Before Sept. 11, WRC-TV Washington Assistant News Director Nannette Onley Wilson recalled, "we were doing stories about the vacuum bra." Since the tragedy, she said at a Monday RTNDA panel, "the news is more serious."
The session was part self-congratulatory and part cautionary. Panelists, and the audience generally, lauded TV and radio for its coverage of the World Trade Center and Pentagon catastrophes. But some also feared that as events fade, electronic media's interest in serious and international news might wane, too.
Indeed, with budget cuts, CNN International President Chris Cramer said that on Sept. 11 he wondered if the news media was up to the job of covering the catastrophes. But, it was, he said.
The events of September 11—the very reason the Radio-Television News Directors Association had to cancel its Sept.12-15 convention in Nashville and join the NAB for its 2002 show—provided a broad canvas for the four-person panel, moderated by PBS' Gwen Ifill.
The first challenge, said WCBS(AM) New York reporter Allison Keyes—who watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center as she drove the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan—was to stay alive. As she got closer to the disaster, she said, the motto was to "keep rolling tape; don't get killed."
Similarly, NBC News President Neal Shapiro recalled, in the panic and uncertainty of the day, he considered evacuating the news staff from 30 Rockefeller Center, a New York skyscraper that lacks the height of WTC but carries great symbolic weight.
Later, he said, NBC became "a horrible laboratory for finding out about anthrax."
But while stories of intrepid reporting on Sept. 11 are both legion and legend, journalists still face questions over how effective was the coverage of developments that led to the disaster—and what role economics played.
"Foreign news had ceased to be sexy," said Cramer. And, he added, "it was expensive."
Cramer called the cutbacks in international reporting "a dangerous trend which has been temporarily halted. But I worry about the media slipping back. If we slip back again, we will be letting our audience down" instead of "alerting them to the menaces that are out there ...we have to get beneath this poison; to analyze this poison against us."
Yet, said Shapiro, for all the ways his network was stretched thin, lack of money was not behind the stories that were not reported.
Nonetheless, he said, foreign coverage seems reinvigorated by Sept. 11, and it needn't be as expensive as it's been. Foreign coverage is easier, faster and cheaper than before in many countries.
Cramer agreed that "the days of brass plaques and 16-person bureaus are over." His network does provide training in safety, though, he said, and CNN won't assign a reporter to a hostile area without a 5-6 day safety course.
Ifill and the panelists noted the often-distracting issue of patriotic displays, and the practice of challenging the government for better information. WRC's Wilson recalled making a rule against reporters wearing American flag lapel pins, and then awakening the Saturday after the attack and observing two anchors of WRC's morning newscast fitted with Old Glory. But panelists insisted there were ways to be patriotic without being jingoistic
"History will determine how challenging we've been," said Cramer. "History will determine whether we've been feeble. We can be patriotic and be good journalists."