What 9/11 hath wrought: A polarized country, a toxic media environment and a crisis of democracy

Department of Defense photo (cc) 2009 by Tech. Sgt. Jerry Morrison, U.S. Air Force

Previously published at GBH News.

Like all of us who are old enough, I have vivid memories of Sept. 11, 2001, just as our older brothers and sisters do about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and as our parents and grandparents did about the attack on Pearl Harbor. As others have said over and over again, it was a cool, clear morning, a preview of fall. I was working at The Boston Phoenix, where I covered media and politics. I stepped outside to get coffee and ran into an old acquaintance.

“Isn’t it terrible what happened at the World Trade Center?” she asked.

I didn’t know what she was talking about. I hurried inside. American Airlines Flight 11, which originated at Logan Airport in Boston, had crashed into the North Tower. There was talk of terrorism.

The Phoenix did not have what you would call a well-equipped newsroom. We had a TV that got a handful of channels but no cable. It was obvious what I would be writing about, so I raced to my car and hurried home to the North Shore. I turned on the radio and listened to coverage of the second tower’s collapse just as I was rounding the bend to Route 1. And then I sat down in front of the television set, watching for hour after hour and wondering how I would make sense of it all. Finally, sometime well after midnight, I started to write.

The piece I came up with was headlined “The End of Decadence.” In it, I expressed my hope that the media would finally return to a sense of purpose and seriousness after a decade of wallowing in celebrity culture, the O.J. Simpson trial and the theater-of-the-absurd impeachment of a president over his tawdry sex life.

In fact, the media did change after 9/11, but not for the better. The downward slide didn’t happen immediately. At first, the press diligently covered the aftermath of the attacks. The New York Times ran a wonderful series on the victims called “Portraits of Grief.” Journalists sought to make sense of how security measures aimed at preventing such attacks had so thoroughly broken down. The hunt for Osama bin Laden was covered with great enterprise and courage.

But it wasn’t long before President George W. Bush, a unifying figure in the days immediately after the attacks, began leading the nation in a divisive direction. His uplifting rhetoric about Muslims was offset by the government’s treatment of Muslims as a security risk. He went to war not just in Afghanistan but in Iraq, claiming — falsely, as it turned out — that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction.

And the media went along for the ride. Few questioned the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq, and few questioned why our incursion into Afghanistan had turned into a full-fledged war to transform a place we didn’t understand into a Western-style democracy. The Times in particular disgraced itself with its credulous, gung-ho coverage, but so did most other news outlets — especially cable news. My late friend Danny Schechter, the “News Dissector,” called it “militainment,” a construction he borrowed from James Poniewozik, then with Time magazine, now with the Times.

Over the next few years, the wars and the Bush White House both lost support, and the media began to fracture into what we see today — a reflection of the polarization that has made it nearly impossible for Democrats and Republicans even to speak to each other. On one side we have the mainstream media, hardly perfect but dedicated to reporting the truth, trusted by about 60% of the country. On the other side we have right-wing propaganda that has convinced 40% of the country that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, vaccines are dangerous and critical race theory is the most serious threat facing us.

Last month, the 20-year misadventure set off by 9/11 was finally brought to an end as the United States pulled its last remaining troops out of Afghanistan. It was a chaotic, ugly finish, and President Joe Biden has received quite a bit of criticism for it. But it does bring a close to the story that began on that clear September day in 2001.

The conclusion of the war in Afghanistan ends an era in journalism as well. Think back to where we were. Fox News was barely a blip on the radar. CNN consisted of straight news rather than opinionated talk shows. There was no Facebook, no Twitter, no broadband. The internet-driven collapse of newspapers was still in the future. In other words, it was a time of consensus in the media and in the culture, at least compared with what was to come.

Over the weekend, Bush was praised for his forthright denunciation of the Trump-inspired domestic terrorists of 2021. “There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home,” he said. “But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit. And it is our continuing duty to confront them.”

That’s all well and good. But it was Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld who started us down the road to Jan. 6 with their catastrophic wars, their trampling of civil liberties in this country and their use of torture abroad. And it was a combination of cowardice and gullibility on the part of too many in the media that helped bring us to the crisis of democracy we are dealing with today.

The demise of Adobe Flash broke the 9/11 web. But it’s just the tip of a bigger issue.

This is an important story — not just because some crucial 9/11 coverage has been lost or even because the demise of Adobe Flash means that parts of the internet are now broken. Rather, it illustrates that the internet is, in many ways, an ephemeral medium, meaning that we simply can’t preserve and archive our history the way we could during the print era.

Clare Duffy and Kerry Flynn report for CNN.com that The Washington Post, ABC News and CNN itself are among the news organizations whose interactive presentations in the aftermath of 9/11 no longer work properly.

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As they recount, Flash was a real advance in the early days of the web, as it was an important step forward for video and interactive graphics. But the late Steve Jobs, criticizing Flash’s security flaws, decreed that Apple’s iPhone and iPad would not run Flash. At that point the platform began to crumble, and Adobe pulled support for it at the end of 2020.

Duffy and Flynn write that some efforts are under way to use Flash emulators in order to bring some old content back to life. Adobe, which is worth $314 billion, ought to spend a few nickels to help with that effort.

More broadly, though, the problem with Flash illustrates how the internet decays over time. Link rot is an ongoing frustration — you link to something, go back a year or five later, and find that the content has moved or been taken down. Publications go out of business, taking their websites with them. Or they change content-management systems, resulting in new URLs for everything.

We’re all grateful for the work that the Internet Archive does in preserving as much as it can. Here, for instance, is the home page of The New York Times on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001.

But what’s available online isn’t nearly as complete as what’s in print. For the moment, at least, we can still go to the library and look at microfilm of print editions for publications that pay little attention to preserving their digital past. It won’t be too many years, though, before digital is all we’ve got.

Northeastern marks the 20th anniverary of the 9/11 attacks

The Center for Spiritual Life, Dialogue and Service held a remembrance for the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks earlier today. The service, marking the 20th anniversary, centered on the life of Candace Lee Williams, an accounting major who died on American Airlines Flight 11 at the age of 20.

“She was the best of us,” her brother Corey Gaudioso told News at Northeastern. “There’s never been anyone like Can. We all just knew she was going to do great things — she could’ve conquered Wall Street or something.”

Several of us spoke at the service, including Mary Kane, Candace’s co-op adviser and now an assistant dean in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business. Kane told News at Northeastern: “Candace was so smart, and beautiful on the inside and out. But I think what struck me most was her appreciation for everyday life. She had this amazing smile, and she appreciated the small things as well as the big opportunities.”

I spoke about my experience as a journalist that day and how the media have changed over the past 20 years.

It was a moving ceremony, organized by the center’s executive director, Alexander Levering Kern.

I wish I had known Candace, who would be 40 and in the prime of her life today.

Remembering 9/11

The Manhattan skyline from Hoboken, N.J.

Ten years ago, on a cool and cloudless morning very much like this one, I ran into an old friend on Brookline Avenue in front of the Boston Phoenix. She told me there had been a terrible accident — a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.

I headed up to the newsroom, and in a few moments, it was clear that there had been no accident. As there was no television set, I barreled home. On NPR, as I was on the loop ramp connecting Storrow Drive with the Tobin Bridge, I heard the shocked description of the first building collapsing. Not long after, I turned on the TV and watched the rest of the day and well into the evening. I stayed up all night and wrote this.

The following April, I was in Hoboken, N.J. — another clear, sunny day, though unseasonably hot and humid. I was early, so I made my way to Frank Sinatra Drive and took in the Manhattan skyline — looking to the right, the south, where the World Trade Center should have been.

That evening, City Council president Anthony Soares, whom I had come to interview for my book “Little People,” told me that Hoboken had been hit unusually hard by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Indeed, according to this account in the Hudson Reporter, Hoboken lost 57 people — “the most of any ZIP code in the United States.”

Personally, I was very lucky. We lost no family members, no friends. The attack remains the most stunning event of my lifetime. My heart goes out to those who did lose someone on that terrible day.

Photo (cc) by cornfusion and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Danvers remembers 9/11

If you’re on the North Shore this weekend, I hope you’ll consider attending a program at the Peabody Institute Library in Danvers called “9/11 Ten Years Later: A Decade of Change for American Culture.”

The program, to be held Sunday at 2 p.m., will be moderated by Town Manager Wayne Marquis and will feature Danvers Police Chief Neil Oullette and Endicott College professors Amy Damico and Sara Quay, the editors of “September 11 in Popular Culture: A Guide.” I’ll be talking about how the media have changed over the past decade, for better and for worse.

You can find out more information about the event here. And here is an essay I wrote for the Boston Phoenix’s issue of Sept. 13, 2001. I haven’t re-read it yet, so I have no idea how well it’s held up.

Memories of Osama bin Laden

When we learned last night that Osama bin Laden had been killed, my thoughts turned to April 2000 and a Cub Scout trip I helped lead at FBI headquarters in Boston. An account of that trip is still online. One memory that clearly stands out is explaining who bin Laden was to a group of 9-year-olds. We were still nearly a year and a half away from 9/11, but bin Laden was already number one on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List.

Certain aspects of 9/11 remain vivid, too. I remember running into someone I hadn’t seen for many years outside the Boston Phoenix. She told me about the first tower having been hit. At that point, we were all assuming it was a horrible accident. Soon, though, we learned that the country was under attack. The Phoenix did not have a reliable television hook-up, so I raced home (I heard a live account of the second tower being hit on the car radio) and stayed up all night writing this.

When a historic news story such as the killing of bin Laden breaks, the instinct is to turn inward and reflect on personal matters. There’s no way I can add to the enormity of the moment. But we can all offer memories and perceptions, and thus add in some small way to the national conversation that began at about 10 p.m. on Sunday, when we learned that President Obama would address the nation at 10:30. (As we know, it turned out to be more than an hour after that.)

I didn’t have the TV on, but I was scanning Twitter. Within minutes, we were speculating as to what it could be about. Without any information whatsoever, a few people guessed it might have something to do with bin Laden. I saw several jokes about an asteroid headed toward earth. I wondered whether a major terrorist plot had been exposed, or if the Fukushima nuclear power plant might be in full meltdown. Even after I turned on the television, I was learning more, faster, from Twitter than I was from Wolf Blitzer and company.

Soon we knew the truth, emerging in bits and pieces. Bin Laden had been captured. He’d died. No, he’d been killed — not by a bomb, but by U.S. special forces who went in and shot him. How can you not love that? I only hope that in his final moments, bin Laden knew the Americans had come for him.

The president’s speech was short and eloquent. Given how easily the mission could have gone wrong, he made a gutsy call. For those of us over 50, it was hard not to remember the disaster in the Iranian desert under Jimmy Carter in 1980. Skill and courage are not enough — you’ve got to be lucky, too.

Coming at the end of the week in which extremist elements in the Republican Party had already been made to look especially small and mean, it was hard not to gloat. (And you’ve got to see this.) I saw more than few predictions that Obama had just ensured his re-election — an observation that I found inappropriate to the moment, not to mention premature. After all, George H.W. Bush looked unbeatable in the spring of 1991 following the Gulf War. He was done in by the economy, and it could happen to Obama, too.

Nevertheless, it stands as the signature moment of the Obama presidency, and something that I suspect will lift the national mood for some time to come.

9/11/09

portraitsofgrief_20090911

“Portraits of Grief,” the New York Times’ tribute to the victims of the World Trade Center attacks, is still online. It was a moving tribute to the the lives that were lost on that day. It was also an early breakthrough for online journalism.