As the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 unfolded live on news networks, broadcasters initially struggled to determine what happened. Was it a bomb that exploded in the World Trade Center? Was it an accident? An act of war?
“What [people] were really watching was raw reporting,” said Paul Friedman, the former executive president of CBS News. “Talk to as many people as you can and maybe eventually you figure out what’s true … it wasn’t for many hours that we knew really what was going on.”
With 10 years of hindsight, Friedman was joined Thursday by The New York Times media reporter, Brian Stelter, and former New York Daily News entertainment editor, Margarita Diaz, for a panel discussion at Quinnipiac University. The panelists examined the role video coverage played in such an historic event, how such media would have affected coverage of the attacks, and media’s reporting on the beginning of the war in Iraq.
“Yes, [the World Trade Center buldings] are symbols in themselves, but the fact that television magnifies the effects monstrously, massively, is something I suspect was on the [terrorists’] minds,” said Stelter, who was in high school at the time of the attacks.
He noted that with the attacks happening in the heart of Manhattan, instant television coverage was guaranteed. If the attacks happened in the Midwest, he said, the coverage likely would not have begun so quickly.
When the attacks began, Friedman said he couldn’t even “describe the chaos in the control room.” Rumors were swirling about places in the United States that had been hit by terrorists, but most of those proved to be false. Stelter said that if Twitter were around then those false suspicions would have taken a different path.
“We could have knocked down rumors faster but we also would have wildfires of rumors that wouldn’t have come up otherwise,” Stelter said. He added, “It’s almost as if the media has to make a more corrective stance on knocking down false rumors.”
While the coverage of the attacks on Sept. 11 were lauded by the panelists, the media reporting on Sept. 12 and beyond was a different story.
“I think the [coverage of the] run-up to the Iraq War by the American media, and particularly television, was … pretty shameful,” said Diaz, who is now a professor at Quinnipiac. “I believe a lot of questions were not asked and I continue to believe as journalists that [asking questions] is our job.”
Stelter asked if that bias could have been because New York reporters were so affected by the 9/11 attacks, but Diaz said the coverage was same in The Los Angeles Times.
“I think it’s more accurate to say the questions were asked and the answers were such that one way or another, we couldn’t make a judgment,” Friedman said. “Believe me, if we had been able to show that Saddam Hussein didn’t had no weapons of mass destruction … I’d be there.”
With credibility of the media at stake, Stelter, 26, called upon young journalists -- some of whom were in attendance at the panel -- to rectify the negative perception people have toward the media.
“I don’t want to put all the pressure on the young people in the room, but we have to win the trust back,” he said.