Getting off the plane and meeting people who had stayed in America was a strange experience, because they hardly seemed to know that anything was wrong.
—A.J. Liebling, A Witness to War Returns to America, 1940-41
I thought that I would never live to see anything like this ... to see people jumping from the World Trade Center. I don't think I've ever had a nightmare that was worse than this.
—New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, interviewed by Peter Jennings, ABC News, September 11, 2001
Despite all the Pearl Harbor analogies, from a media perspective this week's events were nothing like World War II. The obvious reason was physical: World War II began on distant turf and mostly stayed there. Although Hawaii was an American territory in 1941, it was far from the mainland, and most Americans didn't feel as if their own communities had been bombed by the Japanese. And it took the public at large a long time to grasp the enormity of the war in Europe, as The New Yorker's Liebling and many other correspondents discovered on visits home in the early months of fighting.
But this week's terrorism hit the United States where it lives and works, and the coverage reflected that difference, with constant references to the symbolic meaning of the targets. At one point on Tuesday, ABC's Jennings held up a special edition of a Midwestern newspaper and read aloud the headline: "Attacks Rip Pentagon, Trade Towers, America's Soul."
But there's another, arguably more important reason why the current war story is different from those of 60 years ago, and it's all about a fundamental change in how we experience news. When newspapers and radio were the dominant media, war reportage gave you a sense of the mayhem and destruction, but only a sense. The journalists were there and you were here, and between was a huge gap. No matter how good the reporters were, they couldn't make you see or feel the story—live it—as they did. The horrors, even when captured by photographers, were buffered, indirect, mediated.
Television changed all that, beginning with the Vietnam War. And in the years since that conflict, TV has grown ever more technologically sophisticated—quicker transmissions, more vivid imagery, more agile cameras offering more angles on every event—bringing viewers into ever more direct engagement with the story as it happens. The technology has also become ubiquitous; TV screens are everywhere. We've reached the point where the violence of war is now experienced simultaneously by journalists and their audience, with roughly equal immediacy. The buffer has vanished, and everyone has a valid claim on Liebling's title, "Witness to War."
Indeed, there were many moments on Tuesday when TV viewers had a distinct advantage over reporters on the scene. Those watching at home got the closest camera shots of the World Trade Center destruction—some from daring amateur video jockeys who weren't even journalists—while famous network reporters were stuck blocks from the scene.
If you wanted to witness the awful scene described by Rudy Giuliani, all you had to do was switch channels. At one point on Tuesday, I happened on a Spanish-language cable channel offering a macabre montage of numerous people jumping from the World Trade towers, shot after shot after shot. This channel not only showed the same jumpers repeatedly, it showed them in slow motion, making the home viewing experience, at least in one way, even more intense than being there.
This shift, the fact that journalist and audience are now simultaneous spectators, means that media consumers come to these stories seeking something different from what they sought 60 years ago. Because they're seeing events unfold for themselves, they don't need journalists to be their eyes on the scene, to describe in voluminous detail what we all have just seen happen. For instance, the countless journalistic descriptions of the fireball as the second New York tower was hit seemed especially needless.
Nor is it a great help for journalists to share at length their own feelings about these events, because we're all having the experience ourselves. There was a lot of that this week, too, but it's understandably hard for people witnessing unthinkable, real world events to contain their reactions. And now that the public watches big news at a journalist's side, it has actually gotten easier to be tolerant of certain media excesses. In a very real sense, everyone's a media person, and knows how hard it is to make sense of chaos.
In this new world of news, what we really want are news people who 1) acknowledge that they are in basically the same position as the rest of us; and 2) take us along with them on their search for understanding, with intelligence and a sense that they're making a real human connection—with the story, with their interview subjects, and with the audience. This is extremely hard to pull off, so hard that it seems to require a kind of preternatural talent.
This week, I switched around a lot among the major network and cable channels, but I found myself returning again and again to Jennings and ABC. Though famously brainy and smooth, Jennings is also the least affected, most natural of the major anchors. His presentation feels improvised in the way that real conversation is improvised. With John Miller, ABC's terrific crime reporter, as his sidekick, Jennings brought a remarkable sense of calm inquiry to the story, combined with an air of dignified yet very authentic humanity.
At 12:55 p.m. on Tuesday, after speaking with White House reporter Ann Compton, who was on Air Force One with the President, Jennings looked up at the camera and said simply: "We cannot state it often enough. The country looks to him." Immediately afterward, he did a nice phone interview with Giuliani that yielded the nightmare quote. Talking to George Stephanopoulos about the President's taking refuge in a bunker, Jennings asked a basic question that I think had occurred to many viewers: What exactly is meant by the word "bunker"? Moments later, in an aside, he observed that sometimes a story like this is so overwhelming for journalists on the scene that they can become oddly "isolated" from what's happening before their eyes—an almost existential thought, and perfectly apt.
Jennings also seemed to draw the best out of his ABC colleagues, especially John McWethy, Claire Shipman, and Charlie Gibson. Jennings said it was "very good" to see the members of Congress come together and sing "God Bless America" on the Capitol steps, and shared some of what he was hearing from friends in e-mails.
But my favorite Jennings moment came when he interviewed a young freelance cameraman who had used his motorcycle to penetrate security, climbed into the wreckage of one of the fallen towers (before even rescue workers thought it was safe), and come out with fresh video. This was a tricky situation for Jennings, in part because the young man, who was seated right at the desk with Jennings, was painfully inarticulate. ABC ran the footage, which was riveting and included a shot of a lone firefighter searching in vain for his lost colleagues. In a wonderfully natural moment, Jennings said the video was so good he almost thought he could smell the smoking wreckage. Then he realized he was smelling the wreckage—on the man's shirt.
Watching this slightly awkward moment, I could only think: Gosh, that's something I would have said if I'd been there. And in a way, I was.