Reflecting on the television media’s coverage of Sept. 11, CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather said many reporters are soft shoeing around thorny issues, an approach that flies in the face of patriotism. “The height of patriotism is asking the tough questions,” Rather said during a panel discussion at Fordham on Monday. “We haven’t been patriotic enough…It is our responsibility to knock on doors every day and ask what’s going on in there even if it makes us unpopular.” Two days before the anniversary of the terrorist attacks that killed almost 2,800 people, a panel of distinguished journalists and academics met in McNally Amphitheater to discuss their post-Sept. 11 responsibilities at a forum titled “How Television Covered the News from 9/11 to 9/11.”
The U.S. panelists included: Rather; Aaron Brown, anchor of CNN’s NewsNight with Aaron Brown; Jane Pauley, anchor of Dateline NBC; William J. Small, vice chairman of the Television Academy of News and Documentaries and former dean of Fordham’s Graduate School of Business; and Everette Dennis, Ph.D., Distinguished Felix Larkin Professor and Area Chair of the Fordham Business Communications and Media Management department. The journalists acknowledged that their generally low approval ratings soared in the days following Sept. 11 and have since soured. Pauley, who watched television coverage from her home the morning of Sept. 11, attributed the high ratings to the viewers’ need to get information from veteran anchors that they trusted.
That day, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings were on the air all day, she said. On Sept. 11, reporters had a high sense of purpose and resolved to stop “dumbing down” and “sleazing up” the news, a tactic employed to raise ratings and increase viewers, Rather said. However, that resolve has since weakened and most outlets have gone back to using gimmicks to grab viewers. “It was a rare moment where everyone approved of the coverage, Pauley said.” Then our ratings sank lower than bin Laden’s. Brown’s analysis was less critical, but he said it was the duty of journalists to tackle more complicated issues such as human rights and civil liberties to avoid historical embarrassments like the imprisonment of Japanese Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“We need to raise questions about the [Afghan] detainees, how they are being treated and about due process, and we need to follow these stories,” he said. “This is the nature of our role in a free society.” Following the U.S. panel, an international panel of journalists described the differences in their Sept. 11 coverage. All of these panelists said when the first plane hit, they knew it was a terrorist act rather than an accident because of their experiences in foreign countries where terrorism is part of the cultural fabric. The event was hosted by Fordham Business Schools and the communications and media studies department at Fordham College, and sponsored by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.