5 years after 9/11, did The Sun do the events justice?

Public Editor

September 17, 2006|By Paul Moore | Paul Moore,Public Editor

In the days leading up to the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the nation's newspapers, magazines and broadcast media found a thousand and one innovative ways to assess how America and its citizens have been changed by that momentous event.

There was a sense, widely felt in the media, that the attacks were this generation's Pearl Harbor or JFK assassination.

The extensive coverage in The Sun and elsewhere also reflected a growing demand for so-called "anniversary" journalism.

In recent years, readers have sought and received increasing coverage of Pearl Harbor Day, D-Day, V-E Day and other historical events. (As any public editor knows, readers react angrily if newspapers neglect anniversaries of events that greatly affected their lives.)

To be meaningful, these anniversary articles would have to avoid pandering. They should aspire to reveal larger truths impossible to detect in times closer to the attacks.

The coverage also needed to eschew sentimentality and sensationalism, to provide an appropriately measured quantity of material and to separate the anniversary from a continuing political debate over the war in Iraq and other controversies that followed 9/11.

The challenge of delivering on those goals was daunting. Few events in American history has received so much media attention on an anniversary so close in time to the event itself.

Did The Sun coverage succeed? Opinions are divided.

Reporter Tom Dunkel's Sept. 5 piece "A Time For Remembrance" was the newspaper's first prominent anniversary piece and, in my view, was the most incisive. Dunkel examined the question of whether the collective memory of an experience so enormous and so recent can be fully processed to comprehend what really happened.

Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Price winner and Nazi concentration camp survivor, told Dunkel that not enough time had passed for people's depth of memory to provide real understanding. "It's only five years," Wiesel said. "Most of the people who were there are still alive. It's impossible not to remember."

Dunkel later wrote: "The challenge is to untangle those disparate threads and construct a comprehensive, impartial narrative - one that in the collective mind of the nation may someday share shelf space with the Battle of Gettysburg, the Montgomery bus boycott, the Apollo 11 moon landing."

A number of readers reacted. "My first fear when I noticed your article was that it might be more of the `same old, same old,' " said reader Brian Rafferty. "But you put it in a historical context and you addressed its bearing on human emotions."

The Rev. Nathaniel Pierce said: "This is a brilliant piece of writing - thoughtful, probing, filled with insight and written with enormous sensitivity." From Sandra Brittain: "Thanks for your inspiring, beautifully written, thought-provoking memory piece. It's all I need to remember that fateful day."

The Sun's Sept. 8 and Sept. 9 editions offered a number of articles about those who survived the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks and those families that are still coping with the loss of family members killed that day. Most of the stories were engrossing and avoided becoming maudlin or sentimental.

Still, it was too much for reader Janice Shelby: "I read part of `A father lost, a family copes' (Sept. 9) but I just couldn't make it all the way through. It was well done but I'm just not ready to absorb it all again yet. It was just too much."

The Sunday, Sept. 10, front page was dominated by a large block of text printed on an image of one of the World Trade Center towers being hit by an airplane. The text described how The Sun had integrated material from dozens of tape recordings released in recent years to create a narrative tale about the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The article ran for more than three pages inside the A section.

Reader reactions were split. Several readers complained that the narrative was a look back at a day they did not want to revisit. "I would read stories about how things had evolved five years later but I would not read more details about what happened that day," one said.

Others such as Hal Reidl said: "Your digest of the 9/11 tapes makes for gripping reading. Thanks for your work."

The Sept. 12 front page, with its report on 9/11 commemorations (a local story was published in the Maryland section), was modest in comparison with previous editions. The Sun's single article primarily focused on President Bush's address, which connected 9/11 commemorations to the Iraq war. In my view, it was a mistake to run this story under the "9/11 Five Years Later" heading.

A second article on anniversary events would have made things clearer for readers.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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