Sinclair back in 1973, when there was less incentive to dogpile.
There are more damaging rumors afoot, too. On September 13, Márcio A.V. Carvalho, a student at State University of Campinas in Brazil, sent a message to a mailing list saying that a teacher of his had seen CNN’s footage of Palestinians celebrating the attack in the streets and recognized it as recycled from a Gulf War-era broadcast. He noted the next day that the teacher had only thought the footage was recycled; others pointed out that it included posters of Bin Laden, then little known, and recent-model cars. But by then it was too late. The film was real, in fact, but plenty of people were willing to take it on faith that TV news routinely lies to them, and this time had merely been caught in the act. None of the excited forwarders of the “CNN hoax” that I’ve seen addressed why CNN would have deliberately lied in this case. They’re less shocked (or even inquisitive) than bitterly resigned, as if they’re simply expecting to be screwed by media forces beyond their control.
The same is true of the widespread rumor concerning Clear Channel Communications, the biggest American radio conglomerate (with well over 1100 U.S. radio stations). The word was that after the attack, higher-ups at Clear Channel distributed a list of about 150 songs banned from airplay—everything from “Walk Like an Egyptian” to “Peace Train” to “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” not to mention the entire catalog of Rage Against the Machine. “Clearly, Corporate Amerika does not believe in catharsis,” wrote one indignant friend above the copy she forwarded.
Corporate Amerika, as it turns out, doesn’t care much one way or the other about catharsis. A Clear Channel press release denied there was a ban; as The New York Times reported on the 19th, the list did originate within the company, but as a more or less casual suggestion on its internal e-mail network, not as a formal edict. And it doesn’t seem to have affected actual programming much, even on New York’s Clear Channel stations. Wayne Mayo, music director of WTJM (“Jammin’ 105”), says he never actually saw the list; the station didn’t play “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” or “Another One Bites the Dust” for a few days, but that was it. WLTW (“Lite FM”) program director Jim Ryan says he told DJs to use their common sense: “Do you play ‘Only the Good Die Young’? No! But the song was never banned, and we’re playing it again now, because it tests popular with our audience.”
The noteworthy thing about the Clear Channel list isn’t so much its curious inclusions and omissions (“What a Wonderful World” but not “Killing an Arab”?) as what its existence says about etiquette and art in a situation without precedent. Nobody has a clear sense of what’s appropriate right now, and they’re overcompensating. Sports announcers are trying to avoid military language—no blitzes or shotguns, no NASCAR war wagon. The New Yorker went without gag cartoons for a week. The gestures are well-intentioned in both cases, but counterproductive: Sports without the metaphor of conflict doesn’t leave much, and skipping punchlines doesn’t help. Likewise, the Clear Channel list proscribes whatever might serve as a reminder of reality: songs that allude to fire (“Disco Inferno”), flying (“Jet Airliner”), jumping (Van Halen’s “Jump,” but not the Pointer Sisters’ or Kriss Kross’s), Tuesdays (“Ruby Tuesday”), New York (“On Broadway”), absence (“Black Is Black”), death (“Mack the Knife”), and life going on (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”). Musical aggression is suspect—Alien Ant Farm’s growly cover of “Smooth Criminal” is on the list, but not Michael Jackson’s original. And left politics are out altogether, even in manifestations as blameless as the Youngbloods’ “Get Together.” Hence the blanket dismissal of RATM (they’re loud, too), and the bizarre presence of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
Strangely enough, “Imagine” isn’t just potentially inappropriate, it’s multifariously appropriate: Neil Young performed it on last Friday’s celebrity telethon, and at least one Midwestern station has been airing Lennon’s recording peppered with bits of Bush’s first post-attack speech. The electronic panic over the Clear Channel list shows the need Americans do have for catharsis—the need to experience art about fire and death and jumping and Tuesdays, especially now. It’s also a distraction from the real threat to liberty at hand. “Enter Sandman” and “Spirit in the Sky” grab people’s attention in a way that technical talk about wiretapping and search-and-seizure laws doesn’t. The idea of the government monitoring your e-mail somehow isn’t as immediately upsetting as the thought of Rage banned from the radio. The rights we may be about to lose are a lot subtler than the songs we never lost anyway.