Newspapers, like broadcasts, also fulfill psychic and social roles. On September 12 those of us who lived in the “frozen zone” of lower Manhattan awoke, after a day of tragic sights, to one that in its own small way was profoundly disorienting: the doormat without a newspaper on it. Hustling north through the police barricades to the places where delivery trucks still trundled, passing delis and newsstands already depleted by ravening readers, my neighbors and I seemed to share the almost panicky conviction that no matter how many times we’d watched those TV pictures of fireballs and smoke, no matter how long we had surfed the Web while keeping an ear on NPR, somehow the whole awful event didn’t seem real yet because we hadn’t held it in our hands, hadn’t yet seen it brutally pinned beneath that familiar typeface. It took me half an hour to find the paper I needed, and as I hurried home clutching my precious find, people kept stopping me to ask where I’d gotten it. “Is that the Times?” one woman asked me wildly. “Oh God, the Times! The Times!”
Newspapers can satisfy one role that television, radio, and the Web cannot, a role that in times of crisis is more comforting and crucial than ever: they are the most tolerant and open-handed custodians we have of the public memory. That issue of September 12, 2001, which you put away in a drawer will, you can be sure, be compatible with your grandchildren — just like the copy your grandparents kept from December 8, 1941.
Historical parallels take us only so far, of course — and some of them can show us patterns we’d rather not follow. A war on terrorism, whatever form it ends up taking, will obviously bring new stresses to bear on the perennial wartime tensions between the undeniable exigencies of national security and the people’s right to know what their government is doing in their name. And the example of our most recent large-scale combat experience, the Persian Gulf war, raises many issues of concern, among them that we might see a recurrence of the unnecessarily tight-fisted government control over the flow of information (some of which, it became clear long afterwards, was knowingly inaccurate), or that a gung-ho press corps might again forget that its job is to witness, not to emulate Bob Hope on a war-bond tour.
George Bernard Shaw remarked long ago that journalists “are unable, seemingly, to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization.” Journalism failed its public in recent years by lavishing on frivolous topics the attention, the gravity, and the resources that by right belong to its true business — exploring the state of civilization, or at least of its citizens. Now that the nation is faced with a crisis it cannot ignore, journalists would be equally irresponsible if they tried to treat this threat to civilization with nothing more than the resources due the smash of a Schwinn.C
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