Meeting the Challenge  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October 2001

Meeting the Challenge   

Under wrenching circumstances, the American news media covered the horrific events of September 11 impressively and valiantly.

By Marc Fisher
Marc Fisher, a Washington Post columnist, is a regular contributor to AJR.     

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T HIS IS WHY we do what we do.

The video of a jumbo jet slipping into the skyscraper, silently, smoothly, as if this were a normal bit of physics. The photos of human beings, New Yorkers, covered in ash, holding briefcases, wearing work clothes, as if this were how they went to the office that day. The descriptions by reporters who were there: Sonny Kleinfield in the New York Times, writing that "on the street there was endless paper and unmatched shoes," and then, on the second day, calling his town "a city of less." Bart Gellman's riveting detail in the Washington Post, writing about the man who assembled a fishing rod to try to fetch his car keys from a locked cashier's booth even as fires burned around him: "Civilians did what they could think of, not all of it sensible." John Bussey's harrowing first-person account in the Wall Street Journal: "In the silence, as the ash fell like snow, radios crackled: 'Steve, Steve, where are you?' "

We all started the day on television, where the terror ratcheted up in speedy steps, from fluky crash at the World Trade Center, to "Oh, God!" on the network morning shows as the second plane struck, to the ultimate in 24-hour, saturation coverage. We watched Peter Jennings' beard grow, and we were somehow reassured that he did not shave, that through morning, afternoon, evening and on into the night, he did not leave the desk, that he confided in us his uncertainties, that he shared the confusions of each hour. He grew more pale and more vulnerable, as if he knew that we needed him to be human, so that we could be together. We saw Tom Brokaw grow teary, we saw him put on his glasses. We counted on Peter, Tom and Dan to be steady and straight, qualities that President Bush, in his disturbing darting around the country, failed to communicate.

Up and down the dial, we clicked our clickers, and we saw unrelenting, unbiased, unstinting coverage of unbelievable events. CNN was back in its glory days, its worldwide cast of characters shining through, its conversation for once smart and restrained. Fox News Channel did its image little good; despite cutting edge reporting by Carl Cameron and a vigorous attempt to keep up with the older, bigger guys on the cable block, within hours, Fox's pack of chatterers had slipped into the speculation and name-calling that dominate its daily product.

But it wasn't so much a day to dwell on individual performances as one in which the nation once again collectively turned to the home screen for essential information, for solace, for a sense of direction. It was as if we had returned to the era of three networks; the one story was the media monolith, and we craved the community that comes from a shared viewing experience. TV responded, unselfishly, with precious little grandstanding. But for an over-the-top wallop of saccharine overwriting in a breathless Diane Sawyer narration toward the end of ABC's long first day of coverage, the networks stuck to what was known, told it straight, and stripped away the artifice. It's amazing to see how quickly the music and the fancy graphics and the sparkling animations drop away when there's real news to report.

And then there was radio, once the medium of immediacy, the place we turned to first for a quick info fix before TV could produce its packages, before newspapers could manufacture their industrial product. But radio's ability to serve news has been devastated in these last few years of corporate consolidation, greed and a near-total abdication of responsibility. Result: But for the excellent, comprehensive coverage of National Public Radio and a handful of all-news stations‹most notably, wall-to-wall reporting on WTOP in Washington and WCBS and WINS in New York‹radio was reduced to simulcasting CNN's TV audio and to delivering maudlin expressions of sorrow by clueless deejays. Could this shameful display spur the industry to get back into the news business? Hardly likely. The triumph of niche formatting and lowest common denominator programming is virtually complete: On the morning after the attack, America's most popular morning man, Howard Stern, was giggling with his sidekicks about genocide.

Luckily, NPR was there, with intelligent pieces and a devotion to giving people time and space to tell their stories. On "All Things Considered," producers let children speak at length about their sense of what the attacks were about. A World Trade Center office worker narrated his own story of escape--riveting radio, words summoning mental images that came closer to the horror than any video could. On "Morning Edition," the tried and true format and Bob Edwards' calming voice created a space where Americans could come together. Even the interstitial music, a trademark of the program, rose to the occasion, as directors selected American elegies--Copland, Ives--sounds that spoke of sorrow, accompanying reports that built understanding: what to tell the children, how Muslim Americans saw the attack, a first-person account of running from the collapsing tower.

The day America joined the rest of the world in daily life with terror and death was also a test for the newest of media, the Internet and its myriad news sites. For the most part, the medium showed that it is simply not ready for prime time. Through no fault of programmers, most news Web sites were just not available throughout the first day, and those that were could not begin to compete with the instant video and nonstop updates of TV.

By the dawn of the day after, however, it was clear that the new-media revolution would be neither televised nor streamed. It was left to the nation's newspapers, to the small-town dailies that called in all hands to pump out extras on Day One, and especially to the couple of dozen big papers that have not succumbed entirely to the cost-cutting frenzy of the past two decades, to show why this business deserves its constitutional protection, and why so many people accept sub-par wages, long hours and public disdain to practice this craft.

From the banner headlines to the gut-wrenching photographs, from stark descriptions to speedily constructed narratives, papers delivered page upon page of stories that brought readers the news, the background, the context. At Pentagon City Mall, the sprawling retail complex a short walk from the still-smoldering Pentagon, I found 47 people in the food court at 10 o'clock in the morning the day after the attack. Thirty-nine of them were sitting at tables with a newspaper spread out in front of them. They were deep into USA Today's dazzling coverage--the perfect selection of pictures, the stories you needed to read, each slug sliced just right. They were well into the third leg of type on David Von Drehle's Washington Post essay about what it all meant: "Yesterday's attacks are the dark face of a small world." He ranged from John Brown at Harper's Ferry to Archduke Ferdinand to Leon Trotsky, and he was accessible and fast and caring. He did what only newspapers can do, just as the Los Angeles Times did with a front-page reconstruction of "The Choreography of Carnage."

People were buying papers to take home to save, to give to their children and grandchildren. Writers around the country delivered the goods. Jimmy Breslin, writing in Newsday, took readers exactly where they would expect him to take them: into the soul of a fireman in lower Manhattan, into the heart of the city of our dreams.

A cop covered with gray collapse dust talks numbly.

"Dead," he says.

"How many do you think?"

He closes his eyes. "God knows."

The first lists speak of 200 dead firefighters and 78 cops. The City of Courage.

Sure, there were excesses. The September 13 edition of Newsday carried a piece about the tragic loss of the World Trade Center's 107th floor restaurant, Windows on the World. No, thank you. Not this day.

But such moves were the exception. The news coverage was detailed and deliberate. By Day Two, newspapers were deep into the how and why, comparing U.S. airport security to the far more rigorous efforts of the Israelis and the Swiss, wondering what might have impelled people to jump from the heights of the World Trade Center, baring the efforts of the Palestinian Authority to suppress coverage of street celebrations of America's anguish.

It was only in opinion pieces that emotion took over, the warmongers unleashing their snapping verbs and sizzling adjectives. In the New York Post, columnist Steve Dunleavy, whose oeuvre in the Star tabloid used to go under the moniker "The Man They Call Mr. Blood and Guts," wrote that the American response "to this unimaginable 21st century Pearl Harbor should be as simple as it is swift...kill the bastards.... A gunshot between the eyes, blow them to smithereens, poison them if you have to.... As for cities or countries that host these worms, bomb them into basketball courts." Even more refined writers such as Charles Krauthammer and Robert Kagan scrambled to be among the first to advocate outright war.

And of course, the political pundits simply could not help themselves. Forty-eight hours after the towers fell, some smart alecks were already crowning Rudy Giuliani president in '04.

Still, those first hours after the attack were a time to be proud of what we do, to know that despite all the bean counters and all the corporate doublespeak about serving customers, despite the cutbacks and the buyouts, despite the shuttered bureaus and the dumbed-down story lists, there are still editors and reporters and producers and camera people who know that there is a time to drop all our conceits and all our ego trips and to report the hell out of a story and deliver words that matter and pictures that burst with meaning.

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