The Communal Lifeline

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Author: Robert Schmuhl ’70

In the dazed days following the atrocities of September 11, analysts and academics tried to come to terms with the unspeakable acts by speculating on their consequences. Such unprecedented terrorism created (in what began as a refrain and then became a cliche) a turning point, with potential for transforming America in ways large and small.

Nowhere was change more immediately noticeable than the response of the news media to the attacks and their aftermath. At a time of dwindling audiences, reduced budgets and questionable practices, journalism approached the horror and heroism of a story like no other with a professionalism that critics — and citizens — widely applauded. One opinion survey, conducted less than a week after that fateful Tuesday, found that 89 percent of the public gave the media a positive rating. Almost a month later, approval remained high at 85 percent.

During most of the past decade, the news media seemed more national dartboard than window on the world. Coverage of the O.J. Simpson saga, the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky imbroglio, the protracted 2000 presidential election and the Chandra Levy-Gary Condit mystery both captured attention and provoked criticism. The public wondered whether journalists were reporting news or desperately trying to create it, even whether basic standards of verification and professional proportion were forgotten in a frenzy to be first or to keep a story alive.

But the calamitous events of September 11 occurred with such force and their magnitude was so profound that the news media reacted by returning to their traditional role as initial providers of previously unknown information. The story’s different dimensions — the human loss, the valiant response, the national anxiety, the government’s actions, the terrorists’ reasons, the world’s revulsion, the economic effects — deserved reporting and analysis with facts up-front. The most serious news event of the modern media age demanded the most serious journalism those media outlets could provide.

Reflecting on the response, Tom Bettag ‘66, executive producer of ABC’s Nightline, remarks: "I think this story is bigger than almost any breaking story we have dealt with. What made it different was the psychological shock. Journalists try to see over the horizon, to be early warning systems. The overthrow of the Shah of Iran or the taking of the hostages in Iran was not a shock. The fall of the individual states in the former Soviet empire was not a shock.

“Journalists are control freaks who don’t like surprises. This was like the Kennedy assassination and the Challenger explosion. We were unprepared, shaken that we were unprepared and nearly overcome with the natural human anxiety and sadness while we were trying to do the best work of our lifetime.”

Often a favorite vehicle for escape, Bettag’s medium of television became a communal lifeline to the deadly reality. For the first day, a truce in competition allowed any videotape on one network to be aired by others. The round-the-clock coverage over five days after the attacks cost millions of dollars to produce — and, according to the Wall Street Journal, meant an estimated loss of $700 million in advertising revenues for the networks and local stations.

Television’s immediacy — complete with frightfully enduring images — provided one perspective, while newspapers and other publications took another tack. Words and pictures on printed pages sought to be, in a literal sense, the first draft of history. In a remarkable return to a bygone era, more than 150 newspapers published “Extra” editions on September 11. Magazines, too, quickly followed with special issues.

Ironically, Internet web sites were so bombarded with requests for instantaneous reports the day of the attacks that they couldn’t handle the demand. The so-called “information superhighway” led to a dead end, only later returning to normal and to quickly constructed sources that were continually updated. Journalism itself had an inventive site discussing all facets of its work, available from the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in Saint Petersburg, Florida, at poynter.org.

Throughout the coverage, in addition to a seriousness of purpose, a new attitude pervaded the media. Gone was the snide, curled-lip cynicism of the past three decades, with its corrosive effect on what noted American philosopher William James a century ago called our “civic temper.” This archly adversarial, often dismissive approach was replaced with a unifying awareness that America (its people, symbols and ideals) was under direct attack to a degree more immediate and potentially ominous than ever before.

With the flag unavoidable on television screens and within the pages of publications, a newfound spirit of patriotism infused the media. Amid the carnage and loss of life, the valor of rescue workers and the reassurance from government officials received uplifting coverage. At the same time, almost in direct juxtaposition, the identities of the terrorists and their leaders became known, giving the enemy a human face. The inescapable fervor within communications reached the point where legitimate concern about jingoism received robust discussion.

Given the circumstances and emotions — most national journalists call New York or Washington home — news people struggled to find the appropriate balance between their roles as reporters and as citizens. Ever since the Vietnam War and Watergate, the media scales seemed to tip in favor of journalists hungry to investigate and expose public misdeeds and scandals. The warts and clay feet of political figures became their defining characteristics. Over time, this drumbeat of disenchantment and derision had civic consequence, producing a jaundiced view of public life that soured people’s view of government, politics — and the media.

Suddenly, however, the shock of September 11 shifted the weight on the scales. Caught in the vortex of vulnerability and vicissitude, many reporters approached their work with a sense of camaraderie and purpose akin to the World War II coverage of an Edward R. Murrow or an Ernie Pyle. Network anchors Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw couldn’t hide tears during on-air interviews amid the aftermath, with Brokaw shaken when an assistant contracted anthrax handling a letter sent to him.

Shortly after September 11, when one CNN correspondent began to cry after talking with families searching for loved ones near the World Trade Center, anchor Aaron Brown broke in to console: “We are trained to be dispassionate, but we are not expected to be inhuman.” The remark captured this new mood and also offered a larger lesson.

While television transmitted information and images filled with emotion, other media sought distinctive means to chronicle the events. As though traditional prose couldn’t do justice to the moment, The New Yorker, Chicago Tribune and other publications printed original poetry to capture and cope with the terror’s tragedy. For his Saturday morning news program on National Public Radio, host Scott Simon combined reports about the aftermath with moving readings of relevant verse and the names of people either dead or missing. The New York Times, with coverage journalists and scholars will long study for its accomplishment and comprehensiveness, published a special section, “A Nation Challenged,” each day for weeks after September 11, one page of which was always devoted to short yet poignant “Portraits of Grief” about individuals who perished.

To show the seismic shift of journalistic comportment in the wake of the attacks, editorial cartoonists put skewering caricatures aside in favor of inspiring sketches about heroism and national honor. Humor columnists, most notably Dave Barry, didn’t even try to be funny, responding with sobering commentary.

Some New York-based editors and writers went so far as to suggest that irony, with its tongue-in-cheek satire and sarcastic criticism, might end altogether in this new environment of civilian carnage and high anxiety. Such pretentious (and misguided) musing was quickly disputed and rejected — the work of a Mark Twain or a Joseph Heller will always find a place in America — but it signified the extent to which some people in communication were willing to reassess the impact of mocking, even scabrous, criticism abroad in the media.

But what lasting change, if any, can the public expect in print and broadcast journalism? At this writing (in late October), the media remain committed to continuing, comprehensive and costly coverage that stresses common purpose.

As president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, Jim Naughton ‘60 is overseeing an elaborate, multidimensional project about journalism’s performance since September 11. Says Naughton, “What is happening right now is that people who consume news are getting real news, not fake news or soft features or guidance on their diet, and they are happy to have it. They’re paying attention to it and valuing it.”

Naughton, a veteran reporter and editor who works with college-age students as well as experienced journalists at Poynter, is particularly encouraged by the attention of one group: "I’ve even begun to hope that the younger generations, the X, Y or Z people, who have been so oblivious to traditional forms of journalism, have been jostled enough by the recent events that they too are paying attention to organized media. It’s been an axiom of our previous century that young Americans really did not focus on what governments and communities were doing until they settled into family relationships and had kids and worried about schools and taxes.

“The young generations of today have delayed way longer than their predecessors settling in to those relationships. This may be a period in which there is restoration of attention to news media by younger Americans. I would not think a smart investor would want media corporations to turn their backs on future audiences right now.”

Throughout the past decade, with peace and prosperity national bywords, many communications companies closed bureaus overseas and dramatically reduced foreign coverage. In the post-Cold War world, international threats seemed remote — and bottom-line business decisions brought cheaper forms of information, what many observers dubbed “the new news,” to the fore.

Now, however, the United States and journalism face a two-front war — with worry over domestic incidents, including bioterrorism, occurring at the same time the military fights abroad. Doing justice to the coverage of both fronts will require the unanticipated and long-term commitment of financial resources that will test whether news institutions remain in the business of serious news.

And, as the story continues to unfold, the media are anything but recording bystanders. All three major television networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — were targets of anthrax attacks, a circumstance shared with several newspapers and public officials. Despite some griping that journalists were engendering fear and panic by stressing the dangers of bioterrorism, the media were dealing with the reality of specific cases and the possibility of additional ones. The emphasis served as both a national warning and potential deterrent. With the home front itself a new battle field, the public deserves to know as much as possible.

To be sure, covering the military preparations and operations in Afghanistan and neighboring countries presents unprecedented obstacles for journalists. The shadowy, shifty nature of the enemy restricts on-the-scene reporting, resulting in reliance on government sources who (for reasons legitimate and illegitimate) often try to control what’s released.

In World War II, Korea and Vietnam, news people had direct access to the actions of U.S. forces. A war on terrorists (who thrive on secrecy and concealment) is decidedly different, making journalists responsible for constant evaluation of information the government makes known. Although American unity and support remain high as military involvement begins, questions cloud the future.

Will the media find reasons to correct what they’re told, and, if so, how will they do it? Can the public expect an approach that’s similar to the one of World War II, with its this-cause-is-noble tone, or one like Vietnam that, largely due to misleading information from public officials, found serious fault in continuing U.S. involvement? Does the shortening attention span of Americans mean the media might lose interest and shift their focus to other concerns if the war doesn’t have a foreseeable ending?

Despite the new environment and its uncharted terrain, what’s clear across the media is that these times still compel journalists to assume their traditional role as vigilant observers of governmental policies and actions. Criticism, even searching skepticism, will undoubtedly appear and be heard as part of the coverage.

“We’ll be back to our adversarial role soon enough,” comments Bettag of Nightline. "We weren’t adversarial at the beginning of Vietnam. The Pentagon won its bet that it could get the Gulf War over before the press became adversarial. The government’s role will be to reassure the public, to accent the positive. It won’t be inclined to help the public grapple with tough questions.

“We’re going to move into a time when hard questions will get asked about the operations in Afghanistan, about diplomatic moves and about the initial intelligence failures.”

In the months ahead, journalists will have to find their balance on the new, tricky footing the war on terrorism creates. The cataclysmic events of September 11 provide a chance to reconsider attitude and behavior. Challenging, critical communication that holds the government accountable has a rightful, indeed, honored place in the American democratic system, yet — taken to extremes and to the seeming exclusion of other reportage and commentary — it imperils people’s trust and risks a step back to the acidic cynicism that developed in the 1970s and prevailed through the past decade.

The first big story of the 21st century will set the media stage for years to come. For American journalism, what happened September 11 offers either a hopeful turning point to sustained work that fully engages reporters and citizens to meet their responsibilities or, regrettably, a missed opportunity to serve the body (and soul) politic with a more balanced approach to information purposeful self-governance requires.


Robert Schmuhl is professor of American Studies and director of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy at Notre Dame. His most recent book is Indecent Liberties, a collection of essays.

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