Hindsight and the 9/11 anniversary coverage

On September 11, 2001, Dunstan Prial, a reporter in the New York bureau of the Associated Press, was asleep when his future mother-in-law called to let him know that a plane had just hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Prial scrambled to get to the scene, catching one of the last trains out of Brooklyn before the subway was shut down, then scribbling eyewitness accounts in his notebook—“It’s like a war zone down there”; “I need to get home”; “People are jumping out of windows”—and using a payphone to read them to an editor. At one point, amid the chaos, a thick cloud billowed out from the collapsing towers. “I lay on my stomach, hugging the curb, barely moving or breathing,” Prial recalled, in a recent piece for CJR. “I wondered briefly if I was going to die. Instead a new world emerged, covered in grey dust.”

As the twentieth anniversary of that day approached, Prial was far from the only journalist to publicly revisit it. Richard Drew, also of the AP, reflected on his famous photo of a man falling through the air; Dan Barry, of the New York Times, also remembered the dust. Media reporters zoomed out to assess the coverage of 9/11, and its impact on the practice of journalism, examining the primacy, back then, of the three main news networks and their star anchors, all of them white men; the birth of the cable-news ticker; the viral conspiracy documentaries that set the stage, in some respects, for our current era of rampant online disinformation; and how 9/11 “Made the Media Whitewash What Really Happened in Bush v. Gore.” Such articles have comprised one stream of a steady, industry-wide gusher of anniversary stories in recent weeks, spanning most outlets and most beats. We’ve read about the “legacy” of 9/11 for torture, Wall Street, “unchecked data collection,” and “smart cities,” and learned “how 9/11 changed” architecture, air travel, cinema, “what Americans laugh at,” and “the way firefighters do their jobs in Madison,” Wisconsin. The Washington Post listed twenty-eight areas of change, from “bigotry, part I” to love. (“There’s no way to prove, of course, that 9/11 led more people to use the phrase ‘I love you’… But it was one of the first times Americans got such a visceral window into other people’s intimate conversations.”) The Times profiled Terry Albury, who worked at the FBI post-9/11, became disillusioned, leaked secrets to reporters, and was jailed. Defector debunked the internet legend that Dana Carvey observed a moment’s silence on 9/11 while dressed as a turtle on the set of The Master of Disguise. (This happened, just not on the day itself.)

From the magazine: Teen Vogue’s complicated political transformation

On Saturday, George W. Bush, who was president then, and Joe Biden, who is president now, marked the anniversary with remarks about American unity. Many reporters and pundits echoed the theme, often lamenting how much unity there was then and how little we see now. In a dispatch headlined “From United to Disunited States,” Jon Sopel, the BBC’s North America editor, quoted at length from “New Colossus,” the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty. On NBC, Lester Holt rued that while “new security rules and procedures to make us safer were met with patience” after 9/11, “the rules to make us safer today too often result in rage”; on CNN, Jim Acosta teared up as he said, “we didn’t just become divided, we let hate into our hearts—for each other.” There’s nothing wrong, of course, with celebrating the many stories of kindness, selflessness, and sacrifice that followed 9/11. But much analysis in this vein fell into a familiar trap of political framing: treating unity as good in and of itself, without noting the ugly objects of that unity post-9/11, and those—not least Muslim Americans—whom it excluded. If 9/11 ushered in an era of common purpose, politicians exploited it to usher in an era of violence overseas and unprecedented curbs on civil liberties—decisions, NPR’s Asma Khalid noted yesterday, that “paved the way for the very deep divisions and disunity that I think we see today” and were “based, to some degree, on fear.”

Much of the anniversary coverage did place the ugliness front and center, emphasizing Muslim voices and assessing the many costs of the war on terror, a discussion surely supercharged by the recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan; writing in The Atlantic, Garrett M. Graff, a longtime chronicler of 9/11 and its fallout, concluded that “the United States—as both a government and a nation—got nearly everything about our response wrong, on the big issues and the little ones.” Much of this coverage has been excellent. But as a whole, it, too, feels unsatisfying: many of the outlets publishing critical retrospectives, after all, were a part of the problems they’re now skewering. Liberal and conservative opinionators alike helped build an overwhelming consensus in favor of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, while anti-war voices were dismissed—as Noreen Malone put it in Slate’s superb recent podcast series on the road to the latter war—as “unserious”; news reporters were complicit as well, swallowing Bush administration claims about supposed “weapons of mass destruction” without sufficient scrutiny, then relegating the wars to the margins of the news cycle as they went horribly wrong. The media as a whole also abetted surging Islamophobia in American society, both actively and, in failing to consistently elevate and represent Muslim voices, passively; Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, wrote for The Hill last week that Muslims were demonized everywhere from liberal talk shows to fictional programs like Homeland and 24. Not every journalist, of course, was guilty of these sins. But the critical coverage now is of a greatly different magnitude to then.

As the anniversary approached, some observers objected to the sheer volume of the coverage, with many saying that they were avoiding it for reasons of personal trauma. “The rush to produce as much September 11 #content as possible this year has an almost frantic undercurrent to it,” Caroline Framke wrote for Variety. “There are countless 9/11 remembrances, tributes, news specials and retrospectives wanting to remind us of the devastation in granular detail, and as someone with a vivid memory of that day, I can’t imagine anything less appealing than spending its 20th anniversary watching a single one.” The volume of coverage points, too, to other problems that I’ve written about before, including major news organizations’ hesitancy to cover ongoing stories without the “peg” of an event, and the arbitrariness of using a round number as that peg. Anniversaries of major crises offer an opportunity for critical reflection, and that’s much better than no critical reflection at all. But it would be better if we didn’t rely on them—and better still if we brought critical perspectives to bear in the midst of the crisis itself. Hindsight, obviously, can be useful; time often brings clarity, and it’s unrealistic, not to mention undesirable, to expect the journalists who are living a tragedy to do so with complete emotional detachment. But the aftermath of 9/11 clouded the judgment of too many for too long, and that wasn’t inevitable. A more diverse news business, with different incentives and a different relationship to power, might have handled the story very differently.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

None of this is an abstraction. Much of the anniversary coverage drew parallels and contrasts with the pandemic, which—with the possible exception of the climate crisis—has had the biggest impact of any global event since 9/11. It’s not hard to imagine, twenty or so years from now, a flurry of stories looking back on the lives lost to COVID, the mistakes our leaders made in their response, and all the ways the world changed as a result. Many of those losses, mistakes, and changes are visible now, and have already attracted excellent media coverage. But we’re still in the eye of the storm. In twenty years, will we view COVID as a lesson well learned, or a missed opportunity to invest more in public health and pandemic preparedness? Will it be a tragedy we never forget, or one we were happy to bury once it ended (for rich nations, anyway)? These dynamics are not entirely in the media’s power, of course. But imagining what future anniversary coverage might look like—and how we might want it to look—now can help us shape it in the present, before it’s too late.

Below, more on 9/11:


Some news from the home front:
Today, CJR is out with a new issue of our magazine, focused on the direction of politics coverage in the post-Trump era. In the coming days, we’ll be rolling out articles from the magazine—by Adam Piore, Sam Sanders, Stephania Taladrid, E. Tammy Kim, Matt Bors, Hunter Walker, Osita Nwanevu, and others—on our website. First up this morning, Clio Chang profiles Teen Vogue, a magazine that was conceived, in 2003, “as a high-fashion alternative to Seventeen and CosmoGirl,” and has since transformed into a “charmingly unholy, strangely coherent mix of explainers on Karl Marx, op-eds calling for prison abolition, and on-the-ground protest coverage from teens—all of which sit beside profiles of Jari Jones, a transgender model; a guide to oral sex; and the latest on Zayn Malik and Gigi Hadid.” 


Other notable stories:

  • On Saturday, Rebekah Sanders, a reporter who chairs the Arizona Republic’s union, reflected on working “hundreds of hours of unpaid overtime” earlier in her career and not complaining because “it was drilled into me to ‘pay my dues.’” Michael Braga, the Republic’s investigations editor, responded: “Every business exploits the young—it’s called gaining experience, and I don’t regret it one bit.” This set off a firestorm on media Twitter; the AP’s Kat Stafford noted, representatively, that it’s attitudes like Braga’s that have led to “a lack of representation and pay equity in newsrooms across the country.”
  • Another story that was widely discussed on media Twitter over the weekend was written by Melissa Korn and Anthony DeBarros, of the Journal, who reported that graduates of top journalism master’s programs—at schools including Northwestern, Columbia, and the University of Southern California—are earning too little to pay off their student debt. Top schools are, in general, producing as many journalism graduates as they did twenty years ago and charging them more, even as the media industry contracts around them.
  • Allison Williams, of ESPN, will be absent from the sidelines this college football season after choosing not to get vaccinated against COVID-19; she wrote on social media that while vaccines are “essential” to ending the pandemic, having a shot “at this time is not in my best interest” as she tries for a child. Experts say that the vaccines are safe for women who are, or are trying to become, pregnant. NBC’s Elisha Fieldstadt has more.
  • In media-jobs news, Yahoo appointed Jim Lanzone, a former CBS executive who most recently led the dating app Tinder, as its new CEO. Elsewhere, Bill Church, a former top news executive at GateHouse and Gannett, will be the executive editor of the Raleigh News & Observer, which is owned by McClatchy. Church, who is Japanese-American, succeeds Robyn Tomlin, and will be the first person of color ever to lead the paper.
  • A judge in Wisconsin will force three local journalists to testify in the trial of two women who stand accused of beating a state lawmaker during racial-justice protests last year. Prosecutors convinced the judge that the journalists have unique insight into the case, and thus can be compelled to testify despite Wisconsin having a shield law; the reporters dispute this, and may appeal. Molly Beck has more for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • Doug McMurdo, the editor of the Moab Times-Independent, in Utah, has apologized to readers after the paper published “gruesome details” concerning the murders of two local women. “We should have crafted a less striking headline, a more thoughtful report on what we read,” McMurdo wrote. “There’s no rule that says we have to include every single fact.” The truth, he added, “can be told without such descriptive detail.”
  • In 2019, Walter Hussman, Jr., the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, caused a stir when he moved to pare back the paper’s print schedule and gave subscribers free iPads to read the digital edition. Now Hussman is planning to replicate the strategy at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, in Tennessee, which, by the middle of 2022, will publish a print edition only on Sundays. Hussman says the move is necessary to stay profitable.
  • BuzzFeed’s Joe Bernstein asks why the Real Facebook Oversight Board, a group run by high-profile critics of Facebook, appeared to celebrate an Australian court ruling that holds news publishers liable for other people’s comments on their Facebook posts—a ruling, Bernstein notes, that “does nothing directly to check Facebook’s power while harming the interests of the press.” (The RFOB denied celebrating the ruling.)
  • And, more than a year after the government of Lebanon collapsed following a massive explosion in Beirut, the country has a new cabinet; Najib Mikati, a telecoms billionaire, is the new prime minister, while George Kordahi, a former journalist who hosted the Arabic edition of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, will serve as interior minister. Lebanon is currently enduring one of the world’s worst economic crises since the 1800s.

ICYMI: Frustration, polarization, and the pandemic ‘endgame’ in America

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.