I have long held that most of the people who grow up to be reporters are idealists. We like to think if we just dig deeper, understand better and listen harder, we will find something revealing — then get to share it with the world.
But much of the time, reporters act as witnesses, as translators for transformative events.
On the night of September 11, 2001 and for the nights, months and years that followed, we did as most Americans did — hung flags on our front porches, wept for the lost lives, said a prayer or two.
But we also observed and investigated and absorbed the events of the day that would change the jobs we do. During the past several weeks, we’ve turned to the reporters who appear on Washington Week for their memories of the day — of the attacks and the aftermath.
Reporters like McClatchy’s Nancy Youssef, whose parents emigrated to the United States from Egypt in the 1970s, knew instinctively that there was a connection between the terrorism and al-Qaida. She saw a story she was in a unique position to tell.
“I had something to say,” says Youssef, who speaks Arabic. “I wanted to say something about the Arab world, and almost be a bridge, if you will, between my Egyptian Arabic roots and my American roots.”
“Suddenly my whole life got defined by these wars,” she adds. “When I think about my life, it’s pre-9/11 and post 9/11.”
The Wall Street Journal’s David Wessel still gets emotional discussing the attacks because he can now draw a bright line to the murder of his friend and colleague Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped the following year while reporting in Pakistan. “It was very hard to be detached from this story,” he recalls.
Martha Raddatz, the ABC national security correspondent, remembers that day deciding to putting her “fear in a box” so she could do her job.
Since then, that job has taken her to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan three dozen times during the last decade. “I became a regular commuter to war zones,” she says.
“But once I started going, I never wanted to stop,” she continues. “It became so important to me, and personal in some ways. To me I have this human connection to people I’ve covered, their families, to their careers, to life and death.”
Michael Duffy, the TIME magazine bureau chief, remembers his tough, experienced reporters gathering in his office in tears.
But the tears dried quickly. They had to. Karen Tumulty, who was then at TIME, ran for the subway only to discover that the cars headed into the city were nearly empty; the ones heading out, crammed.
One of the few people she saw heading in was another reporter she knew, the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib. “We just looked at each other in disbelief,” she says now. “But of course a reporter’s instinct immediately is to rush toward the story.”
And just like most Americans, the reporters worried about their children. “It was so hard to separate the story from your own personal life,” said the New York Times’ Jackie Calmes, whose children were in grade school then.
“I knew that my children would live under a different type of shadow, a different type of threat that would never go away,” said Charles Babington, now with Associated Press, who watched the planes hit the towers in his Washington Post newsroom.
For a time, we felt like better people. Bipartisanship reigned. We spoke to our neighbors. Politicians stood together, and governments almost everywhere stood with America. And journalists were forced to turn their eyes from solely domestic matters.
“I think that all news organizations in Washington and probably around the country have had to change the way we look at government, the way we look at the world,” Michael Duffy says. “It changed the way we do business. It changed the way the government does business. I think it also changed the way Americans feel about America, and their confidence, that we haven’t quite gotten over.”
But there remains little trace of the sense of national unity that followed the attacks.
“We were not a nonpartisan, bipartisan country before 9/11” says National Journal’s Major Garrett. “Those tendencies have returned. They’ve intensified. That’s a reflection of the media. That’s a reflection of the reduction in the power of political parties, and the reduction in the number of of wise men and wise women who council calmness over intransigence and anger.”
“I sometimes wonder, is this some sign of some deep national character flaw?” Tumulty says. “But I think I’d prefer to think that it really is a testament to our resilience, that we really can get back to normal — however problematic normal may be.”
Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.