[ this post has updates below ]
Penny Frulla frantically tried to reach me by phone that morning. For four hours, she wasn’t sure where I was.
Turns out I had flown out of Boston Logan International the day before, connecting from Chicago on fall break from my grad program at The Medill School of Journalism. I was the caretaker of our family home on Cliff Road, and I needed to button up the joint before the ’01 winter came.
So there I was, in the midst of a graduate program teaching me how to be a better storyteller—witnessing the biggest story of the century unfold before my eyes.
But initially, I slept in. I’m usually up and with-coffee early, but that day was different, for reasons I still don’t know. I woke up to Pen’s repeated calls, only to turn on the TV in time to see the second tower hit. I was, like all of us, stunned in to a sporadic weeping phase that lasted a number of days.
All I could do was watch and ask “How could this happen?”
There are worser places to be stranded than Nantucket Island, to be sure, but there I was—in a holding pattern until we sorted out our nation’s aviation safety. I was there for a week, alone, with ample time to contemplate life and the meaning of what my continuing education was teaching me.
In that period, I was trained on Peter Jennings. He was, after all, my hero of fairness and steadiness in the anchor chair. Jennings, to me, inherited the mantle of Walker Cronkite and I watched him religiously. He embodied the spirit of New York, but could be mistaken for a hardy midwesterner or a domesticated Mountain Man from Oregon. (He was born in Toronto.)
OBSERVER: ‘JENNINGS’ FINEST 60 HOURS‘
I was born and raised in Manhattan, so 9/11 had a personal resonance for me—where I had to call and check on my friends and their families to make sure they were safe and well. “Are you OK?” is an gratingly irrelevant question since New Yorkers who lived through it must endure that dreadful memory for the rest of their lives. But I was glad to hear all my peeps were OK.
One is to continue reporting the news, which is our job. The TV is in some respects our national campfire. — Peter Jennings, Sept. 11, 2001
Jennings famously said “One is to continue reporting the news, which is our job. The TV is in some respects our national campfire; we try to reach out to people to try and understand about what people’s attitudes are.” He went on to report that the nation was split right down the middle as to whether or not the 9/11 attacks could’ve been prevented.
Sept. 11, 2001 wasn’t just a day that changed history; it also altered the media landscape forever. Within a year we saw the media cheerleading administration efforts to invade Iraq, in addition to the disgusting practice of embedding journalists within those dangerous missions.
If nothing else, my hope is that we never embed a journalist in anything that could—unintentionally or otherwise—serve as free propaganda for disastrous policies. As we’ve seen retrospectively, Iraq was the biggest foreign-policy blunder in the history of our country, and the media was right there leading the charge.
The only thing a journalist should be embedded in is a story of factual news based on reason and data.
Since the mid-2000s, media has consolidated to our nation’s great detriment. We have six giant multinational corporations holding enormous sway on how we make our decisions, and how we absorb our local, state and national news. Polls suggest that mistrust of our nation’s media is at an all-time high, and I lay that at the feet of these conglomerates which put profit over informing the nation.
Greed has ruined The Fourth Estate, and Jennings is looking down upon us wondering what happened to our campfire.
Beyond reporting the news, I learned an important lesson on 9/11 that stays with me to this day: there’s an emotional component to every story. Finance, culture, business, travel—no matter what, our reporting as journalists should investigate those unusual and compelling pieces of a story that move us, and allow us to grow as people. And that’s the mark of a good journalist.
I was asked to sit on a 9/11 panel for new graduate students upon returning to Evanston, Ill., and I remember verbatim what I said. “Right now it seems totally besides the point to be sitting in a classroom learning. But in actuality, now is exactly the time for us to commit to studying the craft a journalism.”
If you’re looking for an news outlet to confirm your beliefs as opposed to challenging them, you’re doing citizenry wrong.
There are many people committing great works of journalism every day whose work either rises above the current state of the media or operate outside of it. Rachel Maddow, Thom Hartmann, Mike Signorile, Jay Rosen, Bill Weir, Janet Shamlian are all do great work calling out B.S. and pulling on threads that need to be pulled.
I keep a running list of trusted newsers—both on the footer of this blog and on a Twitter list—and I urge you to investigate them. Connect with an outfit like FreeSpeechTV, which consistently, factually and reasonably reports the news that Profit Media isn’t.
Our future depends on good journalism. But our future also depends on our skepticism and “distrust but verify” the ways in which media reports the news. If you’re looking for an news outlet to confirm your beliefs as opposed to challenging them, you’re doing citizenry wrong.
Wherever he is, Jennings is hoping our nation’s campfire doesn’t burn out for good. ❏
UPDATE: On CBS Sunday Morning, Martha Teichner reminds us all about how good journalism is done. When our media comes close to creating the aforementioned campfire, I’ll always sing the praises. Check it out:
Will Pollock is a crabby New York City escapee living in Atlanta. He’s a freelance multimedia journalist and author of two books (Pizza for Good & Leaving Triscuit), with more on the way. Sign up for the mailing list, follow on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram—and check out the book links below.
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