'Normal' may be just around the corner

For weeks after Sept. 11, people wondered how long it would take for the United States to get back to normal. How long before humor would be OK again? How long until the media would slip back into their old, Condit-chasing ways? Or would they?

The answer now seems to be that a full return is just around the corner.

Arguably, the story of last week's hockey-dad trial was sensationalized, although the underlying issue - parents fighting about their kids' sport - was one that many Americans could relate to. This week, the British royals returned to the headlines, with stories about how Buckingham Palace is dealing with Prince Harry's underage drinking and drug use ("Harry Pot-ter," and "His HIGH-ness" are how CNN labeled some of its segments). Speaking of CNN, its well-publicized battle with cable rival Fox News has also occupied more than a few inches in the country's newspapers in recent days.

Not that Afghanistan and the wrongdoing at Enron are being ignored. But things have definitely changed from the anthrax-filled days before Christmas - to the point where the topic in media circles last week was a short-lived CNN ad that called morning anchor Paula Zahn "sexy." That snafu resulted in lots of discussion about experience vs. looks for TV journalists (in a surprise twist, it turns out you need both) - and whether CNN is trying too hard to compete with Fox.

With all due respect to Ms. Zahn, if people really want to gauge whether the country is getting back to normal, the woman to watch on CNN is Jeannie Moos. Quirky, offbeat pieces about Americana and pop culture are her trademark, and they are slowly returning to the air. Fans know her voice and what kind of coverage it means - light and funny. That's something that was problematic shortly after 9/11, when she would report more serious pieces (as she did for 15 years) but viewers would expect her voice to signal that something humorous was on the way. In those first few months, her stories were hard to find, mainly because the network was airing so much live coverage.

Some viewers wrote to her asking when she would be back and saying that it would help the return to normal. She's gradually been resurfacing. She did one piece about whether New Yorkers are really nicer (a few of the gestures she and her cameras caught suggest that that, too, is returning to normal) and another one on waterbeds for cows, "to increase milk production," as she explains.

One sign that humor is back is the big laughs that jokes about Osama bin Laden get on the late-night talk shows, observes Moos. On CNN, Zahn's morning show was the first to offer fare with a pre-9/11 feel, she says, predicting it will be another two months before everyone else follows suit. The morning show is where her own segments now appear first at 8:55 a.m. "I'm clawing my way back on the air," she says with a laugh.

President Bush is laughing, too. Even before that pretzel incident, he was in a joking mood when he recently posed for the foldout cover of the February Vanity Fair, on newsstands this week. Photographer Annie Leibovitz had 10 minutes to get her shot of the Commander in Chief flanked by his war team. David Friend, a Vanity Fair editor, says the First Comedian's target was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whom the president teased about being a sex symbol (which is OK, because he is not a TV news anchor).

"With the war on, there is a heightened interest in Bush that crosses into many communities," says presidential scholar Martha Kumar. Mr. Bush is also on the cover of the February Ladies' Home Journal with his wife, Laura.

They are more comfortable with themselves than the Clintons were in their first years in office, says Ms. Kumar. How can she tell? "Neither one has changed their haircut since they came in."

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