Impact on the News
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JIM LEHRER: Sept. 11 and its many aftermaths, nine nights of programming that will examine the challenges and opportunities created by what happened on that horrific day. We’ll have discussions on such things as the judicial system and the government’s intelligence apparatus; updates on people we met right after the tragedy, like the men who work at a fire station in Greenwich Village, and a group of American Muslims in California; and individual conversations about how we’ve changed with an historian, a clerical leader, a poet, a community organizer, a college president, a New York writer, a political scientist, and Vice President Cheney, among others.
We begin it all now with a look at the impact of 9/11 on news organizations. Media correspondent Terence Smith has that.
TERENCE SMITH: Joining me here at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism to discuss the impact of September 11 on the U.S. Media are Howell Raines executive editor of the New York Times; Aaron Brown, anchor and managing editor of CNN’s “News Night”; Nancy Maynard, a former newspaper reporter, publisher, and now media analyst; and Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News. Welcome to all of you.
There was certainly a short-term impact on the news media after September 11, an intense period of coverage and focus on this huge story. I guess the question is, is there a lasting impact on the new media and the way they go about their job? Howell?
HOWELL RAINES, Executive Editor, The New York Times: I suppose there is in terms of how we approach a big story. At the New York Times this was a story that played to our strength, as it were, in that we’re used to marshalling our resources on…in a concentrated way on big stories. What was different was the emotional impact of this story on us as we were doing it, and I think we were all…
TERENCE SMITH: Because it was in your backyard?
HOWELL RAINES: Because it was in our backyard and because of the extraordinary loss of life, wherever it had occurred, and because of the unique historical phenomena of an attack on American soil by an outside enemy for the first time in over a half a century.
TERENCE SMITH: Nancy, any lasting impact now, a year later?
NANCY MAYNARD, President, Maynard Partners: I think that the media was timid at first. It was organized, but I think it was timid in dealing with the dissent and some of the issues around the government’s behavior and response. I think it’s found its voice, I think it’s found its voice very well. I’m very happy about what’s happened to the media in the year since. I think we’re seeing ourselves as something between the army and the CIA, in that we’re…we have capacity needs and we have intelligence needs. And it’s a different way of thinking about coverage in modern times, so I’m pleased with what’s happened. I don’t know if the public is, but I think in terms of serving the public needs best, we’re really getting at things now in a way that we weren’t before 9/11.
TERENCE SMITH: Aaron, I wonder what…you, of course, were on the air nonstop on 9/11 and subsequently to that. A year later, what’s the…what’s the impact?
AARON BROWN, Anchor and Managing Editor, CNN NewsNight: Well, I think, much like Howell said, I think for an organization like CNN, it played to our strength, and one of the things that’s happened since is that as an organization, we have again come to understand what it is we are, that we’re a news-gathering organization first and foremost. We are not an organization that first and foremost sits around and talks about the news. We actually go report it.
TERENCE SMITH: Andrew Heyward, the broadcast networks, CBS certainly, galvanized itself and covered this story also on a continuous basis. As you look back on it and think about the job you have to do now, what’s the impact?
ANDREW HEYWARD, President, CBS News: This story has certainly had a lasting impact in terms of sheer volume. I don’t remember any story in the history of broadcast television that has so dominated, even a year later, the hard news agenda. It’s striking. I’m fascinated by the mix between this and other concerns. The economy now is a matter of concern, and also some more trivial issues have come back into the news. And I think while people tend to bemoan that, I see it as a positive sign in that a mix of important, earth-shaking news and more diverting news is probably a healthy sign that America, to some degree, is getting back to normal. Obsession with small things is a luxury that we indulged in, overindulged in before 9/11, and have started now to mix back into the diet.
TERENCE SMITH: Howell, have some stories gotten lost, or did they for a period?
HOWELL RAINES: Probably, although I have to say that I think, you know, I often say the one thing that my part of the country learned from U.S. Grant is “concentrate your resources at the point of attack.” And I think on a story of this kind of comprehensive, consuming interest and scope, going back to 9/11, you remember first we had terrorism, then the search for al-Qaida, then a war. I think there’s not much choice except to…to try to get your arms around something of that of that scale.
NANCY MAYNARD: Yeah, we’ve had three stories like that this year, and they all I think have a common theme. If you deal with 9/11 and with, with the business breakdown, you know, the bubble bursting and, and the corruption in business, and in the Catholic Church, some of the most important institutions in our country have come under attack, and the American public is watching. I think that the voice of the media right now is more important than it ever was.
TERENCE SMITH: But you spoke earlier of some timidity…
NANCY MAYNARD: Yeah.
TERENCE SMITH: …that you saw in approaching difficult or sensitive subjects. What do you mean?
NANCY MAYNARD: The early dissent about homeland security, those kinds of stories were very much inside the paper. I mean, when Patrick Leahy, who is not someone on the street corner, but is the chairman of Senate Judiciary Committee, is dissenting with the administration on its legislation, my generation of journalists expects that to be on the front page.
TERENCE SMITH: Was it on your front page?
AARON BROWN: It was absolutely on “NewsNight’s” front page.
TERENCE SMITH: That’s what I mean.
AARON BROWN: We did the story a fair amount, and we’ve done it several times in several different ways, and probably got creamed for having done it.
TERENCE SMITH: Creamed in terms of audience?
AARON BROWN: Well, I don’t think audiences were particularly interested in it. Certainly, you know, we live in a time of mass e-mailing, and it does tend to focus one’s attention perhaps more than it should. Some of the nastiest mail I’ve gotten in my life came in that period, and it came up again when the government took Mr. Padilla out of jail here in New York, and put him in a military brig, and we began to ask what I think is one of the great important lasting questions of this time, which has to do with this very dicey balance between civil liberties, constitutional protections in a time of war and national security. And it’s been a very difficult issue for us.
ANDREW HEYWARD: But looking beyond CNN and trying to be a little bit more global here, I don’t think you can really deny Nancy’s point that in the early going, all the mainstream media, and I think understandably, were swept up in the experience. To Howell’s point, it wasn’t just New Yorkers showing themselves as victims.
HOWELL RAINES: I really don’t think the printed record will support your generalization. I think…I have a very different view. The press was early to the Civil Liberties Union in civil liberties issue in comparison to political figures, including Senator Leahy, with all due respect.
ANDREW HEYWARD: It took a while, understandably, during the first few weeks, the overwhelming emphasis of the coverage was on the impact of the attack, and there was a natural tendency to be supportive of the Administration that I think permeated all of the mainstream media, and as I say, I think it’s understandable. And if we look back at it, maybe there are some things we ought to be second guessing. I think everybody– to Nancy’s other point– has now restored a more appropriate balance, probably ahead, as Aaron says, of where the public would like us to be.
NANCY MAYNARD: Muscle journalism.
TERENCE SMITH: I don’t know if I know what that means, but it sounds very robust.
HOWELL RAINES: Well, I don’t want to be argumentative, but I think there’s a revisionism here. If you go back and look at the news calendar, the fact is that the issue of detentions matured over the period that you’re saying it was being ignored. It simply wasn’t a mature legal issue in terms of litigation, in terms of representation, in terms of the constitutional and political debate, until we got out of the initial explosive period.
TERENCE SMITH: All right, let me ask you about the public’s reaction to all of this, because the Pew Research Center came out with a poll in which, in July, that said that now only 49 percent of the public rated the media’s performance as highly professional and accurate, down from 73 percent in November of last year. So a huge drop. In fact, it dropped below what it was before 9/11. That’s a very critical judgment. What’s going on here?
ANDREW HEYWARD: At a time when American men and women are putting their lives at risk overseas, and at a time when there’s still fear about impending attacks, anything that smacks of dissent and debate is anathema to a lot of viewers and readers. And they want a kind of jingoistic, non-critical journalism that in fact they don’t really want, I think. But the visceral reaction is “They’re constantly scaring me. They’re irritating me, enough already.”
AARON BROWN: Yeah. Though, you know, I mean, it’s television. You get angry mail on anything, including your tie. So, you know…
TERENCE SMITH: That’s a terrific one. (Laughter)
AARON BROWN: Finally, a compliment. I’ve never had audiences as engaged as they are right now, because this stuff matters, and they get it that it matters. And if we’re off… if we’re off the things that matter to them, they are not happy.
TERENCE SMITH: Is your mission or role or obligation at this stage on this story, and the related aspects of it, different in the wake of 9/11? We are dealing with an amorphous thing called “a war on terrorism.” Is it different?
HOWELL RAINES: No. I think not in the…if we’re talking fundamentals here. We have an intellectual contract with our readers, which is we’ll tell you what we know when we know it, within a framework of intellectual testing for soundness and information and within obviously the boundaries of law, and in certain cases, whether national security interests are involved.
I think we’re going to see some interesting revisitations of journalistic history. For example, as the Iraq debate plays out of a war, I’m hearing a lot of echoes of the early ’60s, when people were saying it was unpatriotic to report the debate over Vietnam.
TERENCE SMITH: Speaking of Iraq…Howell, you personally, and the New York Times, has been accused of campaigning against military intervention in Iraq in its news columns.
HOWELL RAINES: Right.
TERENCE SMITH: First of all, how do you…how do you plead to that charge made largely by conservative columnists, and secondly, what does the debate reveal to you?
HOWELL RAINES: When you look at what the conservative columnists are saying, they’re expressing a perception of opinion, and they’re the best witness on it. I can only tell you what our reality is, which is that there is a debate playing out in the nation involving people such as Brent Scowcroft, Jim Baker, Larry Eagleburger, Ambassador Zinni, and of course, Henry Kissinger, that goes very much to the question of is this administration making the case for military intervention, and is it militarily prepared for it? I would say that we’re following that debate, and indeed both the reporting of it and the existence of it are important parts of the national scene.
TERENCE SMITH: The accusation is that you’re more than following it, that you’re campaigning against military intervention.
HOWELL RAINES: As I say, the people who make those kinds of accusations, usually for ideological reasons, are the best witness on why they say that. In this kind of reporting, one of the lessons of Vietnam is that it’s important to ask the questions at the front end of the war, not afterwards.
TERENCE SMITH: Andrew, how is CBS news doing its job differently?
ANDREW HEYWARD: I think to a large degree the news drives the agenda, so we’re spending more time overseas than we did; probably more time on Washington policy than we did. We’re trying to do as much original reporting as we can because we think that’s the role that’s left for us given the fact that the cable networks do a very good job covering breaking news as it happens.
So a lot of this is just a matter of following where the news takes you. I’ll be interested to see over the long term whether the interest in international news that certainly was revived by this…it’s something the “Times” has been committed to consistently in its first section, but that the broadcast networks have vacillated on more.
TERENCE SMITH: Isn’t that partly whether you continue to cover it and put it on the air?
ANDREW HEYWARD: Well, but, you know, we do operate in the marketplace, and to an extent, I think, you know, we have to balance our own journalistic judgment with the needs of the audience.
TERENCE SMITH: Andrew, wrap it up for us with a thought on how…what the real role of the media is now on the anniversary of 9/11, what it should be, what kind of day it is, and how you go forward and cover this question of military intervention in Iraq? Aaron?
AARON BROWN: We’re going to balance the events of the day, which will be very moving, and I think very difficult for people in many ways, with journalism that we’ve been working on to try and report a year later everything we know about what really happened almost literally minute by minute on 9/11.
TERENCE SMITH: Andrew?
ANDREW HEYWARD: One of the things that 9/11 showed is that, you know, that the national newspapers, the cable and network news channels, can be a gathering place for a country that’s looking for information, for answers, and also for a shared experience.
TERENCE SMITH: Andrew, Aaron, Nancy, Howell, thank you all very much.