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How 9/11 changed the news

Ten years later, what Dan Rather still remembers with vivid clarity is how it all began: spotting a wisp of smoke wafting from the upper floors of the World Trade Center while getting ready for work.

Soon after, Rather was dressed and climbing the stairs of the anchor desk at the center of CBS's newsroom on Sept. 11, 2001, about to start a 14-hour marathon of reporting that opened five days of continuous coverage. His mission: tell people what you know, what you don't know and that what you think you know at first usually isn't the whole story.

He only had a vague sense of it then, but Rather knew the country's world had suddenly, violently changed. And the media were along for the ride.

"We Americans before 9/11 had this feeling of invulnerability and insularity," he said. "It was fueled by our complacency and not being as engaged with the world as a whole. My country had been attacked on its own soil. I had great compassion, great grief … but I also was just mad as hell."

It was a singular moment in American journalism; covering what felt like the first made-for-TV terrorist attack, in which planes crashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon as network and cable TV morning news covered events in real time.

But 10 years later, what surprises most is how little lasting change 9/11 may have brought to modern media, which these days seems more transformed by expanding technology and collapsing economic models.

Despite prediction of irony's death and a flood of more serious news coverage, the effects of 9/11 on media may be more subtle: a supercharging of partisanship, a focus on Middle East issues and Muslims, the uneven contest between left-leaning MSNBC and right-centered Fox News on cable TV, and the consistent, unshakable sense that another calamity could be around the corner.

"I don't doubt for a moment that we're going to be attacked again," said Rather, who lost his job as CBS's top anchor in 2005 amid fallout from a controversial, widely criticized story about President George W. Bush's past National Guard service. "Almost every day we know; be ready for another 9/11 or something close to it."

What surprised Rather most was the emotion, and when it came out.

The anchor had traveled to David Letterman's late-night television show six days after the attacks, offering context on one of the few non-news TV shows broadcasting from New York. Letterman's program had become a vivid reflection of the anger, trauma and concern that filled the city after the twin towers fell.

"George Bush is the president, he makes the decisions … wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where," the anchor said, his voice quavering with emotion. "He'll make the call."

A decade later, Rather said he had been pushing down emotion about the attacks so much in CBS's blizzard of continuous coverage, working on little sleep, that the feelings came back in a rush once he reached Letterman's stage.

"I remember, it engulfed me before I could get a handle on it," the anchor added, noting that he does not apologize for an honest expression of grief. "I don't think it was crossing a line. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, I was 10 years old; I never forgot that … how every able-bodied man in our neighborhood got in line for military service."

Still, while echoing the unanimity many citizens felt in the wake of 9/11, other journalism experts said such pronouncements also revealed a surge of patriotism. Those sentiments may have made it tougher for journalists to later challenge the Bush administration's allegations of mass destruction weapons in Iraq, a key justification for war there which proved unfounded.

"You can't talk about 9/11 without talking about the war," said Greg Mitchell, former editor of Editor & Publisher, a trade magazine covering the newspaper industry. "Because of their coverage, the media seemed so patriotic. The run-up to the Iraq war started a year later, and it all came crashing down."

PBS anchor Gwen Ifill remembered the paranoia on the morning of Sept. 11 as rumors flew that the State Department had been hit with a car bomb and every car backfiring felt like a new explosion or possible attack.

"There is no way to be dispassionate about a story that may kill you," said Ifill, recalling how she spent the week discussing such issues with reporters in the nation's capital each night, anchoring special editions of PBS's Washington Week.

And she learned the power of a simple segment, called Honor Roll, in which PBS's NewsHour scrolls the names and photos of people killed in combat, displayed in silence at the end of their broadcast.

"Every now and then, viewers tell us things like 'I stand up and salute the television when it happens,' " Ifill said. "It's a brilliant way, without judgment, of reminding people there are wars going on."

Still, such segments also stand as a reminder that, despite some incisive reporting efforts, the impact of the two wars started in the wake of 9/11 in Afghanistan and Iraq remain off the American public's radar.

Initially, the cost was removed from the regular government budget and journalists weren't even allowed to take pictures of returning coffins. Now, with both those issues removed, the public's full attention still seems distant from the wars at hand.

"The public has grown weary of wars that have lasted for a very long time," said Andrew Heyward, who was president of news at CBS during the 9/11 attacks.

"American media is in a self-reinforcing pattern of provincialism … that you're seeing reassert itself now," he added, noting serious layoffs and international bureau closings in the years since 9/11.

Media have also grown more partisan. Right-leaning Fox News has emerged as the top-rated cable news channel; one of its leading voices, Sean Hannity, debuted his nationally syndicated radio show on Sept. 10, 2001.

Conservative firebrand Glenn Beck, until recently a leading voice on Fox, was a radio host in Tampa in the week of 9/11. He began an extra three-hour show during the week of 9/11 that Clear Channel offered to all its stations seeking additional talk material on the attacks, leading to his own national syndication deal the next year.

MSNBC, curiously, spent several years experimenting with its own prowar brand of conservatism, hiring conservative former Florida congressman Joe Scarborough, and canceling antiwar pundit Phil Donahue before Keith Olbermann gave them a viewership-drawing liberal voice in 2003.

For NPR anchor Robert Siegel, however, the biggest post-9/11 change has been in the coverage of Islam, Muslims and the Middle East, along with a sense that these new conflicts may never end.

"These are things that have no finite conclusion," he said. "For journalists used to telling stories, there is a gnawing lack of closure."

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or Blog: Twitter: @Deggans

How 9/11 changed the news 09/03/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 6, 2011 1:36pm]
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