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The impact of 9/11 on popular media

The impact of 9/11 on popular media

By Joshua Terry, Contributor | Posted - Sep. 12, 2011 at 12:30 p.m.

This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.

SALT LAKE CITY -- Anyone who watched the live broadcast of the terrorist attacks the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, understands why the tragedy will be forever tied to modern media.

In the 10 years since, the impact of 9/11 has reverberated through popular culture in ways both subtle and explicit. The following is an examination of how the tragedy has changed popular media.

1. The imagery of the twin towers

Prior to the attacks, the World Trade Center towers were iconic emblems of the New York City skyline. In the aftermath, their monolithic image has taken on much more substantial weight. Shortly after the attacks, the advertising campaign for the first “Spiderman” movie was altered for obvious reasons. Years later, the towers were included in haunting establishing shots of the FOX sci-fi series “Fringe” to illustrate an alternate universe storyline. Even the documentary “Man on Wire,” about an illegal high-wire act performed between the towers in the early 1970s, carries a peculiar sense of reverence for its location.

2. Talk show commentary

Many in the current generation are more likely to get news from satirical anchors like Jon Stewart or Steven Colbert than from more traditional network talking heads. So maybe it was appropriate that one of the most poignant comments after the attacks came from late-night veteran David Letterman, who delivered a somber monologue during his first broadcast following the tragedy. Taped in the heart of Manhattan, Letterman seemed to carry the heart of the city on his sleeve as he praised the efforts of local firefighters at Ground Zero and the fundraising efforts of a tiny town in Montana as evidence of the best of the American spirit.

3. Zenith of reality television

The 9/11 attacks didn’t give birth to the reality genre, and 9/11 wasn’t the first tragedy Americans watched on television. But in a decade where our popular culture became obsessed with the consumption of unscripted “real-life” programming featuring everyday, ordinary people, the coverage of 9/11 was particularly memorable.

Nicolas Cage, "World Trade Center"
Nicolas Cage, "World Trade Center"

4. New era of anti-war films

Conflicts like World War II and the Civil War have been the subject of countless films over the years, and the war in Vietnam almost single-handedly created the anti-war film sub-genre. Films like “United 93” and Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” celebrated the heroism of those called to action as a result of the tragedy. But aside from critical successes like “The Hurt Locker,” the anti-war films that came in response to the ensuing war in Iraq have failed to live up to the iconic standards of Vietnam epics like “The Deer Hunter” or “Apocalypse Now.”

5. Music of protest and patriotism

Similarly, American history has always been reflected in the music it inspired, whether it was through patriotic standards like “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Over There,” or even through the protest rock that came in reaction to the war in Vietnam. In the wake of 9/11, Toby Keith’s "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" captured the feelings of many Americans, and later on after the invasion of Iraq, the Dixie Chicks became the center of the protest firestorm with their criticism of President George W. Bush.

6. Jack Bauer becomes a household name

It’s hard to imagine how the television show “24” would have played out had it been released in the 1980s. Agent Jack Bauer might have had a tough time coming up with new ways to fight the Soviets season after season. But the persistent threat of international terrorism was a constant source of story opportunity in the post-9/11 era, and the real-time format of "24" made it a television benchmark for eight seasons.

7. New boogeyman for the silver screen

For decades, the go-to bad guys for American films were those crafty Cold War-era Russians. But whether it was Alan Arkin’s bumbling submarine crew in “The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming” or the invading paratroops of “Red Dawn,” the threat always had a home base, and we always knew we could strike back (just ask Slim Pickens). Post-9/11, the threat was faceless, and it was everywhere. Films like “Traitor” brought the boogeyman next door, and even the resurgence of zombie films in the past decade have nodded to the terror of a threat that moves like a disease before it attacks as an army.

8. The rise of Michael Moore

Names like Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush will always be tied to the events of 9/11. But few owe their presence in the public discussion to 9/11 more than filmmaker Michael Moore, whose accusatory documentary “Fahrenheit: 9/11” catapulted him into the public eye and represented a benchmark in the trend towards agenda-driven documentary filmmaking.

9. Airport scenes

There is perhaps no more persistent evidence of the impact of 9/11 than the experience American citizens encounter whenever they go to an airport. So in a world where security is airtight and terminals are only reserved for passengers, certain Hollywood clichés have had to adapt. In short, if Leading Man A has suddenly decided that Leading Woman B is the love of his life, he’d probably better catch her before she makes it through the baggage check. Because a romantic sprint through the terminal is probably not going to result in a happy ending.

10. The image of the firemen

While firemen have always enjoyed a positive image in popular culture, the heroism of New York’s firefighters helped to propel the profession front and center in the public consciousness. Whether it came through gritty cable television programs like “Rescue Me” or dramatic popcorn movies like “Ladder 49,” popular media began to pay a little closer attention to the guys running into the burning buildings while everyone else was running out.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at

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