Thursday, Sept. 27, 2001 | 10:03 a.m.
Rarely have the words "Las Vegas" and "normal" been mentioned together so often and by so many media outlets.
Television's "Extra" wants to know whether the mood on the Strip has returned to normal; Fortune magazine wants to know if the tourism-based economy is resilient enough to bounce back to normal.
"I've got so many messages from the national media on my desk, I don't know how I'll ever return all the calls. Everybody wants to know if we're back to normal," Rob Powers, spokesman for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said.
"It's been absolutely insane."
Who knew Las Vegas was the pulse of the nation -- a gauge by which to measure the healing of the American psyche?
Newsweek, Time, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, MSNBC, NBC's "Today" show, "CBS This Morning," ABC's "20/20" -- and a host of other media outlets -- ("a newspaper in Germany, and one in the UK, and one in Houston, so many," says Powers) have been scrutinizing Las Vegas as the nation recovers from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
Although some media are tracking the FBI's Las Vegas investigation of suspected terrorist Mohamed Atta -- and some, such as World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, are asking whether Vegas' "sinful" reputation makes it a terrorist target for extremist Muslims -- most are on a mission to gauge America's return to normalcy.
"They are all asking, essentially, 'What is the impact of September 11th on your tourism industry,' " Powers said. "Are people coming back to Las Vegas? Do people feel safe?"
The answer, says Powers, is yes. Though more than 240 meetings and conventions were postponed or canceled immediately after the attacks, and Strip casinos were so quiet that crickets were heard, tourists -- and a bandwagon of national media -- now are booking hotel rooms.
Last weekend hotels were 75 percent occupied -- which is less than the expected 90-95 percent, but is on the rise from the weekend prior's 60 percent.
"This is a standard vacation destination," UNLV political science professor Ted Jelen said. "It's a good place to use as a barometer of the American economy."
In addition to assessing economic confidence, the national media has highlighted Las Vegas as a sort of post-crisis cultural compass.
Newsweek magazine picked a photo of a candlelight vigil at Las Vegas' Thomas & Mack Center as its cover art for a 2-million-copy special edition, "The Spirit of America," which is scheduled to be released today.
"Why Las Vegas?" Sarah Harbutt, Newsweek director of photography, said. "In some ways Las Vegas is very Americana. I think what this image (of a little girl holding an American flag) speaks to is the way America sees itself -- its simplicity, its purity -- the innocence of the child surrounded by the multi-ethnic crowd that spans all ages. It's the indomitable spirit of America -- and it's in Las Vegas ... .
"Las Vegas is this emerging center of life, people have flooded there in recent years. It is very America -- a place where you can make anything happen," Harbutt said.
Reuters Television producer Kevin Reagan had planned to send his production crew to Las Vegas from Los Angeles this week to illustrate America's fear. But he changed his mind.
"Visually, we were looking for empty casinos and wide-open streets," he said. "But we're hearing they're not empty anymore, so we're probably not coming. We don't need shots of full casinos."
Some media are turning to UNLV history professor Hal Rothman, who studies Las Vegas's cultural significance, to couch Las Vegas' place in America's recovery.
"They're calling from all over to ask about the city's response to the attacks. I think they think we are a crystal clear picture of American liberal consumerism. Las Vegas is America with all the trappings torn away and the core left," Rothman said.
"We also have an acute sense of our freedoms here. On a certain level we stand to be hurt more than most places, because of our tourist economy.
"On the other hand, we may be such an aberration it doesn't make any sense to look at us. But hey -- they've got to have a hook. And Las Vegas always offers that."