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August 13, 2004

What if Everything Changed for American Journalists on September 11th? My Speculations.

What individual exceptions there are I don't know--I am sure they exist, and I would love to hear from them--but on the whole the American press has not seen fit to start its own story over after the attacks of 2001, just to see if "journalism" comes out in the same place, if "ethics" are the ones that were adequate before, if duty to nation looks the same, if observerhood still fits.

This pissy drivel will unite people who, in a peaceable time, would stand on opposite sides of political issues. Donít fret the strife you see in the daily papers. The dissenters, unbound as usual, will ruin their cause. A great red line will run diagonally across the political landscape, uniting people who, in peaceable times, had the luxury to disagree over issues of rarified nuance. Youíll make friends on the other side of the aisle, and this will teach you the folly of assuming X because someone believes Y.

James Lileks, one year after, September 11, 2002.

This will not be your typical PressThink post. It’s not occasioned by anything brewing in the news, it doesn’t have many links. This is about September 11th and what it did to the American press— no, what it undid. Here I engage in speculation. I go beyond my authority and all bounds of expertise. There is no one to stop me, so I try to re-explain the world for you in 2,300 words or less.

I am one of those people who had no trouble saying at the time that everything changed for Americans on the day of the Al Queda attacks. To me it’s more true now than when I first felt it, at night on the 11th, trying like people everywhere to recover my wits, attempting sleep about 35 blocks from where the Towers went down.

It is fruitless to ask the normal questions someone with a PhD might ask about a truth claim like: “everything changed on September 11th.” This is a statement not open to proof or refutation. It doesn’t really have evidence corresponding to the reach of its own ideas. What it means, I think, comes down to:

We have to start the story over, people. We’re in a new here and now.

That means re-explain the world to ourselves. It might look like it, but “everything’s changed after 09/11” does not mean everything is different in your world because of this one terrible event— and you better realize it, or deluded be your design.

It means when you get done accounting for the magnitude of the event, and go through all the shocks to all the systems (including your own explanations of the world); when you draw the reckoning forward from the 11th, into the wars—in Afghanistan and Iraq, against terror everywhere—where we are now engaged, then all the explanations and ideas you nursed along through events prior to September 11th, 2001 don’t explain as much as they once did.

After a crash, you start up the computer again, but it doesn’t work the same way. Is it the machine? Or does it just have more to compute?

When you actually make the effort, and start the story over, you never end up in exactly the same place. Everyone knows we’re in a new situation as a nation, and in some ways radically new across the world. Though everyone knows, we can’t forget it, which is another way of saying we have to try daily to imagine it, though normal life resumes, and practices its newsy deceptions.

What do you recall? I recall how much that was adequate in my own understanding on September 10th, I found useless by the morning of the 12th; and people who say things like, “everything changed on nine eleven” are not so much September 11th people as they are struck by a strangeness recalled from the morning of the 12th. I am one of them. We think there was a rupture.

Like the larger claim from which it derives, everything changed for American journalists on September 11th is not really open to proof or refutation. I believe it’s true, and I think the failure to reckon with it is preventing what might be historic progress in professional self-definition for the people who bring Americans their news, and who try to capture in their accounts our life and times.

What individual exceptions there are I do not know—I am sure they exist, and I would love to hear from them—but on the whole, I believe, the American press did not see fit to start its own story over after the attacks. It did not re-explain the world to journalism (or vice versa) just to see if all the press think fits from before the unbelievable blue of that day.

When we’re in a permanent state of war against terror, are ethics the same kind of ethics that were adequate in journalism before we realized the war had come? Do law and reason, truth and obligation, news and opinion, politics and statecraft, citizenship and loyalty, information and ideology, conflict and dissent mean what they meant before the planes hit? Do you report on war, politics, diplomacy, elections with the same templates? Or is something decisively different?

I say the press did not start its own story over after the attacks. And I submit into evidence (even though it proves nothing) this moment from The Newhour with Jim Lehrer almost a year after the Al Queda strike. The subject was “the impact of 9/11 on news organizations.” Howell Raines, then the editor of the New York Times, was a guest:

TERENCE SMITH: Is your mission or role or obligation at this stage on this story, and the related aspects of it, different in the wake of 9/11? We are dealing with an amorphous thing called “a war on terrorism.” Is it different?

HOWELL RAINES: No. I think not in the…if we’re talking fundamentals here. We have an intellectual contract with our readers, which is we’ll tell you what we know when we know it, within a framework of intellectual testing for soundness and information and within obviously the boundaries of law, and in certain cases, whether national security interests are involved.

Hear what he said? Nothing fundamentally different in the mission after 09/11. Intellectual contract with readers is basically unchanged: we’ll tell you what we know, unless national security prevents it. Note how the zone of reflection, which started out large, “is your mission or role or obligation somehow different after 09/11?” was shrunk within the space of Smith’s question to more familiar newsroom scale. “… at this stage on this story, and the related aspects of it.”

There’s a little trick there; a switch is thrown. What starts out as a big reckoning with a world-shattering event for editor Raines and his ideas about obligation, mission and purpose, turns into a coverage question, an excercise in news judgment on a big story— September 11 and related events. That’s the trick.

“Anything different in the way you cover a story like this, Howell? What’s been the impact?” is to my ear a bizarrely confining question, since it traffics in the illusion that the most important decision a journalist can make about a rupture of the known world is how to “cover” the events that follow from it. And what does Howell Raines say? Nah, we know how to cover things. Nothing fundamentally different.

News Has Room for Only One Clock: I didn’t have a weblog on that day. But I felt I had to write something, and tell people what I saw, so I wrote emails to a list I was on, run by Ethan Casey at My title for them was “In Manhattan,” plus the date. Some of these e-mails went around the world, so that when I sent them to people I know, they would write back to me and say, “already saw it.” (I found that a miracle at the time.) This I wrote on the 12th, and then I pushed SEND:

To some, the towers went down in the same narrative space as the Hebrew Temple in 70 AD. (Not sure why I chose this example; probably I was confused.) We cannot, as we say, get our minds around this.

Meanwhile, we’re counting the years left with uncles and cousins and friends under that wreckage downtown. They are on another clock entirely, which means they assign different meaning to the loss of human life today. Their understanding took aim at ours, and hit the center. To learn of this yesterday was like a plane crashing inside your skull.

“The earth belongs to the living,” said our Jefferson. Well, his is one culturally specific way of clocking things. New Yorkers got struck by another, and a lot are dead… We feel we know what time it is, we know what “our time” here on earth is worth, and what it costs when taken from us. And we do know, as Jefferson knew: for us.

But when I turn on my television set, the narrative space shown me cannot hold the possibility that the attack also occured on another historical clock, far away from ours, and alien to it. The news has room for only one clock, one grammar in time. And here we meet with the limits of America’s civic wisdom. For what the news cannot “hold” the nation cannot behold. On TV, it’s still one trusty frame for time.

And I still think that’s a problem, but it’s just a piece of the puzzle Terrence Smith kept from Howell Raines by asking about “the coverage.”

No Duty to the Nation? A PressThink reader, who is also a blogger, a Bush supporter, a believer in the war in Iraq, and an occasionally hostile critic of the press, John Moore, has mentioned several times in comments here how startled he was to read the Society of Professional Journalist’s code of ethics and discover no mention of any “journalist’s duty to the nation” or the language of the nation at all. It’s as if they don’t have one! He finds this remarkable. Read the document yourself. It speaks in supra-national code. High enlightenment fashion. It’s not a statement of international principles, or a reflection on “national” identity. It pretends the whole category doesn’t exist.

Ever since Moore said it, I have been thinking along similar lines. Are journalists who inform citizens of the most powerful and influentual nation in the world participants in the war on terror, in the worldwide struggle for democracy, freedom and markets, because their country is a participant—the biggest by far—and they inform it? Or can they get by with: “Terrorism and war are big stories and we’re going to cover them as best we can. Our readers expect it. We’ll tell them what we know.”

The End of Immunity. I tried writing this piece once before, and will probably try again. The first attempt is a book chapter called “September 11th in the Mind of the American Journalism” (in Journalism After September 11, edited by Stuart Allen and Barbie Zelizer, Routledge, 2002.) Here’s a paragraph:

And it is this basic immunity from action that makes the whole regime of neutrality, objectivity and detachment even thinkable, let alone practical for journalists. When Tom Brokaw of NBC News was sent an envelope of anthrax by Someone Out There, no one talked about his neutrality or observer status. Which may be a good thing. When observer-hood becomes unthinkable, new things can be thought. It is reasonable to hope that September 11th eventually improves the mind of the American press. If it does, it will be an instance of creative destruction.

That destruction hasn’t happened yet, and while that is good for carrying on with the news, it’s a problem for carrying on in the world after September 11th.

Finishing the Work of the Terrorists: “Any news outlet ó or any private individual, for that matter ó who makes available footage of the actual beheadings is, to my mind, an accessory to the crime itself,” says [Tom] Kunkel, dean of journalism at the University of Maryland. “Those are the individuals who are essentially finishing the work of the terrorists, by delivering their grisly ‘message.’ ” This was said in the Los Angeles Times in June, “Web Amplifies Message of Primitive Executions.”

Kunkel’s warning shows, better than anything I have found, what I meant by starting the story over. What Kunkel says about beheading as terror is true for all acts of terror, which is a form of political violence bequeathed to us by a media age. News of any terror strike, any bomb, but also all the news about warnings and raising the threat code and “unguarded ports, power stations, and dams”— all of it, every bulletin, is “essentially finishing the work of the terrorists,” not because journalists and news criers have that aim, or forget which side they are on, but for the obvious reason, open to any intelligent citizen’s observation, that terror incorporates news into its principles of action.

What terrified people that Tuesday? It was The News Al Queda made of us, coming through our own media! Terrorism works best in an open society, where news flows. Those who keep the flow going, and react to emergencies by making news of them, sustain terror by doing their job. We are not to blame them for this. But neither is it a fact to be kept from journalists.

In fact this very thought—modern terrorism incorporates modern journalism—was in the Los Angeles Times story too, a few paragraphs ahead of Kunkel’s strange attempt to limit “accessory” status to those unscrupulous Webbies who post video the networks won’t touch. They’re accessories, and CNN when a bomb goes off is not? Witness:

Publicizing their atrocities has always been part of the strategy for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, says Josh Devon, an analyst at the SITE Institute in Washington, which tracks terrorist activities. “The point of terrorism is to strike fear and cause havoc ó and that doesn’t happen unless you have media to support that action and show it to as many people as they can,” Devon says.

Well, yeah. But who wants to live with that knowledge (and its crushing ironies) at the forefront of your professional mind? I find it impossible to believe that people in the news tribe are unaware of their tribe’s incorporation by terror, their inadvertent, unwished-for status as accessories to the act. But I find it very plausible that they would try to let this go by, and deny that it “fundamentally” changes anything.

Terrorism and the world after 09/11? Big story, hard to cover, but we’re gonna do our best— “we’ll tell you what we know when we know it.” Okay, people? Okay troops.

After Khan’s Name was Revealed. I’m going to close these speculations by quoting a news account, a report by CNN, and let you think about it. Answer for yourself (or tell me in comments.) Is the press a participant in the war on terror, or does observer-hood still tell the right story for journalists after 09/11?

Until U.S. officials leaked the arrest of Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan to reporters, Pakistan had been using him in a sting operation to track down al Qaeda operatives around the world, the sources said.

In background briefings with journalists last week, unnamed U.S. government officials said it was the capture of Khan that provided the information that led Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to announce a higher terror alert level.

Law enforcement sources said some of the intelligence gleaned from the arrests of Khan and others gave phone numbers and e-mail addresses that the FBI and other agencies were using to try to track down any al Qaeda operatives in the United States.

Then on Friday, after Khan’s name was revealed, government sources told CNN that counterterrorism officials had seen a drop in intercepted communications among suspected terrorists.

I’m coming from my own place on this, of course. I live in New York. It’s my city, and we got hit. I would love to know what you think.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

UPDATED AUTHOR’S NOTE: I am re-opening comments, asking people to show some restraint. I wrote this in comments:

It may be the agenda of some, but I didn’t say or imply, nor is it my view, that journalists after 09/11 should get with the anti-terror program, quit whining about the Patriot Act, and become more compliant toward the government. That, in my view, would be a disaster.

Nor do I support any new restrictions on press freedom, and I do not see that as following at all from my speculations here. In fact, one could argue that under conditions of permanent war and domestic security threats a fiercely independent press, one that can be a check on government—and a reality check on the Executive—becomes even more important.

New entrant. This Is Rumor Control: News and Analysis on the Appalling Mess We’re In is a very “everything changed on 9/11” weblog. Fascinating about page too. And check out who these guys say they are.

Jeff Jarvis was at the World Trade Centers when they fell. He had often reflected on it at Buzzmachine: “Personally, I did not start blogging until September 11 — because I didn’t have something to say until that day and after that day, I had so much to say and needed a place to say it.” Also see this on 9/11 a year later.

From back in September 2003, PressThink: Unbuilding at Ground Zero and Rebuilding in Iraq, which is partly a review of William Langewiesche’s American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center.

Solutions would have to come from everywhere. Everyone would have to make decisions within his sphere of competence, rather than checking with the authorites, who were too few, too busy and probably unable to help. Enormous commitment was of course required, backbreaking work amid emotional horror. But we’ve heard about that. Langewiesche shows that enormous flexibility was also required, which is a kind of social intelligence. On a job so huge, it’s impossible to be flexible by yourself. The subtitle of American Ground could have been a book of practical virtues.

The citizens who labored at Ground Zero are not that different from the citizens serving in the military occupation of Iraq. There is a lot that joins the two sites: the complexity and scale of destruction, the absence of any script, the fact that no one knows how to do nation-building in the Middle East, the many situations where problems have to be solved on the spot and without clearence from above, the living atmosphere of death. And of course the war that began with the Towers’ destruction has somehow landed on Iraqi soil. The vision that motivates the troops is of the same ruins that were cleared away by the hard hats and engineers.

Posted by Jay Rosen at August 13, 2004 3:23 PM