If Sept. 11 has had any positive effect on the world, it might well be in the field of journalism. At least that's how Katherine Boo, Pulitzer prize-winning staff writer for "The Washington Post," reacted when asked how the tragedy has affected her profession. "We've seen what journalists can do when they're trying," Boo suggested.
The question was one of many posed by veteran journalist and panel moderator, Bill Moyers, at a Nov. 15 discussion hosted by the "Columbia Journalism Review" as part of its 40th anniversary celebration. "CJR: 40 Years of Change" gave Moyers and other journalists an opportunity to explore the events and stories that have shaped today's journalism and helped define the magazine. "CJR brings on some strong feelings, but serves an extremely useful purpose," said CJR publisher David Laventhol, "The magazine is a history of our times as seen through the prism of journalism." And considering the many changes journalism has experienced in the past four decades, "criticizing the press has often been a worthwhile if lonely pursuit," according to Tom Goldstein, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, who welcomed the crowd in Altschul Auditorium to the CJR anniversary event.
Moyers introduced the discussion by commending the efforts of those who have nurtured the magazine through a variety of international and domestic circumstances. "I think of CJR and the J-School as sort of the 'high church' of our craft, reminding us of the better angels of our nature and the demons, powers and principalities of power against which journalism is always wrestling," Moyers said.
He then began the discussion by asking what impact the attacks of Sept. 11 have had on the field of journalism. "If I had read this issue of CJR over the summer," Boo responded, "I would have felt a sad nostalgia for the profession and the end of this era, of the truly inspired journalism of the past. But the last two months have made me feel like maybe it's not over, maybe we've got some life left."
Joan Konner, a former television news producer as well as dean emerita and professor of Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, agreed. "9/11 jolted journalism back to its roots of responsibility to give the public what it needed to make informed decisions," Konner said. "It exposed our human vulnerability and blossomed into humane feelings in the news. But it also exposed how ignorant we were of the rest of the world, exposing great vacancies in reporting."
Others responded more personally. Ann Moore, executive vice president for Time Inc., felt the literal effects of the attack. Her son had to run from his office in the World Trade Center and her company had to evacuate "non-essential people" because the Rockefeller Center was threatened. "(Only) the journalists had to stay behind. Our photographers were in shock, covered with dust, and it felt like we had a war zone in our office," Moore said. Still, they produced a 48-page special issue in 22 hours that sold four million copies, far surpassing usual sales.
The effects of the general coverage, Moore said, have been positive. She believes that "serious journalism is in vogue right now, and I don't think it will stop soon."
Moyers reminded the panel that even President Bush praised the efforts of journalists for their coverage of the tragedy, but wondered what his colleagues thought the President meant by such praise.
"Let's hope it was that we have reporters trying to cover war in incredible danger without getting much help from the U.S. government," Gerald Boyd said. Boyd, the managing editor for the "New York Times," admitted that journalists "are trying to cover a story that is totally unpredictable. Most of us have been working non-stop. Our way of life has changed in a fundamental way." Boo added that she had been stunned by the hostility dissenters have been shown, as if these dissenting viewpoints were unpatriotic. "When the stakes are this high, I would think we'd want the highest level of discussion and the highest level of investment when it's merited," she said.
Moyers then moved the discussion further into the past and observed how out of it has emerged an environment largely dominated by a handful of conglomerate news chains. He asked what impact such corporations are having. Moore responded on behalf of one of those conglomerates by suggesting there are now more resources to invest in more choices for the public than in the past. Konner took issue, however, with Moore's assertion and responded that "these large corporate structures with public ownership have been answering to Wall Street and not necessarily to the needs of the public. There are two value systems very much in conflict."
Boyd believes no matter how many choices the public has, there is "a hunger for quality and it doesn't come cheap. You have to keep investing." Because the public does have access to more news, information and entertainment than ever before, Moyers wondered how such options have affected the quality of journalism.
Since his early days of newspapering to his work as a presidential press secretary, Moyers has noticed "that the biggest change in journalism has been the shift of content from news about government to consumer driven information and celebrity features." Boo believes the change has happened primarily because reporters have failed to make government coverage readable, interesting and relevant to the public.
The CJR discussion then turned to a gentle debate of how the panelists would define failure and success, and how they could hold the integrity of their profession without succumbing to external pressures.
"If we don't ask these hard questions about ourselves," Moyers concluded, "we leave it to those critics who have other motives and agendas than the self-correcting faculties all of us share."