Nine One One

On the date of America's worst emergency, did the media meet the challenge?

September 11 will be one of those days that inspire the media on typical one-year, five-year and 10-year anniversaries to ask, "Where were you when you heard America got attacked?"

I was in my car, driving to work.

I hadn't turned on the TV first thing and was blissfully unaware of the tragedy, until I realized my local rock and roll station was bizarrely reporting a hard-news story. A super hard-news story.

The nation's best day-after headline had to go to the San Francisco Examiner for its succinct lead-in.
The nation's best day-after headline had to go to the San Francisco Examiner for its succinct lead-in.

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Why didn't I know about this sooner? I wondered. My mind went into maximum overdrive (What sources to call? What reporters to put on the story?) before it hit me. For the first time in 15 years I wasn't in a position to tackle the big story. From a small-town constable who inadvertently videotaped his own murder, to the death of Princess Di, I had for my entire professional life been in the middle of a daily newsroom as it geared up to smack a story like the terrorist attack on America.

And I also realized, with some admitted dismay, that there was no way my weekly publication could write anything about it in a timely way, other than some commentary on our Web site.

With those thoughts, I settled in to watch and read the story like most every other American.

Being inside any daily newspaper newsroom when it tackles a big story is an amazing experience. The media become a part of the story, with a mindset as driven as any rescue worker's. There are many strategy meetings about what to cover and how. And the atmosphere amps up to where news gatherers look like ants on methamphetamine, to use a phrase once used to describe my previous newsroom. Some newsrooms make great decisions; some blow it.

I monitored the news mostly by Internet and radio that first day, not seeing the full-blown grisly video images until that night.

The best day-after headline published across the nation had to go to the San Francisco Examinerfor its succinct lead-in: BASTARDS! It was probably the only newspaper that didn't publish a headline including the words TERROR, NIGHTMARE or ATTACK.

The most forward-looking next-day coverage came from the Wall Street Journal, which graciously gave away the news free on its Web site on the day of the attack, then denied access to non-subscribers the following day.

It provided coverage in amazing detail, including ownership of the World Trade Center and a little-known factoid in its insurance policy that says the twin towers are insured for terrorist attacks, but not for acts of war. As predicted, insurance stocks, along with the airlines, got hammered Monday after the stock market opened. Look for this to have as great of an affect on your lives as the heightened security at airports. Corporate insurance premiums could skyrocket.

The WSJ also reported that the broadcast and cable networks agreed to call an unprecedented truce, sharing all information and images gathered about the crashed planes, the collapse of the twin towers and the attack on the Pentagon.

This initially paved the way for some of the best television reporting the nation has seen, with most of the information confirmed and accurate. Competition between the media can be great for readers and viewers, but it also leads to disasters like last year's presidential election-night coverage, where nearly every newspaper in America pushed the button after the TV networks called the outcome. Then they got screwed, with one local headline screaming, "Bush Barely," before the presses could be stopped. It turned out to be quite prescient, although it took weeks for it to come true.

Radio and television news coverage was great for the first day of the attack, but rapidly reached saturation point on Day 2, with the networks scrambling to fill airtime with inane interviews, and two local sports talk-show guys issuing dire warnings about people gathering at major sporting events. "You just never know," one of them said wisely.

By Thursday and Friday, though, the media either decided to compete again, or the news gatherers got so tired that sloppy reporting began to add up. Newspaper Web sites, radio talk shows and television news programs, for instance, reported that five firefighters had been found alive after surviving two days in the rubble. It was only two firefighters. And they had only been trapped for a few hours, if I can believe the last word I had on the story. Many news sources hysterically reported that more crazed terrorists had been arrested trying to board planes with false pilots' licenses and weapons, leading a radio program called Savage Nation to urge listeners to brace themselves for a second go-round. Much of the story was untrue, although the FBI has issued warrants and continues seeking people it believes might have information about the attack.

As we've come to expect, the networks trotted out the big-name anchors, then kept them on the air 24/7, until they became mush-mouthed and useless. Why? Did a frazzled Peter Jennings want me to feel his pain? By the end of his first run he was rambling and gesticulating like some mid-afternoon barfly. I finally relied on the straightforward reporting on CNN, while another colleague believed MSNBC provided the best TV coverage.

Locally, both daily newspapers rolled out special editions, with the East Valley Tribune (motto: No other part of the Valley exists) reportedly beating the Arizona Republic (motto: The West Valley doesn't exist because we're too busy chasing the EV Trib) by about two and a half hours.

A Tribber reported, however, that the newspaper rewarded their effort by making them pay 50 cents each for copies of the special edition. Bastards! Hey, with a country headed into recession every 50 cents counts. And according to Tribune Publisher Karen Wittmer, it was a bargain because some people were paying upwards of $3 for that edition.

Tribune Editor Jim Ripley thanked the publisher for allowing the use of extra newsprint, leading one reporter to comment, "Yeah, if it hadn't been for that we would've blown the story off." Newsrooms are cynical places.

The local coverage from my vantage was uniformly predictable -- tracking down relatives of victims, local people who once worked in the WTC 10 years ago, monitoring Sky Harbor Airport, talking to local Muslims -- but unimpeachable.

Ripley (my old boss) did win best local column ending, saying, "We'll show you what we're made of, you son of a bitch." Jim! Didn't know you had it in ya, to put that into a family newspaper.

I do recognize the immense effort it took, and continues to take, to cover the story, both locally and nationally, and during a time when newspapers are losing revenue (think airline and insurance ads), they did make a commitment to providing the added newshole to cover every angle of the tragedy.

As one colleague put it, "Maybe this will remind the business end of the industry (stockholders and bean counters) that newspapers play a role that goes beyond the bottom line, and we need to be able to continue to do that."

Now, however, more than a week beyond the tragedy, will be the time for media to reevaluate its role, to stop showing us the endless images of an exploding World Trade Center (I see the irony -- it's on the cover of this edition), and to recognize the awesome role it can play on influencing the American psyche.

These are dicey times and the potential for the media to drive the course of events is tremendous.

President Bush says he wants to fight for freedom "at all costs"; that he wants to see Osama bin Laden either dead or alive.

Those are fightin' words we Americans can relate to, but we must be vigilant that our government doesn't conduct this fight at the price of our individual freedoms.

The need for military secrecy is understood as America fights back.

But unlike the Gulf War, Americans deserve to know more about what's happening. The media during the Gulf conflict were kept sequestered, and allowed very little chance to do any enterprise reporting. The press, you see, had caused Americans to turn against the Vietnam War, because reporters shared too many graphic images and stories.

Bush hinted on Monday that the press might get even less access to this fight against terrorism, when it should be allowed far more.

This is when the media can shine at their brightest.

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