of the world | Challenge
of the century
The world has changed. While we once
relied on delayed reports and vague eyewitness stories to tell us what
really happened, now the entire world watches -- live -- from the media grandstand
as horrific events, such as the attacks of Sept. 11, unfold. In this issue
we turn to two media professors and a broadcast professional for insight
about the media and 9-11.
By Roger Cooper
11, 2001, started like any other work day. From my east-end office in
Moudy South, I checked my e-mail and turned to the three or four Web sites
I check every morning.
phone rang. It was the TCU communications office.
has crashed into the World Trade Center. I want to give you a heads-up
because media might call you to comment about the media's coverage. This
is really, really bad."
of her last sentence caught my attention, but in no way did I grasp the
magnitude of what had happened -- or what would soon unfold.
receive this type of call in the aftermath of a tragedy, a disaster or
a high-profile, controversial media event. My father was the superintendent
at Westside Middle School near Jonesboro, Ark., during the highly-publicized
shooting in 1998. That tragedy focused my scholarly attention toward the
media's coverage of tragedy. This, in turn, prompted TCU's communications
office to direct media outlets to me for my opinion about media coverage
during high-profile events.
along our corridor of offices to the RTVF reception area to see what was
on TV. The concerned gazes of Chuck LaMendola, a colleague from New York,
and Patricia Kirk, RTVF's administrative assistant were transfixed on
the image of dark smoke billowing out of both towers. My first thought,
like many had, was that an accident had happened. As I watched repeated
replays of the second plane slamming into the tower, it became apparent
that this was no accident. Yet only after ABC showed us damage at the
Pentagon did I fully realize that we were witnessing a planned, organized
attack on America.
By 9 a.m.,
I cancelled all of our department's classes for the day, and we turned
on the TV in our three large classrooms -- each on a different channel. "Turn
on the TVs and just leave them on all day," I instructed, sensing that
our department might serve as an important center of information. "Whoever
comes through can watch the coverage if they wish." The images, projected
larger than life in our darkened rooms, magnified the scope of the nightmare
unfolding before us. Our sound systems, designed to enhance the effects
of fictional films, not television news, only intensified the resonance
of these events.
faculty and staff gravitated to the most powerful, defining images of
the television age, I realized the true power of television to inform,
even unite, a society of people in times of crisis. As we gasped at the
collapse of both World Trade Center towers, as many of us cried at the
certain death of thousands of innocent people, as some worried about family
members who lived in New York or Washington, I came to understand as never
before what an important conduit television can serve for our nation.
unprecedented circumstances, the media coverage in the immediate aftermath
of 9-11 was exceedingly good. There were certainly missteps, a few bits
of misinformation, but I hardly find substantial fault among those placed
in the position to report the unfathomable. No journalist, no matter how
well-seasoned, could be fully prepared to handle the magnitude of what
was happening. Journalists, objective only in myth, showed on this day
the deep human element that guides how news is presented.
It was heartening
to see news organizations share resources and footage. Cooperating, not
jumping to conclusions in order to "beat" the competition, and not using
technology simply to outdo the competition. With advertising removed from
the equation on this day and the next five, network television shone,
assuming a genuine responsibility to inform the public in a national emergency.
and local news seemed to forget about the pressure to attain ratings and
profits, about fighting for viewers in an ever-fragmenting marketplace.
It's one of the few times in recent years that I felt admiration for what
TV journalists provide to the public.
In the days
and weeks that followed, I became increasingly saddened that today's news
media do not assume the level of responsibility to their viewing public
that existed on 9-11. As the commercial element of TV reasserted itself,
television news largely returned to its unfortunate need to attract an
audience by any means necessary.
rode the wave of patriotism rather than questioned the policies and decisions
that might have contributed to the tragedy -- or might prevent another one.
Fox News, as it is widely known, placed an American flag behind its logo.
Some might call this patriotism, but it's actually today's form of corporate
few media organizations analyzed "why" this happened beyond the surface
details. About eight months passed before journalists questioned specific
aspects of U.S. foreign policy or the lack of communication among key
government agencies. These questions were initiated via election-year
politics, not the journalist's role as watchdog. The bottom line has gradually,
yet surely, taken over as the most important judge of what is "good" journalism.
of news, though always a business, has clearly, and unapologetically swung
the pendulum from providing information to the public to providing an
audience for advertisers. The scariest part is that we as viewers may
not realize how our own standards are slowly dropping. As the distance
grows between corporations that own media outlets and the daily workforce
that produces news, the demands will increasingly focus on audiences and
revenues, not information and public service.
I received no calls for my opinion about the news coverage of 9-11. This
is how it should be. My insights are not at all important when considered
beside the tragic loss to victims and their families. My criticisms wouldn't
have changed the fact that Robert Blake's arrest doesn't warrant several
minutes of our time on the evening news when so many other important things
are happening in our world.
a defining moment for the news media? Yes. Did it fundamentally change
the way news organizations now present news? The answer, sadly, is no.
While news coverage in the aftermath of 9-11 naturally populates more
of our attention, it cannot be said that 9-11 fundamentally changed the
way TV news does its business.
on 9-11 showed what TV news could -- should -- represent to its viewers on a
daily basis, but so rarely does. It was, indeed, a tragic day.
Cooper is the chair of the department of Radio-TV-Film. Contact him at
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