Rising to the Occasion  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    FROM THE EDITOR    
From AJR,   October 2001

Rising to the Occasion   

The trauma of September 11 underscores journalism's vital role.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


IT WAS A MOMENT that put everything in perspective.

All of the day--to--day concerns that can seem so large, so overwhelming, were diminished in a nanosecond.

The harrowing enormity of September 11, sheer horror on an unimaginable scale, concentrated the mind instantly on the things that really matter.

I was in my office that morning when author Haynes Johnson--Maryland journalism professor, AJR contributing editor and pundit extraordinaire--stopped by to touch base. This was a day, Haynes said, when everyone will remember exactly where they were when they heard the news, an event on the scale of Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination.

Moments after the news broke, AJR senior writer Sherry Ricchiardi was on the phone, volunteering for duty. She quickly drove from her Indiana University classroom to the Chicago Tribune newsroom to report on how the Trib covered the biggest story of our era.

This was a day when we were reminded just how important journalism is.

In recent years, as the news industry has become increasingly corporate, owners have tended to treat newspapers and network news operations as if they were businesses like any other. In this world, journalists who talked about public service, about the fact that special constitutional protection brings with it social responsibilities, seemed awfully nave, unworldly.

But the significance of journalism to society was rarely clearer than it was September 11 and in the aftermath of the unspeakable tragedy.

Suddenly Fortress America didn't seem like much of a fortress. Terrorists had brought the war home. And a confident, sometimes swaggering, nation was deeply unnerved.

In the hours after the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were hit, rumors swirled. What's going on now? People wondered. Is it over? Am I safe? Is my family?

Later the questions were more far--reaching: How did this happen? Why didn't our intelligence agencies see it coming? What happened to our airport security? Who was responsible for such horrific acts? What kind of fanaticism could drive anyone to kill so many innocent human beings? How should the United States respond?

As they tried to get their arms around the surreal, hellish situation, Americans turned feverishly to their news media.

As always in times of crisis, it was television, much--maligned television, that became the national glue. Everywhere you went, people surrounded TV sets. There was something almost reassuring about the veteran anchor troika, Peter and Tom and Dan, well--respected figures all, so much a part of the national fabric. Amazingly in this bottom--line era, commercials were jettisoned to keep the focus on the story.

If it wasn't the networks, it was the all--news cable channels, local TV, even local radio, which abandoned hip--hop and top 40 for news and talk about the national ordeal. Web sites were choked with traffic from surfers frantic for the latest details.

And never was the value of newspapers more obvious. As always, television's strength was its unmatchable immediacy. But the role of newspapers was huge.

The bewildering bloodshed had to be explained. Americans needed deep reporting to help them make sense of the senseless. They needed context.

These things require resources: experienced, talented, knowledgeable journalists, lots of them, and large, expansive newsholes to showcase their work.

And newspapers rose to the occasion. Many put out special editions the same day. Issues the next day were packed with vitally needed information.

The terrorist paroxysm was a second body blow to the American psyche. It came not long after the arrival of the economic downturn, a rude jolt after years of prosperity that seemed as if they'd go on forever. Both underscore the notion that the United States does not exist in a vacuum. Forces and events in other countries deeply affect what happens here. And that fact has broad implications for the American news media.

Because foreign news has gone out of fashion at the nation's news organizations. The networks have shuttered many of their overseas bureaus, and news from abroad is hard to come by on their newscasts.

Foreign news is also a rare commodity in most of the country's newspapers. As the Project on the State of the American Newspaper documented, the amount published by most papers is tiny, and shrinking. Only the nation's top--tier dailies and a handful of others distinguish themselves in covering the world.

September 11 made crystal clear what a terrible mistake that is.

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