The media since 9/11: Living after the fall

This column, written to mark the 5th anniversary of 9/11, was originally published on Sept. 12, 2006.

Late in the afternoon of Sept. 12, 2001, I walked over to Times Square from my office in midtown Manhattan and joined a small crowd beside a New York Times delivery truck to buy a copy from the special run of the morning paper. It was an extraordinary document, that day’s Times, story after story, stunning photos, firsthand testimony by a great news organization at the top of its game to an unparalleled assault on its own hometown.

I bought it not to read, but to keep. And looking back at 9/11 and its significance to the life of this country’s media, it struck me that buying a newspaper to memorialize a day now seems archaic. People used to do that when they married or their kids were born. It’s a custom that rested, in part, on the belief in a nexus joining key moments in our private lives to the sweep of history in which our lives are embedded. That belief still seems reasonable.

But it also rested on the belief that the newspaper was a trustworthy chronicle of that wider history. And with five years now separating us from the searing events of 9/11, among the changes in the world of media since the Twin Towers fell the collapse of that belief is among the biggest.

It’s not the only change. The cascade of fractiousness, distrust, loathing and mean-spiritedness that the media endure, indulge in, and in some cases profit from, is a post-9/11 reality. The economic and technological tumult in media operation, which has led to corporate realignment of legacy media and a gold rush to Internet news, has achieved unprecedented velocity in this new era.

Newsroom layoffs are routine, even among rich, high-end companies, and coverage of government deeds and misdeeds bring the media harsh attacks, legal reprisals and fierce denunciations of their motives and loyalties.

That’s now, though.

So much has gone badly for the news media that it’s hard to remember just how buoyant they were in the months after 9/11. They rode a wave of patriotism and a sure sense of national purpose; they basked in the importance suddenly assigned to their reporting on a foreign menace that most of them, like most of the public, had been ignorant of.

The question on everyone’s mind — how can we be safe? — was asked and answered by the media. The answer, which was to sign on to the rush to war, was deplorable, but that realization came late. For now, people were listening to journalists, poll numbers rose and despite the severe advertising recession that was rocking their business-side brethren, newsroom morale was sky-high.

It couldn’t last, and it hasn’t.

Parallels with the 1960s are hard to resist. There too, in November 1963, when John Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas, the media constituted the public space in which a national ritual of grief and rededication was enacted. The assassination’s aftermath, three days in which shops, theaters and restaurants were shut and much of the country sat around their TV screens, has gone down in media histories as the moment when television became the forum on which public life was sustained.

But there too, within five years the news media were being excoriated. The press had shone its light onto civil rights betrayals, domestic unrest bordering on insurrection and a murderous war whose authors had systematically lied and reneged on their promises. In return, by the end of the decade the news media themselves were cast in the role of political spoilers, and media vilification had become a surefire applause line in speeches by government leaders from Vice President Spiro Agnew on down.

The post-9/11 media are, to be sure, a more bewildering complex. The ferocious proliferation of channels is without precedent. For many young people, political satire is no longer a sidecar to the news, but is the main vehicle through which they learn of contemporary realities. Growing segments of the public are growing used to, and apparently prefer, getting news filtered through a prism of overt ideological purpose. Truth is a bitter, open-ended negotiation. With consensus impossible to achieve, power flows to those who can thrive on fragmentation.

True, mainstream media can still unify the public gaze on events of great moment, such as the Asia tsunami in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina last year. Coverage of both drew from vast reserves of courage and enterprise — and from makeshift networks of informants using the new Internet channels for otherwise unobtainable words and images.

But it’s a post-9/11 world; the towers are down, we’re living after the fall. Whether the national conversation can be reconstituted remains far from clear, and far from certain.

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