Reporting America At War
About The Series
The Reporters
Richard Harding Davis
Martha Gellhorn
Edward R. Murrow
Ernie Pyle
Walter Cronkite
Andy Rooney
Robert Capa
Homer Bigart
David Halberstam
Malcolm W. Browne
Gloria Emerson
Morley Safer
Peter Arnett
Ward Just
Chris Hedges
Christiane Amanpour

For Teachers
The Reporters

How September 11th Changed Journalism

A lot of things happened in the post-September 11th environment that shouldn't have happened, that perhaps, with cooler heads, we would have stood firmer against. But I think you can understand that. I think America was really traumatized. For the first time in its history, it had been attacked on its soil, and in the most unimaginable manner. To this day, I find it hard to believe what happened. [It was] truly abominable. So the media of the country felt its position was to be patriotic, to rally around the commander-in-chief, to do what it saw the people of the country doing — partly following the lead of the people and partly because they are Americans themselves. This was their country that was being attacked, and natural instincts came out.

I think that you probably would not find many people defending those decisions in retrospect. [It was] outrageous — taking an order from the White House not to play tapes [of Osama bin Laden]; issuing orders about how to say things on television, what to say, how to caution people about political viewpoints — something we wouldn't accept in normal environments. I think if you were to ask the decision makers, they would agree with you, in retrospect, that those decisions were born out of an unparalleled sense of attack and endagerment.

I believe the press has played a role [in the demonization of enemies], but I think it is usually in the beginning of a conflict, when everybody's emotions are raw. As things settle down, as we get into a rhythm, as we've been at a location for a certain period of time, as this goes on longer than a day or a week or a month, then I think demonizing starts being less of a problem.

We in the press have been accused, often unfairly, of creating and influencing policy. This accusation was lobbed a lot during the Balkan War. My honest opinion is that we do have an effect, sometimes negative and sometimes positive, but we cannot make policy unless there is a policy vacuum. As long as an administration does not have a coherent policy, then that vacuum will be filled by television pictures or newspaper stories or radio reports. But as long as they have a policy, then I think our influence is the right one. We're able to bring [to viewers and readers] the reality of what's going on — the humanitarian situation, the political situation, the military situation.

After September 11th, many people in the United States started asking, "Why? What happened? Why did these people hate us? What is the reason for this?" There's no real explanation for what these maniacal suicide bombers did, other than they hate the United States. But there's a lot of context we can tell people about why the United States is viewed in a certain way, particularly in the Muslim world. We reporters following the international world tried to provide that context, and some of us were roundly criticized for doing so, as if we had no right to explain what was going on in the rest of the world.

It is the businesspeople, the bosses who are in charge of our organizations, who have decided — for commercial reasons, mostly — that Americans don't need to know about international news — that they don't need to know anything other than business news, tabloid trivia, titillating stuff. September 11th — I believe, I hope — changed that for good. It certainly changed it immediately, but I hope it changed it for good, forever. [The attacks] just showed how much — for their own security, if nothing else — Americans must know about what is going on beyond the shores of the United States. I have always believed that Americans do care and are interested, as long as stories are told in a compelling and relevant manner, as long as the storytellers are interesting. People want to know what is going on, but our corporations have relied on what I call "hocus pocus focus groups" that tell them essentially what they want to hear and fits their business plan. The net result is you get to a situation like September 11th and the whole country is saying, "Why didn't we know more about this? Why didn't you ever tell us?"

From Reporting America at War: An Oral History, compiled by Michelle Ferrari, with commentary by James Tobin, published by Hyperion, 2003. Copyright ©, 2003 Goodhue Pictures.

Photo: Christiane Amanpour Reporter's Notebook