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The Metamorphosis

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Indeed, shortly before the attacks, Time's former editor Walter Isaacson, regarded as one of the geniuses of the soft-news revolution ("Too Much Homework!" was one of the famous Walter-era cover stories at Time), had been sent in to soft-news-ify CNN, the faded rose of the news business.

But in an instant, CNN went from anachronism to dramatic center of the world; Isaacson himself from news packager to World's Most Important Journalist; Paula Zahn, the new morning anchor, from perky blonde (in an effort to change CNN's dour face, Isaacson had stolen her from Fox just days before September 11) to serious person. The CNN green room became one of the ground-zero-plus places in America. From when Zahn started at 7 a.m. to when Aaron Brown, another of Isaacson's sudden phenomena, signed off at 11 p.m., everybody who was anybody in post-September 11 America could be found having a Danish there.

There were, however, students of change, of consciousness overhaul, of Zeitgeist revolution, who were saying that the change had begun quite a bit before the 11th. The technological revolution was over; the stock market was no longer the ne plus ultra of American life; then, too, there was a new president. The stage was set for a big new thing. In fact, if September 11 had happened in, say, 1998, the change might well have been significantly different (maybe the same war, but spun differently -- who would have wanted to exchange the greatest peacetime expansion in history for war?).

A subset of this argument is that there are two changes at work now -- war and recession -- and that they are struggling against each other for dominance.

The recession, we know now, began last March. September 11, of course, deepened it. And undoubtedly the president's talk of a generation of war further depressed consumer confidence, the nation's most powerful economic motivator.

Then again, if the economy was going to hell anyway, were a nation at war and a changed consciousness a plausible cover for it?

The media juggled a similar bad-news-good-news trade-off. It was the worst advertising climate in ten years, but coverage of the attack and of the war helped obscure this. At Time and Newsweek, circulation was through the roof. At CNN, the war had evened the fight against Fox. On the other hand, there was the possibility that, just as the president's war talk was depressing consumer confidence, the media's war talk was further depressing advertising confidence.

The news magazines, having turned themselves into aging-boomer, soft-focus magazines during the nineties, were now, in a kind of bait-and-switch, giving advertisers magazines full of terror and carnage -- not a hospitable consumer environment.

War, in a revision of economic laws, was bad for the economy. Peace and self-centeredness were good. But there was the sense, on the part of the deficit-making president, and possibly on the part of wartime editors, too, that the change would be so large that it would overturn this economic rule -- or dwarf it.

A change in consciousness could even make lower consumer confidence a virtue ("You know that if those people whose family members died on September 11 could have them back for Christmas, the last thing on their minds would be a sweater or a tie," wrote Anna Quindlen in Newsweek).

In almost all respects, the change has left the Democrats out in the cold.

Between the president, the mayor of New York, the new wartime media, and the new American warriors -- Powell, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice -- the change simply left no room for anyone else.

On top of that, the Democrats were obviously too depressed and confounded by recent events to rouse themselves.

Their only hope was that they would wake up one day and the change would have, well, changed back.

Given the options, this was probably a fair strategy.

The last thing to change might well be the shortness of our attention span, which means that before the change was complete, we might well forget that we were changing and revert to who we were before the change.

"Americans are going to lose interest in the war," a Democratic operative of my acquaintance recently told me. "Most Americans don't live in New York or Washington, and most Americans don't read newspapers or even listen to the news. So to what extent have they really changed?"

This is the game that I find myself playing with other journalists and with political types:

Where are we on the change-o-meter -- from the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand to the Depression to Pearl Harbor to Sputnik to the assassination of JFK to the opec oil embargo to the advent of the PC?

How sweeping? How profound? How ineradicable will the September 11 change be? How different will our lives become?

What if there are no more attacks?

What if there is another? (Then who gets blamed?)

I tend to favor the safe bet -- not that we haven't changed, but that this is the false change. The real change lies in wait for a while. It teases you, but it doesn't reveal itself. Until it's everywhere. And it never, ever, is what you thought it would be.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com


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