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Less Than Ground Zero 

Wednesday, Jan 2 2002
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“I declare the war is o-o-o-ver!” sang Phil Ochs three decades ago as a quixotic gesture intended to unilaterally end the Vietnam War. This time around the war has all but ended before protest singers could declare much of anything. Not that there haven‘t been protests. Just after New York marked its third month apres September 11, the Weekly covered an anti-war rally held across the street from Rockefeller Center and sponsored by the National Coalition for Peace and Justice. A generous estimate would have put the crowd at about 100 -- smaller than the coalition’s San Diego turnout 10 days after the World Trade Center was destroyed.

The oblivious Christmas shoppers and ice skaters across the street made the Manhattan action seem sadly irrelevant. Listening to religious and labor speakers fighting to be heard over their own noisy generator, one got a sense of how lonely it must have been for the first people protesting nuclear weapons or the fate of the Rosenbergs. Lonelier, probably, because at least those bygone protests received news coverage -- the Rockefeller Center demonstration didn‘t get a drop of ink anywhere. (“Julius & Ethel: Still Guilty,” the Post instead assured New Yorkers in a moment of holiday nostalgia.)

At the same time, cleanup crews had completely transformed Ground Zero into a vast emptiness that more resembled a new construction site than the scene of the nation’s worst human disaster since slavery. Yet the more evidence the cranes and scoopers remove of the tragedy, the more people pour into lower Manhattan to bear witness to September‘s devastation. The spectator surge has become so great that viewing platforms have been erected for visitors, and one group of victims’ family members is demanding that some of the structural debris be preserved for future study. America, too, faces a kind of diminishing ground zero, one in which news of war and retribution recedes into consumerist white noise and a denuded Bill of Rights, though no one is clamoring for a close-up view of this particular wasteland.

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It‘s the Wars That Got Small

Speaking of wastelands, the face of television news seems to shrink every day. During the time Phil Ochs was protesting Vietnam, TV viewers would sit eyeball-to-eyeball with Walter Cronkite and then watch some sanguine footage from Southeast Asia. Today, we are lucky if we can even find the news anchor who’s speaking to us amid the exploding confetti of images and numbers. (And forget combat footage -- now it‘s all about jarheads logging on to get their e-mail from home.) CNN’s Headline News got a facelift on August 7, in time to report on September 11 and its aftermath. In the new tube architecture a newsreader sits in the right-hand third of the screen, facing a somewhat smaller “data box” that is either a still photograph or video footage of the event being described. Below these run three tickers: late-breaking headlines (just in case we‘re not listening to Paula Zahn), stocks or sports, and weather.

“We began to look at how we could better serve Ted’s vision of what the news should be,” Teya Ryan, executive vice president and general manager of CNN Headline News, told the Weekly by phone from Atlanta. “We‘re not an in-depth news service. Our mandate is to give folks a snapshot of the news. Our audience is younger and used to using the Internet -- we’ve really been influenced by the computer screen.”

CNN got pummeled in the press for dumbing down the news when it introduced its changes, and continues to take heat for them. Ryan, who began her journalism career locally at the L.A. Free Press and, later, with public-television station KCET, feels the terror attacks vindicated her network, however: “We were the first in the business to do this and got a lot of criticism for it, but after September 11 all the others followed us.”

One thing is certain: Gone are the days when we‘d be deafened by Lynne Russell’s sparkling lipstick or chastened by Bernard Shaw‘s frown. In their place is news of Fargo’s rainfall and Microsoft‘s Nasdaq fluctuations. During Vietnam, to paraphrase Norma Desmond, we didn’t need tickers -- we had faces!

What‘s in a Name?

On the heels of Edmund Morris’ new biography and with the October arrival of the USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Sea, mainstream newspapers have been moved to rhapsodize about the aircraft carrier‘s namesake, a president whose imperial ambitions sent the Great White Fleet around the world advertising American naval prowess. Little has been said, however, of the two other men whose names adorn carriers in the same waters -- the John Stennis and the Carl Vinson -- men whose careers on Capitol Hill really put the white in Great White Fleet. Stennis was the courtly Mississippi senator and die-hard segregationist who, in 1954, co-authored the Southern Manifesto that vowed to reverse the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Stopping integration was only one of Stennis‘ crusades: The Fair Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society, bills abolishing the poll tax, increasing public housing and the minimum wage -- he fought them all. And while Carl Vinson is usually lauded as the father of the two-ocean navy instead of as a nativist Dixiecrat, the Georgian chairman of the House Armed Services Committee signed Stennis’ cri du sud, opposed integration efforts within the armed forces and fought the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Drew Pearson, in his 1968 book The Case Against Congress, described Vinson as “an autocrat who ran the committee as though it were his private feudal fief . . . He was a man who loved power and held it jealously.” Which, of course, is exactly what our fleet‘s body language is all about.

Dept. of Bandwagons

Dear Fellow American,

Like you, I am appalled by the recent terrorist attacks on our country.

The attacks of September 11, and the recent anthrax poisonings, were evil acts. Americans have faced these attacks as we’ve always met threats to our way of life: with our tradition of working together to help others.

And we can all be proud of the tremendous outpouring of support for the firefighters and police officers who seek to protect us, some of whom lost their lives trying to save others.

These caring men and women are our new heroes.

The above are the opening lines of a letter issued in late December by the Mineral Policy Center‘s president, Stephen D’Esposito. Its remaining three-and-three-quarters pages attack the U.S. mining industry, appeal for new members and make a pitch for donations.

The Anthrax Legacy

Seen on Hollywood Boulevard: gas-mask bongs (er, we mean water pipes) in window displays at Ramodi‘s and Hollywood Tobacco Center. Also: signs on Forest Lawn Drive still directing delivery trucks bound for Warner Bros. studios to detour to inspection areas across the street.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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