September 11 is one of those “where were you when you heard…” days.
As one progresses through life, one accumulates a series of those days. They mark the progression of our years as well as the biggest news events of our times. We experience them in personal ways in varying degrees of intimacy. While some remember days such as this with corporate observances, others observe them in the quiet of their own thoughts and memories.
Reporters often remember some of those “where were you” days as participants -of-a-sort more than we remember them as observers. While many citizens remember watching or listening to events unfold, often with some level of disbelief, the reporter often cannot pause to watch. The reporter becomes a participant by being the link between the event and the people who are trying to understand what is happening and what it means.
It has been observed that journalists write the first page of history. Certainly we do that most obviously on the “where were you” days. Or we try to. But even reporters find themselves enveloped in the things that are unfolding around them. It is in those times that our critics sometimes think we are cold and uncaring, non-sympathetic to suffering of others. It is a perception we are aware of. But it is usually inaccurate.
Reporters are not immune to the tragedies we cover no more than we are immune to the joyous events we relay to our audiences. But we have to delay our reactions as much as possible to meet the responsibilities we have to those who turn to us for as much orderly information as we can give them.
In those times, when the public wonders how something like this could happen, the reporter is the one who has to retain the composure to ask that question to those most connected to the event. It’s not unusual that we don’t get an answer —because in the midst of chaos there are no answers. But we have to ask the questions so many people are asking if for no other reason to give those people a response.
All of us search for meaning in these events. The reporter is at the front and doing the same thing and through his or her efforts might be able to provide context to those who search for that meaning.
Make a list someday of the “where were you” days in your life. Write down how you began to understand what was happening and the issues that went with it. Chances are it was a reporter whose work led you to that.
We don’t do things perfectly under those circumstances and there is little time for expressions of wisdom. But the first seeds of understanding are sown in our minds by those on the scene and often in harm’s way.
And reporters want to try to meet that responsibility.
Eleven years ago today, I was in Nashville, Tennessee, where the Radio-Television News Directors Association was preparing for its national convention that was to begin on September 12th. Association officers and directors, news directors and editors from radio and television stations throughout America, were preparing to start our board meeting when the first plane went into the first tower. We knew our convention would not be held the second the second plane hit the second tower. A variety of reactions set in. Even as we flocked to television sets in the executive suite to watch what millions of others were watching, were calling our newsrooms to discuss how these events would be covered from our local angles.
One of our association staff members was the wife of the ABC White House correspondent who was traveling that day with President Bush. Where was he? What was happening with him. Another staff member was the sister of a Pentagon employee. Another was the mother of a person who worked on Wall Street, not far from the World Trade Center. Where were they?
We were reporters far from our newsrooms, trapped in the city because the airlines almost immediately stopped flying. But we had to get home to cover this story.
A few of us had driven to Nashville. Our cars became long-distance taxis for our colleagues as we bolted for home as soon as possible. Some local rental cars ended up far, far from Nashville as the journalists rushed home. We knew that events that massive touched everybody, no matter how far our cities were from New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. We had to cover the story in whatever way it played out in our cities. We could not wait in Nashville for things to calm down enough for us to return in traditional ways.
Reporters must cover the “where were you” story however it plays out in our communities. We are the link between the event and those wanting to understand it. We cannot ignore that responsibility.
We might fulfill it imperfectly but reporters innately know that we must be participants-of-a-kind in these events because people turn to us for answers. And we have to try to provide them. We will suffer, we will mourn, in our own quiet times later.