Redemption: Journalism and September 11
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, another take on the Pulitzers. Many of the journalism awards were for coverage of September 11 and its aftermath. Essayist Anne Taylor Fleming considers that coverage.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Planes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: The days and weeks after September 11 were brutal, a pain-filled national vigil, all of us feeling a wild swing and sway of emotions. But among those feelings, for those of us lifetime journalists, was a flicker of pride at the way our profession was acquitting itself. There were the TV anchors, sober, smart, wide-ranging, and suddenly, reporters everywhere, as if the world had suddenly been rediscovered. And the newspapers, rich with detail, a day-after-day mosaic of lives lived and lives lost, deft paragraphs that captured an entire life. It felt like a redemption of sorts, as if all that talent, and all that purpose, and all that seriousness had been there waiting to be somehow reawakened.
These have not been easy years in which to be an American journalist. And I’m not talking about what the public thinks of us– not much, according to polls– but about what we think of ourselves. It’s been a constant soul search, watching the profession so many of us have loved turn into something for which we have often had barely concealed contempt: Rummaging through the private lives of public people. Churning out celebrity Profiles — fashioning quips to make the rounds of the chat shows. That was the new news mandate. Journalists became part of the entertainment package served up daily for public consumption by news organizations that were now huge conglomerates chasing the bottom line.
Disney, for example, owner of ABC, sought, with nary a shrug of defensiveness, to replace “Nightline” newsman Ted Koppel with funnyman David Letterman. “I’m proud of what we did,” said an ABC executive– off the record. Yes, there was still good work being done in magazines, on documentaries; first-rate reporters working the story. But in the main, we couldn’t escape the feeling that the exhilarating and, yes, even noble business we got into, no longer existed.
I became a journalist in the early ’70s, following in the footsteps of the man I married, Karl Fleming. A legendary southern journalist, he’d been in Birmingham for the fatal church bombing, and with James Meredith the day he entered Ole Miss. For Newsweek magazine, he covered the Kennedy assassinations– John’s, then Robert’s– and walked beside Martin Luther King’s funeral wagon. In 1966, in the streets of Los Angeles, he was almost killed covering the watts riots when some young black man hit him over the heard with a four-by- four and fractured his skull. Meanwhile, many of his colleagues were off risking their lives in Vietnam, while at home, there was another war to be covered in the streets, and a President to confront and ultimately force from office, largely due to the efforts of a reportorial duo, Woodward and Bernstein. In short, the message to a young aspiring journalist was clear: Journalism was high-stakes moral stuff; compelling, collegial, necessary for democracy, for people to make an informed choice.
Then, of course, there was the women’s movement, giving me and my female colleagues our own big-league integration story to cover. It was all heady stuff. No doubt, part of my reaction is pure nostalgia. But the larger part is a reaction to the trivialization of the news, to what is has become: Local news shows full of lifestyle tips; magazines choking on the stuff of celebrity. These days, though, I am trying to concentrate more on the positive news about the news. I look at the post 9/11 newspapers, which I have in my archives. I read about the journalists killed worldwide trying to report from scary places– 37 last year. I read about the journalists trying to break the veil of secrecy surrounding the war on terrorism, and I look at the face of Daniel Pearl, that engaged amusement playing on his face– not smirky talk show host amusement, but a deep-down, engaged-with-the-world amusement, and I am for those moments once again proud of my profession and cautiously optimistic about its future.
I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.