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Mass media reconsiders what's acceptable in the new world order

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When hijacked planes collided with the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon on September 11, the impacts weren't felt just in the foundations and on the neighboring streets. The shock waves also traveled on the air, through printing presses and along modems and cable hook-ups, with tremors continuing to reverberate through the mass media. The terrorist attacks have caused some pop-culture products to undergo complete reversals. Light romantic comedies become grim reminders of a national tragedy. Thin, escapist adventures now evoke grave, ambiguous geopolitics. Works that speak directly to our most pressing issues get removed from circulation.

Only with great difficulty could you find a medium that's gone unscathed. Images of the World Trade Center are being removed from PlayStation games, the opening credits of television shows and even album jackets: Party Music by anti-materialist hip-hop band The Coup was intended to feature one of the towers exploding on its CD cover, although the image was changed before the cover went to press. An Athens-based electro-pop band called I Am The World Trade Center has renamed itself I Am The ...

The reactions of media companies can combine genuine sensitivity and charity with concern over the bottom line, and such calculations will continue if the nation enters prolonged military struggle. Film and television in particular have the greatest potential of transmitting images and information to the widest possible audience, and the stories we choose to tell or hide from ourselves will reveal much about our national priorities and what we're willing to face.

On TV, they have, very literally, commercial interests. There's also a sense of terrible loss in the country, and I think the two things are coinciding, says David A. Cook, director of film studies for Emory University.

Since September 11, movie studios, radio stations, record labels and the like have been scrambling to reposition, reschedule and rethink films, television shows and music that might bring up bad memories. Some movies have been postponed for what could be called cosmetic reasons, like the comic romance with the untimely title Sidewalks of New York. Clear Channel, the nation's largest radio network, has been distributing to its affiliates a list of songs suggested as inappropriate for broadcast, from understandable ones such as She Dropped a Bomb on Me and Leaving on a Jet Plane, to more puzzling choices such as Walk Like an Egyptian, anything by Rage Against the Machine and New York, New York (which has been, in fact, one of the most highly requested songs nationwide since the attack).

With the nation stunned and the government going to a war footing, storylines with even glancingly similar subject matter are turning taboo. The caper comedy Big Trouble (which features bomb components on an airplane) and the Chris Rock spy spoof Bad Company are both being bumped to 2002. CBS' CIA drama The Agency has shelved its pilot episode, which included a reference to suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, while Friends is reshooting its October 11 episode, which featured zany hijinks at an airport.

Movies and television shows mean to take place in the here and now, but the erasure of the World Trade Center from already-shot movies like this week's comedy Zoolander feels like a reminder of a terrorist victory. Take the case of the teaser trailer for next summer's Spider-Man, in which bank robbers in a helicopter find themselves trapped in a web spun between the two towers. The trailer, as well as a movie poster including the towers, has been pulled, as if we now must pretend the World Trade Center never existed.

It's like Stalinists removing Trotsky from 10 Days That Shook The World, Emory's Cook says. But when people are bereaved, if you're in the company of someone who's had somebody die, often you don't want to remind them of their loss. Still, when the actual scenes of the plane crashes are playing again and again on TV, it's a complete contradiction.

Cook points out that the sensitivity of movie studios and television networks is motivated by profit as well as the public interest. They're both industries where people make a lot of money, but I think that the people who do the programming, who put things on the air, and the creative people in the film industry, have a sense of public responsibility. It goes hand-in-hand with not creating a product that has a negative valence.

On September 12, Warner Bros. announced, In light of yesterday's tragic events and out of respect for the victims and their families, the studio was delaying the October 5 release of the political action thriller Collateral Damage. The now-unscheduled film features Arnold Schwarzenegger as a fireman who seeks revenge when his family is killed in a bombing by (Colombian) terrorists. Also on hold are Jennifer Lopez's terrorist-themed Tick-Tock and Jackie Chan's comedy Nosebleed (involving a terrorist-thwarting window-washer on New York landmarks), while Law & Order has halted plans for next year's five-hour miniseries called Terror. The Broadway debut of Stephen Sondheim's musical Assassins has been cancelled, even though its exploration of what motivates political criminals speaks very directly to events in the headlines.

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