Learning from September 11
by Peter Preston Posted Tue, Jan 1 2002
One post-September 11 question has been whether there is indeed such a thing as a “global” journalist? We heard the terrible news; we followed the story. But what that story was exactly, its resonance, prominence and importance — those were, and are, much deeper and more geographically diffuse matters.
It’s difficult, of course, to write about the war against terrorism in a magazine like this, which has long lead time. Sudden events, blasting out of the blue, can make columnists into chumps before the ink is dry. Nevertheless, there’s been a pattern over the past few months that ought to tell us something about ourselves as journalists.
And not all of that message is good.
How did I feel as I first watched the towers crumbling on the television in the cafe where I was sitting? Numb, shocked, sickened. The spectacle and the tragedy came together. This was, among other things, one of those stories you’d never forget. And, of course, that feeling was general. More newspapers were being sold by the millions. Television-viewing figures leapt. An international coalition, bound by revulsion, moved into action. It was a human response to something so powerfully emotional that it backed human beings into a corner and forced them to respond by defining their own humanity.
As this particular piece goes to print, Great Britain is back to normal. The popularity ratings of politicians are where they were on Sept. 10. The hot political issues are again schools and hospitals, not the war against terrorism. The television crews, great caravans of doom, have mostly left Afghanistan. The remaining newspaper reporters get their stories placed on inside pages. The news agenda, in short, has moved on. And this is the United Kingdom, the White House’s self-styled “special” friend.
Opinion fractured much faster elsewhere. I was in South Africa at the end of October. People still talked about 9-11, to be sure, but it was already fading news. This “war” was a long way away, far beyond Zimbabwe or the Congo. I was in Spain a few days after that, where there was sympathy, a politely shared feeling of grief, but when Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna terrorists killed innocents down the road, the focus swiftly shifted.
When I spoke to a visiting Israeli journalist, I learned that September 11 wasn’t the first thing on his mind; it was an echo of the dilemmas haunting him back home. I called some Palestinian contacts for a wholly different perspective. Then, because I used to work in the Indian subcontinent, the irreconcilabilities of Kashmir began to pile up in my e-mail queue. As I wrote my newspaper column for an Internet audience, I found that same queue, the week after, filled by American correspondens — more than 200 of them — disenchanted with Bush and Cheney.
This account is only a small sampling of the arguments and diversions since September 11 — differences diligently reflected in the way we’ve written about the aftermath from our own platforms. The pictures of the day were shared. So were the sorrow and the pity and, perhaps, some of the resolve. But time passes, and everything changes. Bush, popular beyond the dreams of party managers, delivered his State of the Union message and served notice on Iraq, Iran and North Korea. That position is where American cable television and the American Internet papers remain. “Isn’t CNN a bit strong?” I ask my American friends. “You should try Fox,” they say.
Meanwhile, the agenda for the rest of the world goes every which way. Any brief consensus has fractured, not just in the feeling, but also in the reporting. The director general of the British Broadcasting Corporation hails audience figures for BBC World in the United States as evidence of its excellence. Maybe some Americans like their war news cooler, but the percentage is tiny. And who on earth is arrogant enough to say that his or her takes on the twin towers or Osama bin Laden are the only views worth holding?
In all this, there is no coming together of the first couple of hours on September 11: fusion bound by emotion. On the contrary, there’s a falling apart, about which we ought to be clear. Newspapers say that some of items are designed to massage the audiences they serve. The readers of the Sun newspaper in Britain — who aren’t very keen on the euro, Europe’s new single currency — may be told what a disaster it will prove to be, while the audience for the Sun in Ireland — where the euro is popular — is told a precisely opposite tale.
We ought, in humility, to learn from this contrast one of the continuing lessons of September 11. The techniques of journalism around the globe may, at their best, be common. Who claims this? What really happened? Where’s the proof? We may all, swapping stories in the bar after IPI assemblies, agree about the necessary disciplines of our trade.
I think that the United States had no option but to try to hunt down the perpetrators of September 11 and that everyone who understands democratic values has to respect that decision. If you believe that, it colors your writing and reporting.
Today, many months from the initial event, there is no consensus here in Britain. Those who supported the war are anxious about the prison camp on Guantanomo Bay. Those who were against it are disregarded, beached by the collapse of the Taliban. What about journalism as a calm global discipline, a pursuant of perspective and truth? Don’t hold your breath.