Recollections of an Exceptional Day  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   September 2002

Recollections of an Exceptional Day   

Running Toward Danger: Stories Behind the Breaking News of 9/11
By the Newseum
with Cathy Trost & Alicia C. Shepard
Foreword by Tom Brokaw
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc.
251 pages; $29.95

Book review by Marvin Kalb
Marvin Kalb, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, is author most recently of "One Scandalous Story: Clinton, Lewinsky and 13 Days That Tarnished American Journalism."     


In one way, the Newseum is the "author" of "Running Toward Danger: Stories Behind the Breaking News of 9/11," a stirring and evocative account of a day like few others in American history. Where book covers usually identify the author, this cover, showing the late William Biggart's dramatic photo of a cloud of smoke and fire erupting from the World Trade Center, says, simply, "by the Newseum," then, in much smaller type, "with Cathy Trost & Alicia C. Shepard." The Newseum obviously didn't write a word, but it did sponsor the project that resulted in this very worthwhile book.

Based on more than 100 interviews with reporters who covered the terrorist assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, or who raced to the hijacked plane that crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, or who, in a small pool, accompanied President Bush on his odd journey from one military base to another until he decided late in the day to fly back to Washington, "Running Toward Danger" is rich with recollections and photos of an exceptional day in American journalism. And yet in a strange realignment of time and psyche, it already has the feel of a period piece, as though 9/11 occurred years, even decades ago, and could comfortably be compared to books about the day Vietnam collapsed, or the Challenger exploded, or President Kennedy was assassinated, or the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Just a year has passed, and 9/11 seems already to have passed into history, a truly remarkable day when the world seemed to have changed. So everyone thought, so everyone said, so everyone acted.

On that day, against a cruelly deceptive tapestry of blue sky, the symbols of American capitalism and military power were attacked by international terrorists. And for a brief moment in time, unmistakably vivid on 9/11 but then slowly diminishing in clarity, intensity and purpose over the next few months, the government and the people, and the media that allow one to inform and influence the other, were suddenly one--partisan differences vanished, cooperation replaced competition.

The first plane smashed into one of the two giant towers of the World Trade Center at 8:48 a.m., and Rod Dreher, a columnist for the New York Post, like many other journalists, started running toward the story, telling his wife and son that "I'm going to try to get as close as I can." His wife didn't argue. "She knows," Dreher told Trost and Shepard, "that there are three kinds of people who run toward disaster, not away: cops, firemen and reporters." Kiley Armstrong, an assignment editor for the Associated Press, remembered: Reporters "started calling the desk and saying, 'Where do you want me to go?' "

At 9:03 a.m., a second plane smashed into the other tower. "A cataclysmic explosion," according to Robert J. Hughes, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Martin Wolk, a reporter for MSNBC. com, felt "nauseated, very queasy." He stood "in total shocked silence watching the building burn.... Then people started jumping off the North Tower." Tom Flynn, a producer for CBS News, saw "50 people jumping...you are standing there watching people jump without parachutes, 1,000 feet up, and knowing they are going to die." Todd Maisel, a photographer for New York's Daily News, operated on instinct. "It didn't at first enter my mind that I was in danger," he said, "only that a great catastrophe was under way.... There were body parts and luggage scattered on the ground. A human hand pointed at me on the pavement."

Paul E. Steiger, managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, whose offices across the street were destroyed during the twin calamities, decided to publish from backup facilities in New Jersey. (The Journal won a Pulitzer for that day's work – see "Riding the Roller Coaster," page 40.) "Right away," Steiger recalled, "I thought terrorism." Tom Brokaw of NBC, fresh from a summer-long vacation, drew the same conclusion: "This is terrorism, and this is a big, big deal." Like Dan Rather at CBS and Peter Jennings at ABC, Brokaw rushed to his anchor desk, and for the next week rarely left it. On that first day, in an exceptional display of cooperation, the networks pooled their footage, as an estimated 80 million viewers watched the unfolding horror. Over a four-day period, the networks dropped all commercial advertisements for 93 hours, losing tens of millions of dollars. This was one of those rare moments when considerations of profit yield to the common interest.

The usually contentious relationship between government and journalists also yielded to the urgent demands of the day. The New York Times faced a crisis: If all bridges and tunnels in and out of Manhattan were closed for security purposes, how would the Times deliver its newspapers? Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. called Gov. George Pataki, and they struck a deal. At 3:30 a.m. the following morning, a long caravan of newspaper trucks, police dogs having sniffed their contents, crossed the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan under police escort and delivered their papers. Would the networks have turned to the government for logistical support if their transmission towers had been destroyed?

Indeed, according to then-Mayor Rudolph Guiliani's spokeswoman, Sunny Mindel, the relationship leaped that day "from cooperation to partnership." She told me: "We were being much more than just cooperative; we were, like, partners. We worked together on everything." Trost and Shepard, an AJR senior writer, detail a few skirmishes, but the overall tone was one of close cooperation.

Journalistic instinct, combined with personal courage and professionalism, whether in New York, the Pentagon or Shanksville, produced the high quality and quantity of news that the public needed and appreciated. And for a time the public got just that, and even journalists like Brokaw were swept up in the new vision of a transformed journalism, no longer obsessed with Monica Lewinsky, Chandra Levy and O.J. but suddenly absorbed, because of the terrorist challenge, with a fresh sense of public responsibility.

In his foreword to this book, Brokaw wrote early last winter: "We haven't been perfect, of course. And the story is not over. But the compact between citizens and their press has been repaired and restored to its rightful place." Now, as the nation prepares to mark the first anniversary of 9/11, the Pew Research Center For The People & The Press undercuts Brokaw's optimistic judgment about the "compact" being "repaired and restored." The American people's vision of the press, Pew reports, has lost its immediate post-9/11 glow. Criticism has returned, skepticism has resurfaced.

"Running Toward Danger" reminds us of the journalism of 9/11, an unforgettable, tragic day when reporters instinctively rushed to the story--and got it right. Is journalism ready for a second 9/11? Is the country ready?

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