Reporting the Report
It was almost 11:30 a.m., July 22, 2004, and we were awaiting the arrival of the ten members of the National Commission on the Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (informally known as the 9/11 Commission). Most of the journalists gathered in the cavernous marble hall under the gilt dome of the Mellon Auditorium had been there for hours, busily skimming the 570-page final report of the Commission with the aid of the accompanying cheat sheet, looking for any juicy tidbits—new details, shocking revelations, finger-pointing. The report was leaked on Capitol Hill at 8:00 a.m., so by now everyone knew there was nothing sensational—just a chillingly detailed, minute-by-minute account of September 11, 2001, along with the Commission’s assessment of what needs to be done to make America safer—if not safe. In short, the report was thoughtful and reasoned, which is to say, as news stories go, dull.
Across the aisle from me a slick television reporter bemoaned his lot. “There’s no blockbuster here, no obvious lead,” he lamented, flipping through the report. “I could have written this last night.” I kept eyeballing this guy, trying to think where I knew him from. Then he ran his fingers through his hair and it hit me: Jeff Rossen, better known to most of the world as the smarmy reporter in Bowling for Columbine who fixates on his hair between takes as he reports the tragic school shooting of Kayla Rolland in Flint, Michigan. At the time, many of Rossen’s colleagues at WJBK-TV in Detroit rushed to his defense, insisting that he was a sensitive reporter, on camera and off. But now he was bragging to Jay DeDapper from WNBC-TV about his recent riot training, preparing for the upcoming Republican Convention, while families of the 9/11 victims filed by, amid a flurry of flashes and shutter clicks. Describing a course he took from a special ops vet who had been shot in a cave in Afghanistan by a Taliban fighter, Rossen enthused, “He’s the real deal, you know?”
This, I realized then, is exactly what’s wrong with reporters. Rossen earned everyone’s respect on September 11—only months after coming to WABC-TV in New York—when he continued reporting live for an unbelievable twenty-five consecutive hours. So he obviously doesn’t lack commitment. In fact, like all young reporters, he fairly exudes get-up-and-go, but he is driven by an insatiable thirst for the most vicarious thrill and an aching desire to be first, not a sense of duty to be most considered and most correct.
Rossen is easy to pick on, but he’s hardly alone. DeDapper laughed as he recounted for Rossen how he had filed a report the night before based on new information that the Commission’s recommended “terrorism czar” would not be a Cabinet-level position, as earlier reported by the New York Times; then at dinner he got information that it would be a Cabinet position and reported that; then that morning, while we awaited the Commissioners, he heard—from a new “reliable source”—that the Cabinet position was a false rumor, and he had just filed yet another report retracting his previous retraction. He laughed and wagged his head knowingly. How sublimely ridiculous it must have seemed to him when Chairman Thomas Kean took the stage a few minutes later and announced the Commission’s recommendation that President Bush create a Cabinet-level intelligence post. By that afternoon he must have been retracting the retraction of his retraction. What a story it must make. And what a remarkable tangle of misinformation for anyone who just wants the truth.
So this is my answer to you, holding this issue now in hand, wondering what a quarterly publication can possibly add to the blitz of the never-ending media stream. It is my pleasure to offer you experts—real experts—writing at length, in order that they may be able to engage in fine distinctions, subtle nuances, and shades of gray. This is our mission, not only in entering into the discussion of September 11 and the resultant controversies over the capricious detentions of “enemy combatants” and the vagaries of the PATRIOT Act, but also in offering essays on gay marriage, on the assault weapons ban, and on the unlearned lessons from T. E. Lawrence’s time in Iraq after World War I.
Such analysis may seem hopelessly behind the times—and it may seem even more foolish to publish poems and stories during a time of crisis and in the wake of a recent NEA report asserting that the number of readers of such works is rapidly dwindling. It may seem so, but I hope all who see the world this way will take heed of Chairman Kean’s words, when he posited that the September 11 attacks were allowed to occur not because of failures of intelligence, but because of “failures of imagination.” Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton seconded this notion by noting that members of the Commission “were often advised during the course of the hearings to read imaginative writers like Tom Clancy” and other fiction writers whose creative inventions might provide a window into the possible.
To that same end, Philip Zelikow, executive director of the Commission, from the very beginning expressed his hope that the final report would read less like a government document and more like a book of nonfiction. Amazingly, he accomplished that task—and the report’s blunt prose paints a portrait more thorough and engaging than any number of rambling talking heads or worry-faced anchormen. Even President Bush—who once quipped that he hadn’t read a book since college and steadfastly maintains that he doesn’t read newspapers or magazines—issued a public statement saying that he “look[ed] forward to reading it.” If that’s not a testament to good writing, I don’t know what is.
My goal here is more modest—but also more lasting. Chairman Kean concluded his comments by insisting that we must do everything in our power to increase understanding. That’s what I hope, in some small way, this remarkable issue of VQR may accomplish. If you agree with these writers, I hope they will not merely ratify your views, but will deepen and broaden them. If you disagree, I hope they may change your mind—or, at the very least, encourage you to keep it open. In short, I hope these pieces may offer you some measure of insight and not merely more reporting.