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 AJR  Columns

From AJR,   December 2001  issue

War Comes Home   

Strange days create new challenges for journalists.


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.     

The distinguished members of our college's Board of Visitors get together twice a year. Often the venue is the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times, courtesy of its former longtime chief, Jack Nelson, who has served on our board since 1983. But a few weeks ago the group had to go elsewhere: The Times bureau was being "swept" to ensure that it hadn't been contaminated with anthrax.

Not far away at the Washington Post, folks went without mail for more than a week while the paper established a kind of sealed "clean room" for safe processing. It is equipped with a powerful exhaust fan, and employees don masks and gloves to open their own packages and envelopes.

Journalist and author William Prochnau is a visiting professor at the college this term, leading a seminar on a subject he knows intimately – how the press covered the war in Vietnam. His class had met just once when terrorists crashed hijacked jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. When Prochnau convened his anxious young charges a second time, he told them, "Everyone covering this story is a war correspondent."

That would include the student journalists of our own Capital News Service. On September 11, those assigned to our Washington bureau scrambled to cover a story that nearly landed on top of them.

Those in Annapolis, meanwhile, left their office because of its proximity to the Statehouse building, which had been evacuated. Maryland officials believed the historic edifice might be a target. Weeks later, two CNS staffers were tested for exposure to anthrax after covering reports of anthrax at the Brentwood postal facility in Washington. The tests were negative.

Strange days indeed, as John Lennon put it, strange and perpetually unsettling. The bombs may be dropping halfway around the world, but the gnawing sense of dread is in our backyard. It's in the random bag searches at the airport, in seeing police patrols atop and below bridges, in passing power plants and wondering if they're secure. It's in an eerily empty Washington Mall on an Indian summer afternoon.

This is a new brand of war for a new age, and it is creating new challenges for journalists.

The most obvious one is that the press itself has become a target of terrorists. If this development is shocking it is not altogether surprising, given the rise of the global media culture. Nevertheless, finding themselves in the center of the story alters the calculus for journalists in many ways, not least being that it makes objectivity, always difficult at best in wartime, that much more elusive.

But I'm also thinking about more subtle challenges posed by a homeland war. Consider, for instance, that at a fundamental level the media and the government find themselves with similar missions – trying to ascertain what has been perpetrated on us even as they try to reassure us. They have been marginally successful on that first point, much less so on the second one. We in the media know all about our obligation to inform – and there has been plenty of crackerjack reporting on view – but what obligation do we have, if any, to keep from scaring the hell out of people?

Another new reality: The nation is dealing with an opponent who is as media savvy as he is diabolical, with a strong sense of public relations and ready access to international airwaves. What do we broadcast of Osama bin Laden? In a recent story on this subject, the Post's Paul Farhi, a frequent AJR contributor, conjured an interesting analogy. He wrote, "Imagine if the broadcast of President Roosevelt's 'Day of Infamy' speech after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor was followed by Emperor Hirohito's reaction on American radio."

But perhaps the greatest challenge of all for the media, as it is for the administration, is to keep people's focus on a war that will become more remote as the holidays arrive and the feature pieces about Ground Zero slow to a trickle. Toward that end, the New York Times is producing what may be the most remarkable piece of journalism in this whole endeavor, its roll of obituaries of everyone who died in the attacks of September 11.

As I write this, the edition before me has 15 of these brief but eloquent notices. There are snapshots of customer service representative Maria Theresa Santillan, of insurance executive Ronald Comer, of firefighter Douglas Miller, whose three young daughters are left to wonder who will put up the Christmas lights on the chimney this year.

In that ever-so-slight hesitation as we reach for our mail, we can be forgiven for thinking this war is about us. But it is really about them.