Story location:

August 19, 2004

Reactions to "What if Everything Changed for American Journalists on September 11th?"

Here's my exchange with Washington Post reporter Michael Powell about his own re-thinking after 09/11, plus other reactions. Like: "I find myself a little disturbed by this talk. Are you arguing for censorship?" (I wasn't.) "Don't let 9-11 re-invent journalism," said one. No Rupture after 9/11, said others.

Back from vacation with lots to report about reactions to my last post, What if Everything Changed for American Journalists on September 11th?

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.

A rupture for journalists— or not? Responses varied along that fault. Michael Powell, New York bureau chief for the Washington Post, is someone I have talked with over the years. He sent me a piece he wrote two Sundays ago for the Post’s Outlook Section, after terror warnings for New York’s financial institutions were received. “It’s not an answer to your question, so much as a stab at some variety of response.” Powell in his e-mail:

My sense is that clearly we were all in some fashion changed by that day. This is not to argue that it changed, for example, my larger politics and concerns. I’ve written a lot since that day on the erosion of civil liberties, on the sad decline of Little Pakistan in Brooklyn, and on several particularly egregious individual cases. At the same time, well, of course that day changed me, and my sense of terrible possibility.

And he attached a copy of his Outlook essay: “Recognizing the Once and Future Threat: Where Some Feel Safer In Denial.” (Aug. 8, 2004)

On Monday morning, as reports emerged that the Bush administration may have overstated the clear and present danger of the recent alert, my e-mail inbox filled with messages from friends and neighbors. I read their eloquent talk of Orwell and disinformation, and their expectations that those among us who had been worried must feel better now.

I called an old friend on this, writing him back that all this good cheer felt like foolish denial. He responded after a while with the suggestion that those of us — myself and his wife, among others — who came within the shadow of the falling towers on Sept. 11 had acquired an intimate view of terror. The question, which he was generous enough to leave entirely open-ended, is whether such experience renders us captives of irrational fear, or allows us to discern the terrible shape of a possible future.

A more intimate view of terror. That interests me. I think it exists, but it is neither restricted nor guaranteed to those who were there, or “came within the shadow of the falling towers.” Or those who lost someone in the attacks. It’s more a matter of imagination— private and public. Powell writes about 09/11: “the day seemed to open a clarifying window into a realm of terrible possibility. To know what could come meant confronting all manner of questions, from how to defend ourselves to where my family might live.”

Here’s the rest of our e-mail exchange:

Rosen: “Am I so confident of my own rationality in such matters?” I like that graceful way of putting it. To me it’s amazing how many people equate “changed my thinking” with “abandoned my beliefs.” Any political scientist would tell you that people abandon core beliefs very rarely, and so if that’s the test of whether a decisive change has been felt, it’s poor test design at work.

Powell: You’re right, to my mind, to draw a distinction between core belief and a more subtle shift in how one views the world. (Although a neo-con might argue that a change in world view can lead to a change in core belief—the liberal who was mugged by reality trope). I tend to place myself in the second category, the subtler shift in world view, although that varies day to day.

I received a great outpouring of emails after my Outlook piece, and I was intrigued by how many writers assumed that I was now a card-carrying Republican, which is not the case.

The difficulty of raising such a queston with an American journalist is complicated. As you’re very well aware, we are trained, ritually and habitually, to deny harboring a world view and a politics. It’s a conceit, but it runs deep. It perhaps has virtues as well as drawbacks, but it tends not to encourage such reflection.

Rosen: We agree that to deny harboring a world view and a politics is a professional conceit, but common in American journalism; that it runs deep; that it has virtues as well as drawbacks. To reckon with one but not the other is unwise. We agree, as well, that having to maintain such a strange state of innocence—no world view, no politics going on here—tends not to encourage deep reflection.

Some people think the press should take the historic step and abandon the conceit of No Worldview Whatsoever. But in favor of what?

“Admit your biases” is fine as a slogan, and there is a basic honesty there that might help. But as you said “we are trained, ritually and habitually, to deny harboring a world view and a politics.” And there are costs to that training, which to some degree is miseducating journalists and cutting them off from the debate, the discussion— frankly, some of the disgust with their work.

Suppose it were junked— the denial, and the training in it, the habit of saying: we’re just the disinterested observer and take no view of our own. I wonder what would be the problems—practical, political, professional, personal—if journalists were trained to develop a world view, one that was right for their project in journalism, for it claims, its commitments. Seems to me if you are conscious in trying to develop it, you can more easily disclose it.

Powell: At one level, the cult of objectivity always has struck me as fundamentally immature as an intellectual position. Subjectively, during the past few years, I’ve found it incredibly refreshing to read the British papers, where journalists make a cleaner breast of their politics. On the other hand, some of the deepest and best investigative reporting comes from the American tradition, in part because that tradition forces reporters to wrestle with conflicting points of view.

I worked as a tenant organizer for several years in the 1980s and a sense of political engagement carried me into journalism. I can’t imagine not caring about the issues I cover. That said, in the course of time, I’ve learned that passions must be leavened with rigor. So we learn to challenge our biases, or so we hope, right?

An example: When I moved to Washington and began covering District politics in 1996, I found that liberals had nothing to say of interest. They had for complicated reasons simply abdicated. The only sustained critiques of the District’s politics, economics and corruption came from conservative analysts, black and white. [End e-mail exchange]

Here’s David Weinberger talking back to the same conceit Powell talked about:

“Imagine if American journalists could write about the advance of US troops in Najaf without having to hide the fact that they’re surrounded by Marines who are protecting them from Iraqis who are trying to kill them, that they hope the US wins the battle, that they understand the US’s motives better than Sadr’s, that they know the daily US briefings are full of shit but at least they’re in English, that if push came to shove, they’d pick up a rifle and fire at the Iraqis rather than die with the Marines, but they’d never pick up a rifle and fire at the Marines. Everyone knows this anyway. Why try to hide it?”

Cori Dauber, author of the weblog Rantingprofs, is an academic interested in the media coverage of the war on terror. Not a journalist, but she studies what they do and say. She makes an astute observation when she says: “the press never seems all that interested in looking in the mirror except under circumstances where they already know they’re going to like what they’ll see.”

She gives an example: “It was interesting to me that in the aftermath of September 11th, say, the year or so after, there were all sorts of panels that I saw (C-SPAN) looking back. But those panels were inevitably journalists looking back on their performance on the day itself, and happily valorizing themselves.” (My italics.) I have witnessed this too: journalists tell war stories, and that qualifies as “looking back.”

Powell tells a good story about looking back. He goes to the public library about five or six weeks after the attacks, hoping to work on an unrelated story about the Jersey Journal. Leafing through some “yellowed bits of newsprint,” he comes upon stories about “a different plot, the near-catastrophic plan hatched in the summer of 1993 by followers of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman.” Their strike, planned for July 4 of that year, would have sent suicide truck bombs to blow up the United Nations building, the Holland and Lincoln tunnels, and the George Washington Bridge.

Reading these pieces, he is struck by how little the story meant to him then. “This conspiracy registered then as another of those obscure plots with an obscure one-eyed sheik out of central casting.” Now this is the sentence that interests me:

Only in the fall of 2001, sitting in that library with a smoke plume spiraling up from the hole that was Ground Zero, did that long-ago plot take coherent and frightening form in my mind’s eye.

That’s part of what I meant by, “We have to start the story over.” Powell is writing about his sense of how near to catastrophe were were then— and are now. In this specific sense (how near?) I think everything has changed for Michael Powell of the Washington Post. Cori Dauber again:

In my research I found example after example of people associated with journalism saying that they were finding their calling again, in those first months. Just take a look at this article for a few examples. They recognized that part of the reason the American people were so shocked to discover the rage “out there,” part of the reason for agonized questioning (“why do they hate us?”) was that [journalists] had failed us in the ’90s.

And realization of a profound failure can have profound effects. Here are some other reactions to my Aug. 13 post:

“My critique must now be founded in two areas rather than one.” Blogger Daily Pundit gives an example of how he was changed.

9/11 changed my world-view from one of business as usual to America at war, and everything is—and must be—viewed through that prism. Do I approve of all the new security “programs?” No, not at all— in fact, I despise many aspects of them. But my critique must now be founded in two areas rather than one. Not just, “Does this infringe on civil liberties?” but also, “is this infringement effective in making Americans safer, and is the tradeoff between the infringement and the safety tolerable in the changed circumstances of wartime post 9/11?

Mark McPherson in comments here:

So what do you propose? That we be “protected” from being frightened by being kept artificially blind by a knowing press? You think too little of the ability of the audience to be discriminating in their thinking. The Press is continually reporting, and then telling the audience what the reporting means, as if people didn’t already do this for themselves. I have zero confidence in the ability of the press to find its way through the maze of truth, hidden truth, willful ignorance and deceit your “Changed America” envisions.

Report the news without sensationalism and wild speculation and flippant analysis. We’ll figure out for ourselves what it all means.

Michael McCanles, who calls himself a “retired academic Renaissance literary scholar and critic with an amateur’s interest in military matters” at comments here.

(1) War works as much by threats of attack as by attack. Movements of troops, visible manifestations of military planning, readiness, etc.—are in fact modes of communicating threats.

(2) The “protection racket” factor: Terrorism is a present act intended to remembered in the future. It’s message is the following: “If you do what I want I will protect you from attack, i.e., from myself. If you don’t, I won’t.”

And those are two reasons I asked: Are journalists who inform citizens of the most powerful and influentual nation in the world participants in the war on terror? This prompted a response from journalist and weblogger Ed Cone:

First, let’s define “the war on terror.” Does it mean whatever a particular administration says it means?

If so, is it just the press that should fall into line, or should political discussion of the war’s direction be silenced, too? Let’s be clear on the differences between patriotism and rote agreement with any particular government policy, during wartime or not.

Cone added as an aside: “I’m a little tired of the ‘I was there’ argument on 9/11. Physical proximity to the events does not confer moral authority on the witness.” I agree with that. On the evidence of this column, Cone supports the “no fundamental change called for,” and no rupture interpretation, which was a definite theme in the responses.

JD Lasica spoke up strongly in comments:

My guess is that the “we’re at war!” crowd would like the press to be nothing more than an adjunct of the U.S. government. (Fox News, with the American flag on anchors’ lapels, long ago fell into line.) I can think of nothing else so dangerous. Isn’t this docile, deferential approach to authority what got us into our current mess in Iraq? That’s certainly one of the takeaways of Howard Kurtz’ expose of newsroom practices that appeared in the Washington Post this week.

Some perspective, please: There were 61 million lives lost in World War 2, without any wholesale changes in press freedoms or redefinition of journalism. Tragically, 3,000 people lost their lives on 9/11 (thousands more in Iraq, but that war has had nothing to do with terrorism until recently).

I had also said “modern terrorism incorporates modern journalism,” and that I found 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.”

Over at BOP News, where I cross posted my piece, a reader named Simon said: “I find myself a little disturbed by this talk. Are you arguing for censorship? Should the news media be prevented from reporting acts of terror?” In a later comment he decided I was talking about self-censorship: “he is asking journalists to restrict what they print.”

Actually, I wasn’t. That is all imported into the post. I limited myself to the possible benefits of journalist’s re-explaining the world to themselves in the wake of 09/11, of going back over the story that tells them what they are doing to see if it still fits— and whether anything crucial was left out.

But how did Simon (and others) get there—censorship follows!—so easily? Matt Stoller of BOP had part of the answer. Apparently if you say things like “journalism changed after 09/11” you sound like a fellow traveler with Fox, and with the Right’s work-the-refs view that “journalists are unpatriotic and bad because they show bad stuff on TV which undermines Amerca,” as Stoller put it. Use language like “duty to the nation” and you sound like a winger.

Well… I think any journalist of any persuasion would have been wise to wear a little American flag on their lapel after 09/11, and even wiser to explain what the symbol meant in that context, going on air with the news. If necessary, fight about the flag and what it says when worn in a gesture of solidarity.

But I’m also intrigued with the idea of the flag-less press, which shows no signs of membership, no solidarity, except the fraternity of fellow observers.

The pseudonymous Simon, who occasionally posts long, critical responses to posts at BOP news, went on in this vein:

To say I’m shocked by Jay’s piece is an understatement. I am still unsure if Jay really means to say all of this, but while he’s posted a few responses, Jay has not explicitly corrected people on his comments who have given this interpretation.

And he was not the only one shocked. Shaula Evans: “I, too, hope I have grossly misunderstood the gist of Jay’s article.” (See also this book review in BOP.) Another BOP reader, Sasha, hit the mark with this comment, which I basically agree with:

It is easy to fulminate against the press and cry out that a new role must be found. It is very, very hard to figure out what that role would be. How would a reporter decide what should be reported and what should go unsaid for the good of the country? Indeed, how can the reporter be so sure what the good of the country is when we are all engaged in profound debate over that very question. No reporter, professor or politician truly knows the answer, and it is very dangerous to allow them to act at their discretion as if they did.

The phrase, “allow them to act,” shows us that social control, and not only the difficulty of knowing the public good, is at work here. JD Lasica again: “For a news organization, is it more patriotic to learn about the ease with which once can smuggle nuclear materials into this country and then report it only to federal officials (who are the ones guilty of lax oversight in the first place) — or to disseminate that information to the public?”

Stephen Waters—blogger, newspaper publisher and PressThink reader—thought the big lesson was: “Don’t let 9-11 re-invent journalism.”

Journalism may need to change, but through no special impetus from the 9-11 attacks. It is the close proximity of the 9-11 attacks to the author that creates the impression that it is an event of such magnitude that journalistic roots should be shaken. Much larger calamities come easily to mind…. The processes that make up fair, full, balanced, and useful reporting have been forged through lifetimes of hard experience and serious retrospection and ought to be changed for good reason rather than out of fear, vengeance, or proximity to the 9-11 disaster.

Fear, vengeance and “I was there, dammit” being bad reasons, I wonder if searching introspection, agonized re-assessment and a radical questioning of received views in the profession are good reasons for some re-arranging of journalism at the roots. In comments, Waters is optimistic that “the positive effect to journalism from blogs over time will far outweigh any wrenching navel-gazing resulting from 9-11.” Navel-gazing is clearly the category my post belongs in, from his perspective. We’ll put Walters in the No Rupture column.

Michael Hollihan at Half Bakered (a Memphis blog) wrote a lengthy, twisty response:

Somewhere between the Forties and the Seventies, a conservative press sympathetic to those in power and willing to accept censorship for the sake of the national good (inside the “America” container) became an oppositional, liberal press divorced from an “America” container that many viewed with disdain. That arm’s-length distance, that freedom of movement and distance, worked because the wars and enemies were “out there” somewhere.

Even as modern terrorism moved closer and closer, the distance remained. I think many to most Americans expected that the press might collapse back to a Forties-style, pro-America, compliant model. It hasn’t and the problems with that outsider viewpoint are becoming clearer every day. It’s a component of the success of Fox News, in my opinion. I also think it’s part of what drove the earlier success of talk radio — a desire to hear from a press that considers itself American.

“A desire to hear from a press that considers itself American.” Now what do we make of that? Here’s what Hodding Carter III made of it in his fiery speech before journalism professors in Toronto (Aug. 5, 2004):

We practiced journalism with zeal and, occasionally, foolhardy abandon. We took up the implicit demands—the implicit responsibility inherent in the First Amendment—and let people know our editorial mind when most of them would have happily been spared that opportunity. We covered our region, warts and all.

And we participated in the life and civic causes of our town—Greenville, Mississippi—with avocational fervor. We saw ourselves as citizens as well as journalists. We saw ourselves not simply as a mirror reflecting what was happening in the community, or as its critics, but as indivisible from it, a piece of the community’s fabric.

Indivisible from: there’s a journalism ethic with long roots. But how well does it fit with modern, cosmopolitan, “without fear or favor” press think? Here is how Carter concluded that speech:

More to the point, we are a democracy in danger, expressly because of the vast gulfs that separate us from each other. Most particularly, both media and the academy stand too far apart.

This was a luxury not much given to small-town journalists of my early years. We knew we shared a common destiny with what are now termed “markets.” Folks, we still do.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links….

Jeff Jarvis has some questions: Journalism at eye-level (Aug. 21)

Do we admit we are human and have a human reaction to the event? Do we allow ourselves to root for our side in this war — which requires recognizing that we are at war and what side we are on? And if we don’t — if we act as if we do not have our own worldviews, as Jay puts it — doesn’t that too often end up perverting our coverage so, in a futile and misguided effort to be objective, we try to be fair to terrorists (did anybody worry after 1933 about being fair to Hitler?)? Just because you have a worldview doesn’t mean you have to do nothing but argue for it; it doesn’t mean you can’t ask tough and uncomfortable questions; it only means that your questions have some context.

This is really about admitting that we are human. As a human being, you must have a reaction to 9/11 and to deny it, to hide it, is to lie to those to whom you are trying to be truthful, your public. To instead be human, and admit your reaction and the worldview it reshapes, is to give a context to what you say so your public can better judge it. Isn’t that more honest? Isn’t that thus better journalism?

Ed Cone responds to this post: “Before 9/11, journalists had an obligation to be fearless and tell the truth and not screw up national security. Those obligations only deepened in the aftermath. What changed was perhaps the complacency of the profession. We need to be careful — not to get our soldiers and civilians killed, but also not to allow our government to act without accountability in the name of security.”

Don’t miss The Revealer’s coverage of the resignation of Deal Hudson, President Bush’s adviser and liason to Catholics. “Hudson’s influence is a truly big story the secular press should have brought to us four years ago. It’s not too late,” writes Editor Jeff Sharlet.

Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit back on Aug. 13: “ROSEN has a number of thoughts on how the press didn’t change after 9/11, and what that’s likely to mean for the future. He certainly captures some of the things that have frustrated me, and many other bloggers.”

Earlier PressThink post on things related: This Summer Will Tell Us If We’re Serious: Tom Bettag Brings Realism Before the Tribe of Murrow.

Developing into a must read is, sponsored by the Nation Institute, compiled, edited and frequently written by Tom Engelhardt, an editor in publishing houses for the last 25 years, specializing in serious nonfiction on political and cultural themes. He wrote The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War era. I know Tom. He knows a lot of stuff. He’s against the war. He sees himself as “antidote to the mainstream media.” He’s in favor of good writing that is also angry writing. And he’s an editor, so he edits himself.

Englehardt on the missing stories from Iraq.

See this dissent from the Kerry convention’s unified front on the Iraq war, from Englehardt and one of the writers whose books he has edited, Jonathan Schell, also of The Nation.

Writer, blogger and Reason contributor Matt Welch, from Sept. 2003, Blogworld: The new amateur journalists weigh in (Columbia Journalism Review):

… Like just about everything else, blogging changed forever on September 11, 2001. The destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon created a huge appetite on the part of the public to be part of The Conversation, to vent and analyze and publicly ponder or mourn. Many, too, were unsatisfied with what they read and saw in the mainstream media. Glenn Reynolds, proprietor of the wildly popular blog, thought the mainstream analysis was terrible. “All the talking heads … kept saying that ‘we’re gonna have to grow up, we’re gonna have to give up a lot of our freedoms,’” he says. “Or it was the ‘Why do they hate us’ sort of teeth-gnashing. And I think there was a deep dissatisfaction with that.” The daily op-ed diet of Column Left and Column Right often fell way off the mark…

Welch’s sense then was that The Conversation was not going to be opened up by Big Journalism, which participated in closing it down. Bloggers soon grabbed the momentum in opinion writing. See for purposes of reflection today Matt Welch at his weblog back in December, 2001: Two Ships Passing in the New Media Night.

Posted by Jay Rosen at August 19, 2004 4:58 PM