CJR Rewind: Back to the Future

September 11th and the future of journalism

This article, by Andie Tucher, ran in our November 2001 issue.

Back in August, when I agreed to write a piece on the future of journalism, I figured that peering ahead to explore where we’re going wouldn’t be terribly hard for a journalism historian like me who has spent a lot of time peering back to explore where we’ve been. So much seemed predictable.

More media companies would merge or expand, leading to more random acts of synergy and more blatant concern for the bottom line. More Matt Drudges, their essential inanity exposed, would flame out as the Future of Journalism. More new-media hipsters, undaunted by the souring of the dot-com economy, would continue to write gleeful, poke-in-the-eye columns about how frightened the old-media dinosaurs are by the youth, the energy, the immediacy, and the democratic openness of the Web. More old-media dinosaurs would struggle to hold their consumers with stories about crime, celebrities, health, scandal, and the man-monkey that wasn’t, in fact, terrorizing India. They would become less and less distinguishable from each other and from everything else out there in print and on the air. Irony would rule, seriousness would be for sissies, and the late-night comics would still be considered valid sources for news.

What else could you expect, really, from a nation generally peaceful and still noticeably prosperous? A nation where most people considered public affairs boring and politics essentially irrelevant to their quest for personal fulfillment?
That was, of course, Before, and now that the terrorist attacks have so radically changed the national landscape, that vision of the future of journalism seems as quaint as the world of, say, the 1920s — with which, after a few minor substitutions like “radio” for “Web” or “Winchell” for “Drudge,” the United States that was smashed on September 11 bore some striking parallels. Now other sets of historical parallels kick in and other visions of the future of journalism arise: the unsparing photojournalism of the 1930s that brought home the silent aches of the Depression; the humane and courageous coverage of the war in the ’40s and of the civil rights movement that came after it; the feisty investigative reporting of the late ’60s and early ’70s that dared to question authority. The “Greatest Generation” that fought World War II was great because it had to be — because it faced a greater crisis than any its parents had or its children would. And if the United States is entering yet another era of pain and challenge, a small compensation might be that journalism too has a history of rising to the occasion.

To rise to this occasion, to meet the challenge of filling the public’s urgent need for information about the shape of things to come, will not be easy. Journalism will obviously have to become less trivial — but it will also have to become less shallow, less breathless and hasty, less content with articles that don’t jump, Web sites that don’t scroll, and evening-news pieces that don’t last longer than the list of side effects in the heartburn commercial. We might even see the revivification of genres and conventions that just weeks ago had seemed hopelessly old-fashioned.

Genres like the documentary. We had arrived at the point where to many people the word “documentary” meant “Ken Burns,” and a “Ken Burns documentary” meant a film with the color of honey and the pace of molasses; the musical score would be plaintive; you would receive three copies of the companion book as holiday gifts; and the first episode would contain at least six repetitions of the phrase “uniquely [pause] American.” Your heart would probably be warmed.

At the same time, however, fewer and fewer documentaries by anybody not named Burns were seeing air. PBS still has its long-running weekly series — The American Experience, NOVA, P.O.V., Frontline — as well as Bill Moyers’s occasional specials. But the Burns legacy seemed to have made PBS and its corporate and foundation sponsors hungry for more Burns-like ratings from more Burns-like blockbusters on generally feel-good topics like jazz or baseball, and less interested in modest stand-alone independent productions that might actually make the viewer feel unsettled or challenged.

Cable had a busy schedule of things that resembled documentaries, but except for some of the productions of the consistently surprising HBO, most of those betrayed, in their formulaic sameness, the constraints of tiny budgets and cramped schedules. And the networks had just about given up on the serious long-form exploration of current affairs in prime time — those White Papers and Reports that used to be a modest but obligatory part of the season line-up and whose producers were often allowed the luxury of plotting their deadlines on the calendar, not the watch.

The networks did point to a few exceptions. ABC News’s once-or-twice-yearly Peter Jennings Reporting series has taken on an eclectic range of subjects, some of them much more current than others; one of last year’s entries examined the power of the National Rifle Association, the other the life of Jesus. Other programs have come under the rubrics of existing magazine shows. Once a year Ed Bradley has devoted the entire hour of 60 Minutes II to a single topic such as warning signs before the Columbine shootings or AIDS in Africa. NBC News’s Dateline, too, has periodically turned an entire program over to one correspondent exploring a single issue; recent hours have examined teenage Sudanese refugees in America and a murder inspired by racist Web sites.

In September alone, NBC News did have on the schedule two programs it somehow called “News Specials.” The first, “Revenge of the Whale,” portrayed the ordeal of desperate sailors driven to cannibalism after a sperm whale sank their ship in a remote stretch of the Pacific. The description of the program on MSNBC.com suggests one reason NBC considered this 181-year-old event newsy enough to deserve a two-hour special. Under the headline “Survivors’ Nightmare,” the blurb tells us this is “Nantucket-style reality TV” that “makes all those survivors look like sissies” — and of course back in early September a reference to “survivors” still meant only one thing, CBS’s wildly popular last-person-left-standing reality program. The second special, an hour with Tom Brokaw called “A Day in the Life of President Bush: Inside the Real West Wing,” had been scheduled as the lead-in for the season premiere of one of NBC’s hottest hit shows. (It was “postponed by the White House,” says NBC News spokeswoman Barbara Levin.)

In our new post-attack lives, of course, a lot of what we used to do has come to look embarrassingly trivial, and it’s not entirely fair to judge yesterday’s bright ideas with today’s sobered consciousness. But we can hope that our new seriousness might make unthinkable a repetition of the phenomenon of a news division devoting its resources and brand name to fighting the battles of the entertainment division. In the early days after the attacks, the networks and cable news channels showed that they could do impressive work on the fly — and viewers, notably those Rangers and Flyers fans who demanded to watch the president’s address to Congress instead of the end of a tied hockey game, showed their eagerness to follow the story. As events continue to unfold, perhaps news divisions will find the time, and see the need, to do the protracted reporting and to devote the on-air hours instead of minutes that will be required to set this story in its whole sprawling context.

Another traditional medium that was looking precarious before the attacks may also earn new respect in a reshaped media world. Newspapers have, of course, been under an almost constant deathwatch for decades, slated for demolition by radio, by television, by the Internet, by the movies (which would soak up all available leisure), or by the car (drivers can’t read while commuting). And it’s true that the total number of newspapers, the number of independent papers and two-paper cities, and the circulation figures have all been sliding for years, while the shrinking economy has been bringing worrisome layoffs. The Newhouse family’s privately held Advance chain has been earning praise and Pulitzers for the independence and relatively unfettered budgets allowed its editors — but it has been the Gannett chain, with its mingy accounting, scrunched news holes, and unprecedented 28 percent operating margin last year, that seemed the more popular industry model.

Television, clearly, does some things very, very well, and many of those things were on display in September: it was immediate, it was riveting, it was authoritative, it never slept, and it provided a stable, familiar hearth around which strangers could gather and mourn in communion. It sacrificed its ad revenues and busted its budgets. CNN, with its man already on the ground in Afghanistan, didn’t look so outdated anymore.

Yet the crisis brought out the best in newspapers, too. Part of their appeal, of course, is exactly what Dan Rather was widely derided for acknowledging in his coverage of President Bush’s August decision on stem-cell research — that they have the capacity to handle complex matters better than television. And faced with such truly complex (and often non-visual) matters as global politics, international conspiracy, economic emergency, and the possibility of a new and covert kind of war, the newspapers that had refused to sacrifice such expensive and unfashionable assets as investigative teams, specialized beats, foreign correspondents, or international sources were quickly able to turn in some astonishing in-depth reporting on backgrounds, causes, consequences, and corollaries.

Newspapers, like broadcasts, also fulfill psychic and social roles. On September 12 those of us who lived in the “frozen zone” of lower Manhattan awoke, after a day of tragic sights, to one that in its own small way was profoundly disorienting: the doormat without a newspaper on it. Hustling north through the police barricades to the places where delivery trucks still trundled, passing delis and newsstands already depleted by ravening readers, my neighbors and I seemed to share the almost panicky conviction that no matter how many times we’d watched those TV pictures of fireballs and smoke, no matter how long we had surfed the Web while keeping an ear on NPR, somehow the whole awful event didn’t seem real yet because we hadn’t held it in our hands, hadn’t yet seen it brutally pinned beneath that familiar typeface. It took me half an hour to find the paper I needed, and as I hurried home clutching my precious find, people kept stopping me to ask where I’d gotten it. “Is that the Times?” one woman asked me wildly. “Oh God, the Times! The Times!”

Newspapers can satisfy one role that television, radio, and the Web cannot, a role that in times of crisis is more comforting and crucial than ever: they are the most tolerant and open-handed custodians we have of the public memory. That issue of September 12, 2001, which you put away in a drawer will, you can be sure, be compatible with your grandchildren — just like the copy your grandparents kept from December 8, 1941.

Historical parallels take us only so far, of course — and some of them can show us patterns we’d rather not follow. A war on terrorism, whatever form it ends up taking, will obviously bring new stresses to bear on the perennial wartime tensions between the undeniable exigencies of national security and the people’s right to know what their government is doing in their name. And the example of our most recent large-scale combat experience, the Persian Gulf war, raises many issues of concern, among them that we might see a recurrence of the unnecessarily tight-fisted government control over the flow of information (some of which, it became clear long afterwards, was knowingly inaccurate), or that a gung-ho press corps might again forget that its job is to witness, not to emulate Bob Hope on a war-bond tour.

George Bernard Shaw remarked long ago that journalists “are unable, seemingly, to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization.” Journalism failed its public in recent years by lavishing on frivolous topics the attention, the gravity, and the resources that by right belong to its true business — exploring the state of civilization, or at least of its citizens. Now that the nation is faced with a crisis it cannot ignore, journalists would be equally irresponsible if they tried to treat this threat to civilization with nothing more than the resources due the smash of a Schwinn.C

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Andie Tucher is the author of Froth and Scum, a book about the Penny Press and teaches at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. Tags: , ,