Test of the Fourth Estate


Last week’s attack on the World Trade Center revealed the untapped potential of U.S. media. Beginning at 8:48 a.m. on September 11, the newspapers and networks stopped behaving like competing profit machines and strove to be instruments of democracy, producing a high volume of useful news and inspiring a nation under siege. It’s heartening to see the display of responsibility, but a pity it took some 5500 deaths and a knife in the heart of capitalism to bring it out.

Every newsroom has been fighting deadlines. But no staff showed more grace under pressure than that of The Wall Street Journal. Within minutes of the attack, the Journal had evacuated its headquarters, and the managing editor had dispatched top editors on the ferry to the paper’s New Jersey office. Like clockwork, an authoritative edition appeared on September 12, with sober warnings that “a full-blown global recession is highly likely” and that military retaliation could set off a “spiral of violence . . . not unlike [that in] the Middle East.”

On the day after, gruesome images filled the papers, including a shocking photo of a man who had jumped from one of the burning towers. The Journal described “a severed head with long, dark hair and a severed arm resting along a highway about 300 yards from the crash site.” But sometime that day, the media made a collective decision that falling bodies and scattered parts were too gruesome for public consumption. The severed flesh vanished into impromptu morgues, and the media began to record mournful testaments to the people who had lived and died in the wreckage.

Clearly, it’s a logistical nightmare to match up the body parts with the names of thousands of missing persons, but by excluding reporters from the morgues, authorities may have whitewashed the true horror. In order to comprehend this attack, doesn’t the world deserve an uncensored body count and a tour of the morgues? Or have the authorities decided, as Mayor Giuliani said the day of the attack, that the carnage is simply “more than we can bear”?

In the heat of investigation, the media indicted Osama bin Laden overnight. That said, most of the rumors that surfaced are remarkable not for their proliferation but for the speed with which they were shot down. One by one, the media exposed phony survivor lists and miraculous rescue claims (in one such case, the source was charged). Asbestos levels were declared harmless, comparisons to Pearl Harbor challenged, and a prescient quote attributed to Nostradamus was dubbed apocryphal by his biographer. When ABC’s John Miller reported that two armed hijackers had been arrested, the Daily News pointed out his poor sourcing and mocked him by running his photo. And by week’s end, The Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz was urging networks to stop replaying footage of the attack. Far from a free-for-all, this was the equivalent of being under stepped-up, 24-hour media surveillance.

The attack seemed to change everyone’s priorities, ushering in compassionate altruism and driving out selfish profiteering. Indeed, post-WTC, Giuliani morphed into a true statesman, and Clinton and Gore found an excuse to finally drop their feud. On Wall Street, as The New York Times noted, “cutthroat Darwinian capitalism” was magically replaced by “a spirit of generosity and common purpose.” Who could have predicted that the trial lawyers of America would call a moratorium on lawsuits related to the attack, or that major corporations would take a break from continuing layoffs to pledge $180 million to the relief effort?

The spirit of sacrifice spread to Big Media. Not only did the major TV networks begin sharing footage, as if they were not competitors, but they also replaced entertainment shows with nonstop news. Last week, Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report each published a special edition without ads. The A section of the Times remained virtually ad-free for days.

The “more news, fewer ads” formula is excellent for citizens—who need as much information as possible to make political and financial decisions—but bad for business. As a result, the TV industry is believed to have lost an estimated $100 million a day in ad revenues. Come to think of it, last week’s events give new weight to Robert McChesney’s argument that the functioning of a democracy suffers in direct proportion to the prosperity of media companies. (In this case democracy wins, media loses.)

From a moral standpoint, the restraint has achieved a clear purpose: It has allowed media companies and individuals to avoid the appearance of profiting from the attack. Thus, Hollywood has promised to suppress images of terrorists, assassins, and the WTC, and eBay has stopped selling collector’s items related to the twin towers. The guilt over blood-stained profit is so strong that even financial guru Jim Cramer has vowed not to write about specific friends who died in the attack or what stocks to sell post-WTC, because he knows that if he did, he would “belong in hell.”

In the pre-WTC, greed-dominated universe, any decision to sacrifice revenue was regarded as foolish—as was the decision to emphasize serious news over puff pieces promoting new products. But in the wake of the attack, the backlash against marketing-passing-itself-off-as-news was so palpable that New York’s Fashion Week was canceled, as were book parties for GE’s Jack Welch, a screening of CBS’s The Agency, and a weekend-long birthday bash for the Times. As if on cue, the media halted profiles of literary darling Jonathan Franzen.

Terror’s next unsuspecting victim was celebrity gossip. Prized during peacetime as a harmless sweetener, gossip is now considered more like crack, a toxic substance that leaves readers jonesing for more. Thus, on September 12, Page Six was missing from the New York Post, and it has been relegated to the back pages ever since. Even editors who typically eschew gossip have grown wary of too much silliness or humor: The New Yorker ran only one cartoon in this week’s issue, and on the front page of Sunday’s Times, the editors apologized for any article or ad whose tone might be “inconsistent with the gravity of the news.” (Certain sections had gone to press before the attack.)

Finally, fans of Dave Eggers, beware: NYU professor Mark Crispin Miller is already predicting that the onset of war may signal the end of the age of irony, which he calls “a posture that just won’t work . . . in a world where everyone’s survival is at risk.”

Let’s not make too much of this paradigm shift: We still need gossips and satirists, if only as relief from the dire business at hand. But their influence will surely diminish as the heavy thinkers in the news industry are facing the test of their lives: identifying and punishing the culprits while honoring constitutional rights and the rule of law, admitting the difficult truth that U.S. foreign policy helped to bring about this disaster, and restraining the rabid voices that demand swift and bloody retaliation. In the meantime, as Giuliani has said, “The life of the city must go on.”