September 11 and the Newslore of Vengeance and Victimization
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September 11 and the Newslore of Vengeance and Victimization
The September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States inspired an outpouring
of electronic folklore. This "newslore" is of two types. The newslore of
vengeance consists of fantasies of annihilation or humiliation aimed at
Osama bin Laden or Afghanistan. The newslore of victimization expresses
bewilderment at the role of fate or chance in who lived and who died. This
article analyzes the newslore of September 11 as a "strategy of rebellion"
against the decorousness of the mainstream news media.
Key words: folklore and the mass media, urban legends, jokes, hoaxes, Netlore
September 11 and the Newslore of Vengeance and Victimization
The relationship between folklore and the news is symbiotic. Much
contemporary folklore is topical. That is, countless jokes and urban
legends take as their subject matter issues and events that came to the
public's attention through the news media. I propose to call such material
"newslore." Sometimes this material finds its way back into the news as a
pernicious, but false tale that journalists take upon themselves to debunk.
Even folklorists not named Jan Brunvand will get an occasional call from a
reporter seeking confirmation that warnings about Blue Star acid (DeFao
1995) or gas pump handles booby-trapped with AIDS-infected needles (Rivers
2000) or terrorists targeting shopping malls on Halloween (Bridges 2001)
are groundless. Sometimes, the journalists themselves are fooled and report
an urban legend as true. This article is about the newslore that responded
to news of the September 11 attacks.
The data jokes, warnings and digitally altered photographs first
came to my attention via e-mail from friends, family, colleagues and
students. Then, when I began to take an active interest in collecting more
of it, I found troves on the World Wide Web, but scant coverage of it in
the mainstream press, presumably because it was deemed tasteless or
obscene. In his article on the riddle-jokes that circulated after the space
shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, Elliott Oring (1987) argued that the
"unspeakability" of the Challenger jokes was, on some level, deliberate: To
the extent that they were a "strategy of rebellion" against slick media
packaging of disaster, making them unspeakable according to the news
media's canons of good taste effectively barred the news media from
appropriating them. I intend to analyze the September 11 newslore in
accordance with Oring's unspeakability hypothesis. By contrasting the
newslore with those expressions of rage and dismay that were deemed fit for
public consumption, I will show how newslore functions as a an alternative
"discourse on disaster."
Oring (1987:279) contends that jokes have both base and performance
meanings. The base meaning "proceeds from a close and critical analysis of
the structure, plot and content of the joke texts." The performance meaning
emerges from an analysis of the "cultural, social, or psychological
environments in which [the jokes] are told." He chides those who would
interpret jokes "without any reference to individual human beings," but his
own interpretations rely wholly on his observant participation in the mass
media audience and not at all on any observation of or interaction with any
actual tellers of the jokes. While I, too, intend to examine the base and
performance meanings of the September 11 newslore without recourse to the
anonymous crafters or senders of the material I found on the Internet or in
my e-mail inbox, I do think it's important to ground the act of
interpretation in something other than one's own speculations. By going to
newspaper reaction stories from the fall 2001, I hope to show that the
attitudes that I believe are embedded in the newslore have their
ethnographic correlatives in the comments elicited by reporters. At the
same time, I would like to call attention to the limits that newspapers'
adherence to the canons of good taste impose on the coverage of those
First, though I will review the arguments for considering certain kinds of
"computer-mediated communication" or "CMC" (Fernback 2002) as folklore, and
present the similarities between the Challenger jokes and the newslore of
September 11 in making a case for the applicability of Oring's discussion
to the present one. The newslore itself I have split into two categories
that I call the folklore of vengeance and the folklore of victimization.
The folklore of vengeance seems to manifest itself as a desire to either
destroy or humiliate those responsible for the attacks. Accordingly, I have
further divided the material into the folklore of annihilation and the
folklore of humiliation.
CMC as Folklore
With their first collection of "urban folklore from the paperwork empire,"
Dundes and Pagter (1992) made a case for the consideration of hand-drawn
cartoons and typewritten jokes and legends as folklore. Though such
material was inscribed and photocopied rather than told and retold, the
authors argued that it exhibited the same folkloristic traits as orally
transmitted jokes and tales:
It existed in multiple versions and variants.
It expressed anxiety about threats to our health, safety and psychic
equilibrium that government and big business either inflicted or were
unable to turn aside.
It bound sharers into communities, thereby alleviating some of the very
alienation that the jokes themselves expressed.
Photocopied jokes and cartoons became "faxlore," which was then quickly
overtaken by Netlore jokes, parodies, legends, cartoons and digitally
altered photographs ("photoshops") circulated via e-mail.1 Of course, other
non-oral genres of verbal communication have long been of interest to
folklorists: autograph album verse, fraktur, samplers, chapbooks, broadside
ballads. And as Linda Degh (1994) has observed, contrary to what
folklorists once thought, the oral and the written have always overlapped
and influenced each other. Of particular interest for our purposes is the
intertwining of newspaper accounts and ballads (see, for example, Cohen
1973; Seal 1996). Indeed, where once the news served as grist for the
ballad singer, it now is the generative force behind countless legends and
While it may seem obvious that much contemporary folklore responds to
"current events," it is easy to forget that strictly speaking, the lore
does not respond to the events themselves but to accounts of the events. As
countless sociological and rhetorical studies of news have pointed out, the
news is a story about an occurrence (see, for example, Gans 1980; Fishman
1980; Schudson 1989; Bird and Dardenne 1997). As such, it is important to
recognize that newslore is as much a response to how that story is told
to what is left out as well as what is included as it is a response to
the occurrence itself.
September 11: The Speakable and the Unspeakable
While the news media responded with all due solemnity and piety to the
explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, the folk responded with
sick jokes. The key to understanding the Challenger jokes, according to
Oring (1987), is not to see them as a response to the disaster itself, but
as a response to the disaster story in other words, to the solemnity and
piety of the news media's narrative of the disaster.
No one, other than people who were close enough to the launch site to see
it in person, could have known about the Challenger explosion other than by
seeing it on television, hearing about it on the radio, reading about it in
the newspaper the next day (this was before newspapers had Web sites), or
hearing about it from someone who had been paying attention to the mass
media. For those of us who watched the disaster on TV, the experience was
visually framed and reduced by the screen itself, bracketed by the
commercial messages that underwrite the news programming, and filtered
through the personality of whichever anchorman told us the story. The
juxtaposition of extraordinary tidings with the business-as-usual
production values of network news was jarring and more than a little
absurd. Oring infers public attitudes toward the "packaging" of disaster
from the content of the jokes themselves and from the cultural knowledge
one would need to possess in order to understand the content. Here, as
promised, I would like to use newspaper reaction stories as a guide to the
public mood in the immediate aftermath of September 11, when most of the
lore began circulating.
When big news happens, reporters, as a matter of course, will report what
happened and how people reacted to what happened. If the event is deemed to
be of major importance, a separate reaction story will run alongside the
main news story. By any measure, the September 11 attacks were the biggest
story in the history of American journalism. Beginning with extra editions
that hit the streets on the afternoon of September 11, coverage included
not just one-story roundups of the latest developments, but multiple
stories, including stories that focused exclusively on the reaction from
world leaders, from members of Congress, from military personnel, from
terrorism experts, from clergy, from people in the street at home and
abroad, and so on.
The stories are inevitably balanced. The rituals of objectivity require
reporters to present, if not a range of viewpoints, at least representative
expressions of opposing views. The message to readers is that, in its news
columns, the paper does not privilege one view over another. It does,
however, limit its sampling of views to those that do not violate the
canons of good taste. The dual imperatives of balance and taste produce a
muting effect. There is anger in the post-September 11 reaction stories,
but it seems rather restrained compared to the revenge fantasies that are
played out in the folklore.
On September 19, for example, USA TODAY asked, "Do we seek vengeance or
justice?" and noted that "the sentiments of Americans run the gamut." Four
voices calling for rage and retribution followed, including one who said,
simply, "Nuke 'em." Then came the balancing act: "Others prefer the
guidance of the old saying 'Revenge is a dish that is best served cold' "
The St. Petersburg Times noted that polls showed "overwhelming support for
a military response" and illustrated the point with a quote from a local
official that was as risquι as most general-circulation American newspapers
ever get: "I think we need to go kick some ass big time." After three other
blustery quotes, though, the story turns to the more measured responses:
"While most Americans support whatever action is necessary, not everyone is
quite ready for what that could mean" (Caldwell 2001).
A September 14 story in The New York Times began thus: "Having donated more
blood than victims needed, having wallpapered their towns with flags, and
with little choice but to stew over television reruns of terror in their
homeland, more than a few Americans are beginning to obsess about how to
get even." One interviewee suggested finding and killing "these Arab
people," then "wrap them in a pigskin and bury them. That way they will
never go to heaven." Another said, "If I could get my hands on bin Laden,
I'd skin him alive and pour salt on him." Such talk, reporter Blaine
Harden noted, "also alarmed many Americans" (Harden 2001).
Another New York Times story, "Fantasies Of Vengeance, Fed by Fury,"
published on September 18, included calls for parading bin Laden's head
through the city on a pike, burning him alive and "nuking" Kabul (Tierney
2001). Then President Bush himself weighed in, invoking "Wanted: Dead or
Alive" posters from the old West. The Times disapproved, taking the
president to task in its lead editorial for his "overly bellicose" language
(New York Times 2001).
Taken together, these stories and others like them offer specific evidence
of American anger. But that anger found its fullest and most profane
expression in the folklore that circulated among friends and acquaintances
via e-mail. People were eager to avenge the attacks. The military campaign
in Afghanistan, when it came in October, would be undertaken in the name of
all Americans, but there was little or nothing most citizens could do to
vent their anger other than make symbolic gestures. The classic symbolic
expression of impotent rage is the same one we make while driving when
another motorist cuts us off: We "flip him the bird."
In 1979, when Iranian students seized the American embassy in Tehran the
folk intensified the profanity of the digitus impudicus by putting it in
the hand of Mickey Mouse. The cartoon, photocopied and faxed, expressed the
feeling that after Vietnam, America had become too innocent, too cuddly and
so risk-averse that we had given our enemies the impression that if they
hit us we would not hit back. The cartoon said, in effect, hey, don't
underestimate us. In 2001, Mickey gave way to Lady Liberty, perhaps because
the Statue of Liberty appeared in some of the New York harbor photos and
video footage of the World Trade Center site and is as much a New York
symbol as it is an American symbol.
Then there was "the finger" as the design motif for a new, improved World
Trade Center. There has been a steady stream of proposals for the Twin
Towers site. The photoshop of a five-towered World Trade Center, with the
middle tower taller than the rest, was one of the first. As Oring (1987)
points out, the news anchors may offer reassurance and a sense of control
in times of national trauma, but when it comes to expressing anger, they
are too constrained by decorousness to be up to the task. Americans weren't
just angry, they were cursing angry.
Much of the anger was directed specifically at Osama bin Laden. Much of it
echoes the folk responses to the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 and the
Gulf War in 1991. As Dundes and Pagter (1991:303) say, "stressful and
traumatic events of national or international scope often stimulate the
generation of new folklore although the new folklore may turn out to be
old folklore in disguise." And much of it is explicitly or implicitly
sexual or scatological in nature and therefore, unspeakable in the
mainstream news media.
The Newslore of Annihilation
As soon as Osama bin Laden's name surfaced in connection with the
September 11 attacks, the faceless enemy had a face. Following President
Bush's lead, much of the post-September 11 newslore was directed
specifically at bin Laden, just as it had been directed at the Ayatollah
Khomeini and Saddam Hussein before him. The bin Laden connection also
provided a geographic target: He was believed to be hiding in Afghanistan.
San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Joseph Perkins (2001) may have been one
of the first to suggest that Afghanistan be "bombed back to the Stone Age."
The next day, New York Times reporter Barry Bearak (2001) grimly joked that
that the war-torn land was "already there." The idea of bombing back to the
stone age, which San Francisco Chronicle columnist Rob Morse (2001)
reminded me is a recycled Vietnam-era quote from General Curtis LeMay, and
the observation that Afghanistan was already there, appeared in scores of
newspaper columns and stories. The folk were more creative. The desire to
lay waste to Afghanistan found pictorial expression in cartoon maps showing
the country transformed into either a lake or a parking lot (radio talk
show host Howard Stern reportedly made the same suggestion on the air
[Hinckley 2001]), and in several riddles, including one that picks up the
Stone Age theme and runs with it:2
Q: How is Bin Laden like Fred Flintstone?
A: Both may look out their windows and see
While most receivers of the e-mailed riddle and readers of this article
share the cultural knowledge to get the joke, I should, for the record, if
not for posterity, explain that Rubble refers to Barney Rubble, sidekick of
Fred Flintstone, who headed a "modern Stone Age family" in a popular
animated situation comedy on American television in the 1960s.
The following pair of riddles refers to the weapons and aircraft that would
wreak the desired destruction. The first puns off the tomahawk as a Native
American weapon and the name of a missile (General George Armstrong Custer
met defeat at the hands of the Sioux at Little Big Horn, South Dakota, in
1876). The second refers to the similarities between the numbers on bingo
cards and the designations for American warplanes.
Q: What does [sic] Osama bin laden [sic] and General Custer have in
A: They both want to know where those Tomahawks are coming from!
Q: How do you play Taliban bingo?
These next three riddles, I trust, require no explication:
Q: What do Bin Laden and Hiroshima have in
A: Nothing, yet.
Q: What's the five-day forecast for Afghanistan?
A: Two days.
Q: What is the Taliban's national bird?
The September 11 newslore includes a large cycle of photoshops that centers
on the idea of targeting. Just as Khomeini's face appeared in a gun sight's
crosshairs in a 1979 photocopied cartoon that circulated via fax machine,
in a series of images that circulated by e-mail in fall 2001, bin Laden's
face appeared behind a shooting range target, on a dartboard, and in two
pop-cultural parodies. In one, bin Laden appears in the crosshairs with the
legend "Who wants to bomb a millionaire?" on the perimeter of the circle
a reference to the popular program "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?" In
the other, bin Laden appears in the crosshairs in a parody of a credit car
company ad that offers an opportunity to assassinate the al Qaeda leader:
Trip to Afghanistan: $800
High Powered Sniper Rifle: $1000
Hotel Stay With Accessible Roof: $100
Scoring A Head Shot On A Piece of SHIT Like Osama Bin Laden:
The parodying of commercial messages is consistent with what Oring (1987)
found in the Challenger joke cycle, with its plays on well-known TV spots
for beer (Bud Lite), shampoo (Head and Shoulders) and soft drinks (7UP).
The Newslore of Humiliation
Another set of target images turns scatological. Just as the face of the
president of Iraq appeared on a cartoon "Saddam Hussein Urinal Target" that
was widely photocopied and faxed during the Gulf War in 1991, bin Laden's
face was emblazoned on a photoshopped urinal 10 years later. Both parody
the "targets" designed to help in the potty training of little boys.
Echoing the credit-card parody's characterization of bin Laden as "a piece
of shit," another photoshop depicts a dog using bin Laden's face as a
target. In a similar vein are the punning photoshops of bin Laden's face on
a roll of toilet paper. One carries the motto, "Get Rid of Your Shiite."
Another says, "Wipe Out Terrorism."
References to defecation lead, in turn, to an array of images that follow a
chain of associations connecting defecation, military assault and
homosexual assault. Symbols of military and sexual aggression, Dundes and
Pagter (1991) point out, are often interchangeable. To begin with
antecedent material, there is the Gulf War cartoon of an American military
plane chasing an Iraqi camel. At the risk of sounding too much like Dundes,
just as the plane rides the camel's ass with the appropriate "Holy shit!"
response a warplane tails Osama bin Laden's flying carpet or appears in
the "rearview" mirror of his car in photoshops that circulated in 2001. A
photoshop of the batwing B-2 bomber is inscribed with a parody of the
bumper sticker designed to tweak tailgaters: "If you can read this, you're
fucked." Another photoshop shows a cache of missiles on the deck of the
aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise with the words "Taliban-Brand
Extra-Strength Suppository" stenciled on them. The "ass" motif continues
in parodies of side-of-the-milk-container campaigns on behalf of missing
children. On a container of "Afgan [sic] Farms" goat milk ("already
expired") it says: "Last seen: Mounting his donkey before crawling his
skinny little pajama, towel headed lanky ass into some elusive Afghan
cave." A poster version asks: "Have you seen me? I'm about to get my ass
nuked off the face of the planet." This echoes an earlier milk-carton
parody of the missing Mars Explorer spacecraft.
In yet another cycle of newslore, the humiliations are heterosexual rather
than homosexual, which reflects news reports of the puritanism and misogyny
of fundamentalist Islamic movements such as the Taliban and the Wahaabi
sect in Saudi Arabia, of which bin Laden is a member. One curious bit of
lore that circulated after September 11 was a mock Web site, Taliban
Singles Online, which featured a testimonial from bin Laden: "Before I
found this site my love was limited to the beasts of the field, but now I
have found many women to subjugate and brutalize." A photoshop showed a bin
Laden lookalike being squashed by a large female bed partner. Showing bin
Laden in any sort of sexual encounter shows disrespect for his religious
beliefs. Showing the woman crushing him violates folk ideas about
"man-on-top" male dominance. In the following joke, bin Laden is dominated
in another way by three strong women who themselves were the subjects of a
considerable outpouring of newslore in the 1990s:
Osama bin Laden found a bottle on the beach and picked it up. Suddenly, a
female genie rose from the bottle and with a smile said, "Master, may I
grant you one wish?"
"Infidel, don't you know who I am? I need nothing from a lowly woman,"
barked bin Laden.
The genie pleaded, "But master, I must grant you a wish or I will be
returned to this bottle forever."
Osama thought a moment. Then, grumbling about the inconvenience of it all,
he relented. "OK, OK, I want wake up with three white, American women in my
bed in the morning. I have plans for them." Giving the genie a cold glare,
he growled, "Now, be gone!"
The genie, annoyed, said, "So be it!" and disappeared back into the bottle.
The next morning, bin Laden woke up in bed with Lorena Bobbitt, Tonya
Harding, and Hillary Clinton. His penis was gone, his leg was broken and he
had no health insurance.
Bobbitt, of course, "enjoyed" brief celebrity when she cut off her
husband's penis in 1994. Tonya Harding became notorious when she was
suspected of hiring the assailants who clouted rival figure skater Nancy
Kerrigan on the leg on the eve of the 1994 Winter Olympics. Among the many
offenses Hillary Clinton committed against the traditional role of the
first lady during her husband's first term, the most egregious, perhaps,
was her central role in the healthcare reform fiasco. It is a measure of
celebrity when veterans of old newslore resurface in new newslore.
The Newslore of Victimization
The news media devoted an enormous amount of attention to the seeming
arbitrariness of fate. There were countless tales of people who were
supposed to be on one of the four planes or at the World Trade Center, but
were delayed or had to change their plans. The stories emphasized the
gratitude and guilt of these survivors. The dominant attitude was awe in
the face of so many reminders of the slender thread on which our lives
hang. Consider these headlines:
Running Late Saved Them from Trade Center Death (Connor 2002)
Fiery Escapes, Surreal Stories at Trade Center (The Wall Street Journal 2001)
She Got Laid Off, He Missed a Train; Such Lucky Breaks (Tomsho, et al., 2001)
The folk were also aghast at the precariousness of life, but took a darker
view. Sudden death makes a mockery of our plans. It is the ultimate cruel
joke. Where the news media dwelled on the solemnity of it all, the folk
focused on the absurdity. If Osama bin Laden was the face of evil, the
"Ground Zero Geek" became the face of absurdity.
"For just the briefest split-second of gut reaction, " wrote Chicago
Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper (2001), "we thought we were seeing one
of the most astonishing photos in recorded history." The photo Roeper
referred to showed some poor schlemiel standing on the observation deck of
one of the Twin Towers, unaware that he's about to be pulverized by a
Roeper saw the Ground Zero Geek on September 21. My brother-in-law e-mailed
it to me on September 28, along with a noncommittal message: "Check this
out." Also included were prior forwarders' similarly neutral messages: "If
you haven't seen" (September 26) and "This is interesting" (September 25).
But the message that appears to have accompanied the original transmission
goes like this: "This picture was developed from film in a camera found in
the rebble (sic) of the wtc!!!!!! person in picture still not identified."
A tag line at the bottom of the photo said, "SUPPORT YOUR POLICE, FIRE, AND
EMS PERSONEL (sic)." Do misspellings alone constitute evidence that we may
be in the realm of folklore?
Another version of the accompanying message, reproduced on the Netlore Web
site, appeared under the subject line "Different Perspective on the New
Attached is a picture that was taken of a tourist atop the World Trade
Center Tower, the first to be struck by a terrorist attack. This camera was
found but the subject in the picture had not yet been located. Makes you
see things from a very different position. Please share this and find any
way you can to help Americans not to be victims in the future of such
cowardly attacks. (2001)
On closer inspection, of course, one sees that there are enough holes in
this image to fly several airplanes through. Netlore enumerated most of them:
Why isn't the fast-moving aircraft blurry in the photo?
2002 Why doesn't the subject (or the photographer, for that matter) seem to
be aware of the plane's high-decibel approach?
1. The temperature was between 65 and 70 degrees that morning. Why is this
man dressed for winter?
How did the camera survive the 110-story fall when the tower collapsed?
How was the camera found so quickly amidst all the rubble?
Why has this one-of-a-kind, newsworthy photo not appeared in any media
Those were the obvious illogicalities. Roeper (2001) pointed out a couple
of more arcane clues to the image's inauthenticity: "There was no
observation deck on the north tower, and the deck on the south tower wasn't
scheduled to open until 9:30 a.m. that day." Also, "The American Airlines
jet shown in the photo is a Boeing 757, but the American Airlines plane
that struck the tower was a Boeing 767."
And so the Ground Zero Geek was revealed to be a hoax. Did that cause him
to disappear from view? Hardly. The hoax gave way to parodies of the hoax.
We see the same guy on the same observation platform. Only now, a subway
car is coming at him. Or a hot-air balloon. Or the Stay-Puft Marshmallow
Man from the 1984 movie "Ghostbusters." Then, instead of the disaster
coming to him, the Ground Zero Geek goes to the disaster: the crash of the
Concorde in 2000, the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole at port in Yemen in 2000,
an unnamed volcanic eruption, the Kennedy motorcade in Dallas in 1963, the
crash of the Graf zeppelin in 1937, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the
sinking of the Titanic the movie in 1997, and the Lincoln box in Ford's
Theatre in 1865. He also drives the bus in the 1994 movie "Speed" and feels
the hot breath of Godzilla on his neck.
Finally, we go back to the observation platform and the looming menace of
the plane, only now, it's not the disaster that has morphed into something
else, but the Ground Zero Geek himself. He becomes the owner of a giant cat
named Snowball in one meta-parody an image that was almost as popular on
the Internet in 2001 as the Ground Zero Geek himself and none other than
Osama bin Laden in another.
The Ground Zero Geek is the quintessence of being in the wrong place at the
wrong time. In his ignorance of what is about to befall him, he represents
all of us on the morning of September 11. The stories about the real
victims of that terrible day struggle to particularize them, to assert the
meaningfulness of all their lives, "to make sense of life in the face of
the seeming randomness of human existence" (Lule 2002:282). Victims became
heroes. Death became sacrifice. In contrast, the folk counter the pious
approach with an anonymous fictitious victim that allows for the expression
of the subversive, unspeakable view. These deaths were senseless, absurd.
We're here one minute, gone the next. What's heroic about it? We're geeks,
tourist guys, on planet Earth. As is often the case, the folk response may
have been the more honest response.
News coverage of September 11 may have been the most exhaustive journalism
the world has ever seen. All that news inspired a concomitant outpouring of
newslore. The two parallel communicative tracks intersected in extensive
news coverage of the lore. These stories were very much of a piece: The
reporter notes the volume of lore bouncing around the Internet and finds a
folklorist to explain what it all means. (Among the folklorists quoted are
Gary Alan Fine, Tom Rankin and Alan Dundes [Marks 2001], Steve Jones [Smith
2001], Bill Ellis [Dempsey 2001], Steve Winick [Thomas 2001], and, most
frequently, David and Barbara Mikkelson of snopes.com and David Embry of
about.com.) Much was written about the Ground Zero Geek, the rumor of
terrorists attacking malls on Halloween, the Klingerman Virus, and the
predictions of Nostradamus. Conspicuously absent, though, was the obscene
material. A USA TODAY story about humor on the Web noted that the goat milk
carton contained "language unsuitable for a family newspaper." A Rocky
Mountain News story mentioned photos of Osama bin Laden "in
The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists calls on
members to "be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and
interpreting information," to "tell the story of the diversity and
magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do
so, and to "support the open exchange of views, even views they find
repugnant." But those calls for fearlessness and inclusiveness are canceled
out by another provision of the code that urges journalists to "show good
taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity." And so, those aspects of the
human experience that include obscene gestures, vulgar language and
tasteless jokes remain hidden from view.
The folk, I suspect, wouldn't have it any other way. Like the accused
miscreant who makes an obscene gesture at the cameras during his "perp
walk," those who with a taste for newslore can fight off news media
co-optation and thereby maintain the world of computer-mediated
communication as an alternative or parallel universe of discourse simply by
making the material "unspeakable."
Also given short shrift in newspaper stories about September 11 newslore is
any analysis beyond broadly functionalist "steamvalve" explanations. The
rumors and jokes are expressions of our fear, all the folklorists are
quoted as saying. As Oring (1987:281) said of similarly general
explanations of the Challenger jokes, they do not depend "on a close
reading of the jokes themselves." My own close reading of the jokes
themselves led me to group them according to recurrent themes
annihilation, humiliation and victimization to trace the expression of
those themes to advertisements, popular culture and news stories about
America's military might, Afghanistan's weakness and Islamic
fundamentalists' attitudes toward women, and to note, with Dundes, that the
thirst for revenge often takes sexual and scatological forms.
As unsavory as much of this material might be, it is, as folklore so
reliably is, an excellent guide to the national mood after September 11.
. Originally developed for and marketed to graphic designers, Adobe Systems
Inc.'s Photoshop software and Microsoft's Paint are now widely used by
amateurs to say what cannot be said in the mainstream news media. Hence the
name photoshops. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper (2001) aptly
refers to them as "photographic urban legends." Writing in 1994, Preston
noted "how quickly 'folk'
adopt a device to assist them in carrying out
their traditional practices" (p. 163).
2. Unless otherwise noted, the jokes and photoshops referred to here were
found at the following Web sites: www.southtbar.org/wtc/hegetsaround.htm;
www.somethingawful.com/photoshop/; urbanlegends.miningco.com; snopes.com
2001 Taliban Plead for Mercy to the Miserable in a Land of Nothing. The
New York Times, September 13:A18.
Bird, S. Elizabeth and Robert Dardenne
1997 Myth, Chronicle and Story: Exploring the Narrative Qualities of
News. In Social Meanings of News. Dan Berkowitz, ed. Pp. 333-350. Thousand
Oaks, CA: Sage.
2001 Urban Legends Ride in Wake of Terrorist Attacks. Tallahassee
Democrat, October 20.
2001 Whatever It Takes. St. Petersburg Times, September 18:1B.
2001 What Is Photoshopping? A New Sport on the Web. Knight Ridder
Newspapers, printed in Centre Daily Times (State College, Pa.), March 10:E1.
Cohen, Anne B.
1973 Poor Pearl, Poor Girl! The Murdered-Girl Stereotype in Ballad and
Newspaper. Austin: University of Texas Press.
2002 Running Late Saved Them from Trade Center Death. Daily News (New
York), September 8:Wrap 8.
1995 LSD-Tattoo Story Updated But Still Nonsense. Sacramento Bee, July
1994 American Folklore and the Mass Media. Bloomington: Indiana
2001 Why Urban Legends? Fear Has a Lot to Do with Them, Experts Say.
Columbus Dispatch, November 30:1G.
Dundes, Alan and Carl Pagter
1991 The Mobile Scud Missile Launcher and Other Persian Gulf Warlore: An
American Folk Image of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Western Folklore 50:303-322.
Dundes, Alan and Carl Pagter
1992 Work Hard and You Shall Be Rewarded. Detroit: Wayne State University
(in press) Legends on the Net: An Examination of Computer-Mediated
Communication as a Locus of Oral Culture. New Media and Society.
1980. Manufacturing the News. Austin: University of Texas Press.
1980. Deciding What's News. New York: Random House.
2001 After the Attacks: The Reaction. The New York Times, September 13:A15.
2001 Rants in Their Pants. Daily News (New York), September 30:Showtime15.
2001 FBI: E-mail Warning to Avoid Malls a Hoax. Daily Collegian, October
2001 Humor Returns to the Web, But Sites Are Careful in Their Topics. USA
TODAY, September 26:4D.
2001 Daily News, Eternal Stories: The Mythological Role of Journalism.
New York: Guilford Press.
2001 From Survival Tales to Attack Predictions, Rumors Fly. Christian
Science Monitor, October 23:2.
2001 Get Out Your Map, This War Won't Be Over by Christmas. San Francisco
Chronicle, September 16:A22.
The New York Times
2001 Wartime Rhetoric. September 19:A26.
1987 Jokes and the Discourse on Disaster. Journal of American Folklore
2001 We Should Make Perpetrators Pay with Their Blood. San Diego
Union-Tribune, September 12:B7.
2001 Do We Seek Revenge or Justice? USA TODAY, September 19:1D.
Preston, Michael J.
1994 Traditional Humor from the Fax Machine: "All of a Kind." Western
2000 Believe Every Warning That Comes in Your E-mail? Eagle-Tribune
(Mass.), September 22.
2001 It's All Right to Laugh at Ground Zero Geek. Chicago Sun-Times,
1989 The Sociology of News Production. Media, Culture and Society
1996 The Outlaw Legend. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2001 Terrorism Fears Add to Halloween Scares. USA TODAY, October 31:10D.
Tomsho, Robert, Barbara Carton and Jerry Guidera
2001 She Got Laid Off, He Missed a Train; Such Lucky Breaks. The Wall
Street Journal, September 13:A1.
The Wall Street Journal
2001 Fiery Escapes, Surreal Stories at Trade Center, September 17:B1 (B4).