Fall 2002
The Class of 2006: Who are the new freshmen?
100 years of the Skiff
Challenge of the century
Eyes of the world
9-11 and the media
Alma Matters
Memīries Sweet
Riff Ram
Class Notes
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TCU Magazine Feature

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Eyes of the world | Challenge of the century

9-11 and the media

The world has changed. While we once relied on delayed reports and vague eyewitness stories to tell us what really happened, now the entire world watches -- live -- from the media grandstand as horrific events, such as the attacks of Sept. 11, unfold. In this issue we turn to two media professors and a broadcast professional for insight about the media and 9-11.

By Roger Cooper

Sept. 11, 2001, started like any other work day. From my east-end office in Moudy South, I checked my e-mail and turned to the three or four Web sites I check every morning.

Then the phone rang. It was the TCU communications office.

"A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center. I want to give you a heads-up because media might call you to comment about the media's coverage. This is really, really bad."

The tone of her last sentence caught my attention, but in no way did I grasp the magnitude of what had happened -- or what would soon unfold.

I commonly receive this type of call in the aftermath of a tragedy, a disaster or a high-profile, controversial media event. My father was the superintendent at Westside Middle School near Jonesboro, Ark., during the highly-publicized shooting in 1998. That tragedy focused my scholarly attention toward the media's coverage of tragedy. This, in turn, prompted TCU's communications office to direct media outlets to me for my opinion about media coverage during high-profile events.

I walked along our corridor of offices to the RTVF reception area to see what was on TV. The concerned gazes of Chuck LaMendola, a colleague from New York, and Patricia Kirk, RTVF's administrative assistant were transfixed on the image of dark smoke billowing out of both towers. My first thought, like many had, was that an accident had happened. As I watched repeated replays of the second plane slamming into the tower, it became apparent that this was no accident. Yet only after ABC showed us damage at the Pentagon did I fully realize that we were witnessing a planned, organized attack on America.

By 9 a.m., I cancelled all of our department's classes for the day, and we turned on the TV in our three large classrooms -- each on a different channel. "Turn on the TVs and just leave them on all day," I instructed, sensing that our department might serve as an important center of information. "Whoever comes through can watch the coverage if they wish." The images, projected larger than life in our darkened rooms, magnified the scope of the nightmare unfolding before us. Our sound systems, designed to enhance the effects of fictional films, not television news, only intensified the resonance of these events.

As students, faculty and staff gravitated to the most powerful, defining images of the television age, I realized the true power of television to inform, even unite, a society of people in times of crisis. As we gasped at the collapse of both World Trade Center towers, as many of us cried at the certain death of thousands of innocent people, as some worried about family members who lived in New York or Washington, I came to understand as never before what an important conduit television can serve for our nation.

Under such unprecedented circumstances, the media coverage in the immediate aftermath of 9-11 was exceedingly good. There were certainly missteps, a few bits of misinformation, but I hardly find substantial fault among those placed in the position to report the unfathomable. No journalist, no matter how well-seasoned, could be fully prepared to handle the magnitude of what was happening. Journalists, objective only in myth, showed on this day the deep human element that guides how news is presented.

It was heartening to see news organizations share resources and footage. Cooperating, not jumping to conclusions in order to "beat" the competition, and not using technology simply to outdo the competition. With advertising removed from the equation on this day and the next five, network television shone, assuming a genuine responsibility to inform the public in a national emergency.

National and local news seemed to forget about the pressure to attain ratings and profits, about fighting for viewers in an ever-fragmenting marketplace. It's one of the few times in recent years that I felt admiration for what TV journalists provide to the public.

In the days and weeks that followed, I became increasingly saddened that today's news media do not assume the level of responsibility to their viewing public that existed on 9-11. As the commercial element of TV reasserted itself, television news largely returned to its unfortunate need to attract an audience by any means necessary.

News organizations rode the wave of patriotism rather than questioned the policies and decisions that might have contributed to the tragedy -- or might prevent another one. Fox News, as it is widely known, placed an American flag behind its logo. Some might call this patriotism, but it's actually today's form of corporate journalism.

For months, few media organizations analyzed "why" this happened beyond the surface details. About eight months passed before journalists questioned specific aspects of U.S. foreign policy or the lack of communication among key government agencies. These questions were initiated via election-year politics, not the journalist's role as watchdog. The bottom line has gradually, yet surely, taken over as the most important judge of what is "good" journalism.

The corporatization of news, though always a business, has clearly, and unapologetically swung the pendulum from providing information to the public to providing an audience for advertisers. The scariest part is that we as viewers may not realize how our own standards are slowly dropping. As the distance grows between corporations that own media outlets and the daily workforce that produces news, the demands will increasingly focus on audiences and revenues, not information and public service.

For once, I received no calls for my opinion about the news coverage of 9-11. This is how it should be. My insights are not at all important when considered beside the tragic loss to victims and their families. My criticisms wouldn't have changed the fact that Robert Blake's arrest doesn't warrant several minutes of our time on the evening news when so many other important things are happening in our world.

Was 9-11 a defining moment for the news media? Yes. Did it fundamentally change the way news organizations now present news? The answer, sadly, is no. While news coverage in the aftermath of 9-11 naturally populates more of our attention, it cannot be said that 9-11 fundamentally changed the way TV news does its business.

The coverage on 9-11 showed what TV news could -- should -- represent to its viewers on a daily basis, but so rarely does. It was, indeed, a tragic day.

Roger Cooper is the chair of the department of Radio-TV-Film. Contact him at r.cooper@tcu.edu. Or send your thoughts about this article to tcumagazine@tcu.edu