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For My Journalism Students, Much Of 9/11 Is A Case Study Of What Not To Do

A week after the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, a newspaper vendor sells copies of the New York Daily News with the face of Osama bin Laden and a cowboy-era outlaw's headline of 'Dead or Alive,' September 18, 2001.(Richard Baker/ Getty Images)
A week after the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, a newspaper vendor sells copies of the New York Daily News with the face of Osama bin Laden and a cowboy-era outlaw's headline of 'Dead or Alive,' September 18, 2001.(Richard Baker/ Getty Images)

At the start of each academic year, I ask my students to share their first political memory. Their answers anchor me in real-time, a useful reminder to an aging professor that their life experiences do not mirror my own.

When I began teaching, their earliest remembered exposure to a major news event was the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, a president whose second term I covered as a congressional reporter for The Boston Globe. This fall, as I close out my teaching career, the students around my seminar tables recall the election of the first Black president, but they have no memory of 9/11, a day I spent poring over airline manifests to identify the dead.

That my students were not born or were in their infancy when homicidal hijackers turned commercial jetliners into cruise missiles is no surprise. That 20 years pass so much faster than they once did is the shock. The two-decade remove from that clear September morning is no longer in time than the 20 years between Pearl Harbor and the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. I remember the latter event, watching as a Catholic schoolgirl on a black and white TV as a coatless young man from Massachusetts recited the oath of office in a frigid wind. The sunny Sunday when Japan bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor? That was ancient history to me in 1961.

It is easy to forget two decades on how much a compliant press corps contributed to the patriotic fervor and uncritical thinking that helped launch the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan...

I teach journalism, a craft we tell ourselves produces the first rough draft of history. The last 20 years have been an education about just how rough that draft can be. It is easy to forget two decades on how much a compliant press corps contributed to the patriotic fervor and uncritical thinking that helped launch the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in response to the attacks by al-Qaeda that brought down the World Trade Center in New York City, shattered the Pentagon and left the passengers and crew aboard United Airlines Flight 93 incinerated in a field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

As we remember this week the almost 3,000 people who died and the 6,000 others who were injured that day, let’s not forget the abandonment by too many in journalism of the skepticism and rigorous reporting that are the hallmarks of an independent press. The Sunday talk shows that parroted unproven Bush Administration claims about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning pundits who conflated the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein with the messianic mission of Osama bin Laden.

U.S. newspapers published on September 12, 2001. (AFP via Getty Images)
U.S. newspapers published on September 12, 2001. (AFP via Getty Images)

The cable news executives who banned the use of photographs of the civilian dead in Afghanistan without pointed reminders of how many Americans died on 9/11 because it "seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan."

The famous anchorman claiming without evidence that an al-Qaeda cell on a rooftop in New Jersey “jumped for joy” in celebration of the collapse of the Twin Towers across the Hudson.

The belated mea culpa by the nation’s leading newspaper, which had funneled disinformation from the Bush Administration onto its front page in the run-up to war, that “looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge.”

Twenty years do go by faster than they once did, but -- if we pay attention -- the lessons of history remain.

There were journalists — largely unheralded — who got it right. Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel of the now-defunct Knight-Ridder news service and Walter Pincus of the Washington Post questioned the administration’s assertions, interviewing doubters in the intelligence agencies who saw no link between Iraq and al-Qaeda and no evidence that Iraq had biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. They warned that the administration, convinced that U.S. soldiers would be hailed as liberators, had no exit strategy. Their stories ran inside, not on page one.

“History,” Henry James wrote in 1907, “is never, in any rich sense, the immediate crudity of what ‘happens’ but the much finer complexity of what we read into it and think of in connection with it.”

As we commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and watch the chaotic unwinding in Afghanistan of this country’s longest war, I want my students to remember those reporters, not the ones sporting U.S. flags on their lapels. Twenty years do go by faster than they once did, but — if we pay attention — the lessons of history remain.

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Eileen McNamara Cognoscenti contributor
Eileen McNamara teaches journalism at Brandeis University. The author of a biography of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, she won a Pulitzer Prize as a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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