Tone Makes a Comeback

It turns out that in times of great substance, substance isn't always everything. One of the most astonishing developments of the past six weeks, media-wise, is the sudden rebirth of tone. After a long decade of unserious public discourse—when the only thing that mattered less than what you said was how you said it—we've entered a period in which it's only a slight exaggeration to say that tone is everything.

The transformation of Rudy Giuliani, who went overnight from tragicomic has-been to international hero, has been all about tone. In his first public appearances on the day of the atrocities, the mayor of New York was pitch-perfect. Everything he did and said in those early hours, from the biggest policy decisions to the tiniest inflections of voice, evinced a flawless grasp of the tone demanded by the extraordinary events unfolding around him.

Giuliani's tone was so complex and layered, it's actually hard to characterize. While he was firm and commanding, he was also tender and vulnerable, often in the very same moment. By all rights, it should be troubling, and more than a little scary, to hear the mayor of America's greatest city say, as Giuliani did at one point, that he was witnessing a scene more awful than his worst nightmares. And yet, it was the opposite of troubling: Something about the mayor's tone made this confession oddly reassuring. He seemed to understand that, in these particular circumstances, utter emotional honesty would be a sign not of weakness, but of enormous strength. By going with that intuition, he made a direct and unusually intense connection with an enormous global audience, in a way few public figures have done since World War II.

Watching Giuliani, it's been tempting to chalk it all up to a pol's innate aptitude, a genetically endowed gift for reading the moment and knowing how to live in it. But then, why didn't his tonal genius emerge in the past eight years, when the mayor seemed perfectly and irremediably tone-deaf? If tone really is a talent, maybe for some people it only emerges under certain very special conditions.

Whatever its origins, it's emerging all over the place, and not just among elected leaders who appear in the media, but among media people themselves on television and in print. And it's noticeably not emerging, too, as various prominent media actors demonstrate that they lack the suddenly crucial talent for tone.

Earlier this week, for instance, there was a riveting exchange on CNN's Larry King Live between Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter, and Dana Suyyagh, a senior producer for Al Jazeera television in Qatar. Basically, Miller asked Suyyagh to explain why her outlet calls suicide terrorists who kill Israeli civilians "martyrs," yet does not apply the same honorific to the suicide terrorists who killed American civilians last month. Outclassed by the steely Miller, Suyyagh soon found herself in a tight semantic corner, arguing that while killers of Israelis are part of a cause, the U.S. attackers were "causeless." At this point, King cut in and said to Suyyagh, in that blithe King style that works so well with Sarah Ferguson and Suzanne Somers, "I see, so you look at it that way." And moved on to other subjects, truncating a potentially significant debate, while diminishing its importance. He might as well have said, "Looks like you gals will just have to agree to disagree."

Contrast this tonal fumble with Tim Russert's performance the day before, on NBC's Meet the Press. The show began with Russert's taped interview with Suhail Shaheen, deputy Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, and this question: "Mr. Shaheen, 5,000 innocent people from 80 different countries were killed in the United States. Why won't you turn over Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda? They have all but admitted they did it, and they are promising to do more. You can spare your own people in Afghanistan and try to bring peace to a region simply by turning over Osama bin Laden."

As with the King exchange, you really had to see it to appreciate it, but with this single question, Russert set a highly nuanced tone: outraged by the crimes, but reasonable in pursuit of the truth; unsparingly tough, yet wanting to be fair. As Shaheen tried to dart and dive away, Russert pursued him with his usual vulpine ferocity.

For wartime journalists, it's essential to avoid both the blind patriotism that can grow from righteous indignation, and the blind distrust of government that's a natural reaction to stepped-up secrecy and propaganda. This is a challenge of emotional and intellectual attitude, but it manifests itself in tone. In interviewing his next guest, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Russert sailed skillfully between the two perils. He grilled Ashcroft with an intensity approaching—but, significantly, not quite matching—that directed at the Taliban official. At the same time, he displayed an underlying human concern about the story that now transcends all others: the safety and fate of this society. After Russert had posed several difficult policy questions, he said to Ashcroft: "This week, on October 18, there will be a sentencing of those terrorists involved in the blowing up of our embassies in Africa. Will that be a special day of alert for our country?"

Those last two words don't come easy to most journalists, trained as we are to be permanent adversaries of the government. In a way, you have to earn the right to use them. How? By pursuing the truth on this story just as relentlessly as you've always done, while not forgetting that you're also a human being and a citizen. Sometimes, it's all a matter of tone.