War Comes Home
Strange days create new challenges for journalists.
By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (email@example.com), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
The distinguished members of our college's Board of Visitors get
together twice a year. Often the venue is the Washington bureau of the
Los Angeles Times, courtesy of its former longtime chief, Jack Nelson,
who has served on our board since 1983. But a few weeks ago the group
had to go elsewhere: The Times bureau was being "swept" to ensure that
it hadn't been contaminated with anthrax.
Not far away at the Washington Post, folks went without mail for more
than a week while the paper established a kind of sealed "clean room"
for safe processing. It is equipped with a powerful exhaust fan, and
employees don masks and gloves to open their own packages and envelopes.
Journalist and author William Prochnau is a visiting professor at the
college this term, leading a seminar on a subject he knows
intimately – how the press covered the war in Vietnam. His class had met
just once when terrorists crashed hijacked jets into the World Trade
Center and the Pentagon. When Prochnau convened his anxious young
charges a second time, he told them, "Everyone covering this story is a
That would include the student journalists of our own Capital News
Service. On September 11, those assigned to our Washington bureau
scrambled to cover a story that nearly landed on top of them.
Those in Annapolis, meanwhile, left their office because of its
proximity to the Statehouse building, which had been evacuated. Maryland
officials believed the historic edifice might be a target. Weeks later,
two CNS staffers were tested for exposure to anthrax after covering
reports of anthrax at the Brentwood postal facility in Washington. The
tests were negative.
Strange days indeed, as John Lennon put it, strange and perpetually
unsettling. The bombs may be dropping halfway around the world, but the
gnawing sense of dread is in our backyard. It's in the random bag
searches at the airport, in seeing police patrols atop and below
bridges, in passing power plants and wondering if they're secure. It's
in an eerily empty Washington Mall on an Indian summer afternoon.
This is a new brand of war for a new age, and it is creating new
challenges for journalists.
The most obvious one is that the press itself has become a target of
terrorists. If this development is shocking it is not altogether
surprising, given the rise of the global media culture. Nevertheless,
finding themselves in the center of the story alters the calculus for
journalists in many ways, not least being that it makes objectivity,
always difficult at best in wartime, that much more elusive.
But I'm also thinking about more subtle challenges posed by a homeland
war. Consider, for instance, that at a fundamental level the media and
the government find themselves with similar missions – trying to ascertain
what has been perpetrated on us even as they try to reassure us. They
have been marginally successful on that first point, much less so on the
second one. We in the media know all about our obligation to inform – and
there has been plenty of crackerjack reporting on view – but what
obligation do we have, if any, to keep from scaring the hell out of
Another new reality: The nation is dealing with an opponent who is as
media savvy as he is diabolical, with a strong sense of public relations
and ready access to international airwaves. What do we broadcast of
Osama bin Laden? In a recent story on this subject, the Post's Paul
Farhi, a frequent AJR contributor, conjured an interesting analogy. He
wrote, "Imagine if the broadcast of President Roosevelt's 'Day of
Infamy' speech after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor was followed
by Emperor Hirohito's reaction on American radio."
But perhaps the greatest challenge of all for the media, as it is for
the administration, is to keep people's focus on a war that will become
more remote as the holidays arrive and the feature pieces about Ground
Zero slow to a trickle. Toward that end, the New York Times is producing
what may be the most remarkable piece of journalism in this whole
endeavor, its roll of obituaries of everyone who died in the attacks of
As I write this, the edition before me has 15 of these brief but
eloquent notices. There are snapshots of customer service representative
Maria Theresa Santillan, of insurance executive Ronald Comer, of
firefighter Douglas Miller, whose three young daughters are left to
wonder who will put up the Christmas lights on the chimney this year.
In that ever-so-slight hesitation as we reach for our mail, we can be
forgiven for thinking this war is about us. But it is really about them.