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TCU Magazine Feature

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9-11 and the media | Challenge of the century

Eyes of the world

The reporters at ground zero were there to tell the story. In Suzanne Huffman's new book, they are the story.

By Nancy Bartosek

As others flee, journalists scramble forward with only one goal -- to offer firsthand knowledge of what is transpiring.

Associate professor Suzanne Huffman, had a slightly different perspective of last fall's events than most. As a former broadcast journalist, she knows what it's like to be on air when tragedy strikes -- she was reporting live from Cape Kennedy when the Challenger exploded.

So with great interest she noted the women on air, and on the ground, covering the news. This year, Huffman teamed with print journalist Judith Sylvester to record the stories of those who reported the events of Sept. 11. Their book, Women Journalists at Ground Zero: Covering Crisis, hit the shelves last month.

Q: Was it difficult for these 24 women to talk about their experiences?

A: This day is frozen in their mind like a snapshot. It's all there, imbedded in their mind like a photograph. Some said they were glad that someone asked them to talk about it because normally they are covering other people. They were a little hesitant to be interviewed only in the sense that they weren't the story. The people who died, who were injured, who lost family -- that's the story.

Q: And yet they are a story.

A: From our point of view, as journalism professors and historians, what they did and how they did it is a story to people interested in going into journalism, and who want to understand how journalism gets done. A lot of people know these women in a professional sense from their work. This is a way of letting people who watched them that day know how it was for them.

Q: What struck you as you listened to their stories?

A: What stood out to me was their humanness. Their reactions were very much like everyone else's, but they had to switch gears and do something very out of the ordinary. They had to shift their mindset and behaviors and focus on doing their job and telling the story.

It was a catastrophic situation, and as it unfolded, no one knew what was next. We forget that now, looking back, but they didn't know if there were other planes, if there was another building, another bomb, or what was in the cloud surrounding them. They were very brave and very committed to telling this story.

Q: Was there one story that stood out?

A: Susan Harrigan's piece, "I knew I couldn't outrun it." Her story just sends chills down my spine. She's a business reporter for Newsday, covers Wall Street, and when she heard the fire engines go by, she thought, "This is really bad. I have to go see what it is." She says in her story, "When I got off the subway, I walked into hell." She was down there at Wall Street, and people were jumping out of the building. When the building actually collapsed, she was running from it, and she knew she couldn't get ahead of the debris cloud and was looking for a place to hide. And through some miracle, she got through a door in a building and threw herself on the floor. She said when the debris cloud went by she could hear it, and it went dark, and she prepared to die.

She has continued to have a lot of difficulty with it. When she talks about it, she'll say, "It just takes me over." Things get out of sequence in time when she talks about it. The actual landscape was altered. Everything was coated in dust. She had lost her glasses. She had covered this area for years and things didn't look familiar anymore.

Q: What are the lessons from this book?

A: Judith and I learned that these women did courageous work that day. They drew on the basics they had learned in school and on the job -- to focus, to ask the right questions, to clarify.

I think the women learned that the basics of journalism served them well, that their experience served them well. There's kind of an unknown element that still strikes some of them -- that they did find a place to hide, they did escape the debris cloud. Some of them learned there may be a luck factor as well.

Q: Why should I read this book?

A: I believe the readers will find these stories compelling. They will see how brave these women were, and how committed they were to helping the American people understand as best they could what was happening. It's the job of the journalist to record the events.

It's the first draft of history, and I think the readers will see what it's like to do this kind of work. What these particular women are like. There's a misconception, particularly in the case of broadcast journalists, that it's easy and glamorous. And the truth is it's neither easy nor glamorous. These women's experiences during this catastrophic situation illustrate that you have to be smart, you have to be strong and you have to be focused. I think the readers will learn how much true grit it takes to be a journalist these days.

The cover photo by Amy Sancetta of the Associated Press is a photo of people running from the debris cloud, and the debris cloud is chasing them. It's a signature shot of that day. One thing the reader should think about is that when everyone else is running, Amy stopped and turned around.

Contact Suzanne Huffman at s.huffman@tcu.edu. Her book is available at the TCU Bookstore or at www.RowmanLittlefield.com.