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Remembering 9/11

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9/11 in Amherst

Flags were flown all over Amherst, Mass. on 9/11.

This is a fairly solemn time of year for many around the United States, including myself.  Every year on this day, I feel the large bricks return to my chest.   For a long time after Sept. 11, 2001, I felt the bricks on my chest.

On that date, I had two young children — 3 and 1.  I lived in Gaithersburg — part of the sprawling Maryland suburbs outside of Washington, D.C. I was also the national/political editor for The Washington Post’s Web site on that date.  The big story before 9/11?  I was working with Chuck Babington, the political blogger for the site, for weeks on a package about tax policies which we were supposed to launch that day.  That became trivial rather quickly.

As the news broke that day, I struggled between my role as a father and that as a journalist/editor.  Students often ask how best to handle covering tragedy and how I handled 9/11 and the weeks and months afterwards.  Journalists always try and compartmentalize their emotions.  It wasn’t easy that day.  And, I’m still not sure I shouldn’t have grabbed my family, jumped into a car and driven into the mountains somewhere.

It’s a question that continues to haunt me.

Everyone always talks about the weather on 9/11.  It was a stunning Fall day.  I worked in Arlington — the location of The Post’s web site at the time.  I was stopped in traffic on Canal Road when WTOP, the all-news radio station in Washington, reported that a commuter plane had crashed into one of the buildings at the World Trade Center.  As someone who dealt daily in the world of breaking news, my first reaction was that the report didn’t make sense.  I called Jason Thompson, a colleague and friend who was already at the office and he said they were on the story and were trying to get details.  I was a block from my office when the news of the second plane came across the radio.  I called Jason again and I’ll never forget what he said:  “Yeah, we just saw it on TV.”  The tone in his voice gave me chills.  Still does.

I walked into a newsroom that was a sort of controlled chaos.  In  the national/political corner of the newsroom, Chuck was on his third update or so on the breaking story.  After discussions with Doug Feaver, the executive editor at the site and Ju-Don Roberts, the metro editor, we decided to send Chuck to the newspaper offices where he would be better able to take feeds from numerous sources.  It was a month before I saw him again.

We tried hard to focus on the story.

The day was a blur.

After the plane hit the Pentagon, I tried to reach family but the lines were jammed for hours.  Friends sat on Canal Road — again — for hours, as helicopter gunships with baby-faced soldiers leaning out the window buzzed overhead.

*  I remember standing on the balcony of our building and seeing smoke from the Pentagon.  We sent videographers to the Pentagon.  What they saw was traumatizing.

*  I remember lots of e-mail.  Many people I worked with forwarded what they were hearing from AP to local TV to local radio.  Sorting through what was rumor and what was real that day was perhaps the most challenging moment of my career.   The rumor of the car bomb at the State Department made it on air and on the Web at a number of places, including NBC’s Today Show….but proved wrong.  And as I watch the replay of the Today Shows’ programming that day, it’s stunning how quickly Bin Laden’s name is mentioned in connection with the attacks.  By 11 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, Tom Brokaw is on air giving background on Bin Laden.

*  I remember moments.  Standing in the middle of our building in Arlington, with reports of the fourth plane headed towards D.C. and one editor saying “we’re in the flight path to the White House.”  We looked at each other and then went back to our desks. We were in a vulnerable building, but no one left.  All those in the newsroom that day were focused on getting the story out.  Not only was it the day that transformed the country but it also transformed the journalism industry.  Feaver has often said that 9/11 was the day that Web journalism was born.  The Web site was re-designed on the fly that day and washingtonpost.com became a place not just for news but also a place for service journalism.

*  I remember everyone throwing themselves into covering the story.  No one left.  People in marketing, advertising and HR sent me information to add to the breaking news story.  Before there was crowdsourcing, we had a community of people contributing information.

*  I remember the video.  The plane. The crash.  The smoke.  The flames. Those jumping out the windows.  The horror of watching both buildings collapse.  I grew up in the New York suburbs and always considered myself a New Yorker.  Many family and friends worked in New York.  As I tried to juggle my duties as a journalist I thought about all those I knew in New York.  My uncle, now retired from the New York City police department, could not be tracked down until the early evening hours on 9/11.

*  I remember the bricks on my chest.

As 9/11 approached this year, I became disturbed about the coverage of the planned Islamic Center and the “burning the Koran” narrative that we’re still hearing today.   It really makes me wonder how far we’ve come in nine years.  For the most part, journalists operated with honor and distinction on 9/11 and the days and weeks afterwards.  I wasn’t feeling so positive around the hysterical coverage of these two recent storylines.  Facts have been ignored in favor of headlines, SEO and the desperation to be first . . . and the coverage has been nothing short of disgusting.

But I came across something yesterday in the social media universe that gives me hope.  A twitter feed with the hashtag #wherewereyou has gone viral and many are sharing their thoughts of the day.   The hashtag was generated by The Washington Post in an attempt to use merge social media and blogging and crowdsourcing to answer the question:  9/11:  Where were you when the towers fell?

It’s a simple but effective idea that has a created a story via the Twitter stream.  Reach out to the community and get their thoughts and create a story.  What a great idea.

As you read through the twitter stream, you gain perspective.  The day comes flooding back.  Life is valued.   And, you find yourself recognizing the narratives of the “Ground Zero Controversy” and the “Koran burning” for what they truly are.

Weigel, the ‘off-the-record’ listserv and Club Journolist

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One of the main critiques of journalists over the years is the notion that we are insular; that we play by our own rules and that we are clubby and enjoy fraternizing.

The recent debacle involving former Washington Post blogger David Weigel and “Journolist” certainly seems to indicate that the airs of clubbiness continues with professional journalists claiming their privacy was violated when discussions on their listserv were outed.   If you missed it, Weigel resigned his position at The Post after opinions he voiced on the Journolist — opinions bashing Republicans and conservatives — made it into the public sphere.  This caused a bit of a conundrum for the folks at The Post since Weigel authored a blog called “Right Now: Inside the conservative movement with David Weigel.”

This is the second time a conservative blogger at The Post has come under fire and resigned.  In 2006, when I was still working at washingtonpost.com, Ben Domenech, the author of The Post’s Red America blog, resigned his post after a short stint after allegations of plagiarism were aired in the public sphere.  With Domenech, there were some serious questions about the thoroughness of the background search conducted before hiring such a high-profile blogger.

One would think that the execs over at The Post would be extra vigilant these days about those involved with their operation.  Yet, Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli seems to want have it both ways.  On the one hand, he tells The Post’s Howard Kurtz:

“….we can’t have any tolerance for the perception that people are conflicted or bring a bias to their work. . . . There’s abundant room on our Web site for a wide range of viewpoints, and we should be transparent about everybody’s viewpoint.”

Then when questioned about the apparent contradiction of having a conservative blogger bashing conservatives, Brauchli gets into a defensive crouch, telling Kurtz:

“We don’t have the resources or ability to do Supreme Court justice-type investigations into people’s backgrounds. We will have to be more careful in the future.”

We expect more from one of the premier political reporting organizations in the nation.

The Post’s Howard Kurtz describes Journolist as an “off-the-record listserv for several hundred independent to left-leaning commentators and journalists that was founded in 2007 by Ezra Klein, now a liberal blogger for The Post’s Web site.” The premise — an off-the-record listserv for journalists — seems almost laughable, especially in the context of Katharine Weymouth’s failed dream for off-the-record dinners.

A  number of journalists, as well as Klein and Weigel themselves, seem irked because some of Weigel’s comments were “leaked.”   Klein, upset that his little private club has now exploded into the public eye, has decided to kill the “off-the-record listserv.”

Part of the reason Klein says he started the club was to create:

“An insulated space where the lure of a smart, ongoing conversation would encourage journalists, policy experts and assorted other observers to share their insights with one another.”

There’s that word again:  Insulated.  And if you look at a roster of who was in the club, it reads like a Who’s Who of print reporters who just don’t get it.  And, in the end, that’s the feeling you really get from this whole debacle:  Out of touch print dinosaurs creating a little club where they thought they could hold private electronic discussions.  Of course, is that if such a club were being conducted by a group of politicians, I doubt Klein or Weigel would hesitate to report on some “leaked” e-mails containing similar comments. The claims to privacy ring a bit hollow.

Klein attempts to understand the world of transparency and the Web, but doesn’t quite get it:

“There’s a lot of faux-intimacy on the Web. Readers like that intimacy, or at least some of them do. But it’s dangerous. A newspaper column is public, and writers treat it as such. So too is a blog. But Twitter? It’s public, but it feels, somehow, looser, safer. Facebook is less public than Twitter, and feels even more intimate. A private e-mail list is not public, but it is electronically archived text, and it is protected only by a password field and the good will of the members. It’s easy to talk as if it’s private without considering the possibility, unlikely as it is, that it will one day become public, and that some ambitious gossip reporters will dig through it for an exposure story. And because that possibility doesn’t feel fully real, people still talk like it’s private and then get burned if it goes public.”

Weigel goes further in his version of events, saying:

“No serious journalist has defended the leak of my private e-mails; no one who works in politics or journalism would accept a situation where the things they said off the record could immediately become public.”

Welcome to 2010, Mr. Weigel, Mr. Klein.  Assume that anything and everything is public.  Get used to it.

Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander takes the “it only takes one bad apple to run it for us all approach”  while a rather cogent argument for outing the emails comes from FishBowl DC.

In answering the question on whether or not the e-mails from the “off-the-records listserv” should have been published, Besty Rothstein cuts through all the nonsense pretty quickly:

“It’s not a reporter’s job to worry about the outcome of a genuine news story in that it may upset some people.”

End of story.

Much of what has been written in the wake of this debacle has focused on ideology.  Not many are writing about the privacy issues and the silly presumption of an off-the-record listserv for journalists.  As most of my students know, creating and maintaining a respectable digital footprint takes work.  It means acting responsibly on Twitter and Facebook.

It also means taking care in e-mails and all electronic communication.  You never know where your e-mail is being forwarded or where it will end up.

Weigel and Klein should know this.  If they didn’t know it before, they do now.

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