Evil in Real Time  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   October 2001

Evil in Real Time   

Watching an unimaginable tragedy unfold

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


MOST DAYS I'M HEADING off to work by 7:30 a.m. But this particular morning I had some coursework to finish and so it was closer to 9 when I picked up my keys. On my way out I glanced at the television just in time to hear Matt Lauer alert "Today" viewers that something apparently was amiss at New York's World Trade Center. I stayed around long enough to watch the first pictures of black smoke rolling out of that awful horizontal gash in a building I had been in many times.

Climbing into my car, I punched up the local all--news station on the radio, anxious to find out more. The Washington station had picked up the feed of its New York counterpart, whose traffic helicopter was surveying the scene from above the tip of Manhattan. I hadn't driven more than three miles when the chopper reported the enormous fireball emanating from Tower Two. In that instant, I understood, as did every American, that what I first assumed to be a terrible accident was in fact a coordinated terrorist assault so ghastly it defied comprehension.

Arriving at last at my office here at the college, I peeked in on my neighbor across the hall, Haynes Johnson, holder of our Knight Chair in Journalism. A dozen or more students had wedged themselves into his office and were glued to the television. They were from his Tuesday morning class--Media Coverage of Government and Politics. Haynes' eyes met mine; we simply shook our heads in unison.

I turned on my own television. Reporters from the centers of government in Washington were passing along what little they knew about the events in New York. Suddenly the correspondents at the Pentagon reported an explosion of their own. It was another airliner, this one slicing into the Department of Defense. The terror was now much closer to home--12 miles from where I was sitting, in fact. There was a report that several other planes were unaccounted for. I glanced out the window and into the sky. A shiver ran along my back.

I prowled the Web for more information. I couldn't help but think, even in the middle of the nightmare, how these various media truly are more complementary than they are competitive. Each has it strengths as well as its drawbacks. Still, television owns such moments of national trauma.

So it was that at 10, as the news anchors were trying to sort out the twin assaults on the country's financial and political capitals, people around the world remained transfixed by the fires at the World Trade Center. In an instant, with no notice, the top of Tower Two imploded. Horrible image, horrible metaphor--death raining down on us from brilliant blue skies. How many more suicide planes would there be, how many more targets? Watching it was as mesmerizing as it was terrifying. All sense of reason and order was disintegrating, in real time, right before our eyes. And yet, because we could watch--on American television with stoic American journalists--the experience was strangely reassuring.

Another jet crash, in Pennsylvania. My God, so many, many innocent lives in those airplanes! Down in our lobby, where we have a large television, maintenance crews and delivery men joined students and faculty in a standing----room----only crowd. No one said a word.

Broadcast reporters somehow kept their composure under the most unnerving kind of conditions. In these moments we needed their courage as much as we needed their information. They were less quick to jump to conclusions than they were in the past. They were less anxious to fix blame. They were less bent on ascertaining certain facts--instant casualty figures, say--that only time could provide. They went on the air around the clock, without commercials, a move that would cost their networks hundreds of millions of dollars but which provided an incalculable service to the nation.

Indeed, journalists everywhere were doing the extraordinary, from the intrepid staff of the Wall Street Journal, which was almost literally blown out of its home across the street from the trade center towers, to the students of our own Capital News Service, who worked the story in Washington and Annapolis.

The purpose of this magazine is to monitor the news media and hold them accountable to their own high standards. And this being the news business, we generally offer more criticism than praise. But on a day when the nation seemed on the verge of breaking apart, the media helped keep it glued together. The coming days and weeks would try journalists severely, as it would try the entire nation. But September 11, 2001, will go down as one of their finest hours.

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