- The Washington Times - Friday, September 14, 2001

ON MEDIA

A round-the-clock vigil has showcased the best and worst in a news media overwhelmed at times by the gravity of events. After 72 hours, traditional news values and a sense of civic journalism have proved the keys to credible, meaningful coverage.

Initial temptations to sensationalize or spin the story lessened as print and broadcast news organizations struggled to provide viable context for a story with multiple, unfolding angles. Even celebrity news anchors wearied of emotional metaphors.

Authorities apprehended a small news crew dressed as a rescue team, trying to get close to the New York crash site. The buffoons were taken into custody. Still, they were in the minority.

During a CNN interview, one worker praised overall media coverage as she stood amidst the World Trade Center rubble.

"Better be careful," replied CNN interviewer Aaron Brown, "or you'll give us a good name."

In day three of our national crisis, CNN subtitled its coverage "a search for answers," mirroring treatment elsewhere. C-SPAN, meanwhile, has kept call-in phones open continuously since Tuesday, providing a valuable forum for stunned viewers of every persuasion. Americans and their media seem bonded over the accounts of hope and heroism, close calls and unspeakable tragedy.

Some journalists, however, could not abandon their habitual combative, inappropriate and even unprofessional behavior honed during the freewheeling Clinton administration.

Some were piqued that White House spokesman Ari Fleischer and other liaisons did not compromise classified material to pacify relentless media inquisitors, claiming it violated the public's right to know.

"This White House is secretive about the most routine of operations, thin-skinned about criticism and appeals for openness, and especially quick to assert the prerogatives of the executive branch," grumbled ABC analyst Mark Halperin.

Yes, because we are on the verge of war.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was also steadfast in his press dealings, quickly quashing a reporter who suggested it was time for Pakistan "to put their money where their mouth is."

"I wouldn't characterize it quite that crudely," he said, adding that he planned a "responsible, sober discussion with the Pakistani government."

President Bush himself has presented an effective, believable media presence since Tuesday, despite some media criticism that he was unavailable. "George W. Bush has been keeping his head down, staying out of harm's way," claimed Newsday columnist Ellis Helican.

Mr. Bush has been anything but reticent, setting forth one of the most genuine and significant outreaches of his presidency during an impromptu moment on camera in the Oval Office.

The president's eyes glistened with tears as he mentioned victims, but his voice steeled with resolve to right the wrongs of "this terrible moment."

With its visceral immediacy, the terrorist attack has shifted media protocol to a new plane, no longer driven by the hearsay and rumor left over from the Monica Lewinsky matter.

"This was a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe," said Jim Pensiero of the Wall Street Journal. "We as human beings were stunned; we as human beings had to cover the story. Our focus is as a business and finance paper, but that doesn't mean we check our humanity at the door."

Contact Jennifer Harper at jharper@washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.


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