Watchdog Blog

Barry Sussman: Reporting Is Getting Better and Worse at the Same Time

Posted at 10:23 am, August 31st, 2011
Barry Sussman Mug

I got a few questions from a Norwegian journalist asking my reflections on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The questions tend to be a little lofty; as the writer, Tore Saevik, noted, “It is possible to write books about several of them.” But they all are good questions, so I took a shot at them.

Q. Ten years after: How important are the attacks to understand the U.S. as it appears today?
A. It’s not the attacks but the response to the attacks that are most important. The attacks showed we are vulnerable. Over the years, the response has been one of increased citizen divisiveness, twisted, deceitful national leadership, terrible loss of life and limb and treasure and hope.

Q. Can any other events in post second world war America be compared in importance?
A. In my view, no. In terms of lasting destructiveness nothing compares to the response to 9/11. Not even Vietnam. The aftermath to Vietnam was unifying compared to the years since 9/11.

Q. In which ways have the terror attacks changed the daily life of Americans?
A. Terrorism is on people’s minds. On Aug. 23 there was an earthquake across the eastern U.S. The first thought for many was, is this a terrorist attack? In more punishing ways, the Bush government’s response to 9/11 tore up the lives of millions and the economy as well – and the Democrats went along with it, took part in it. We are paying for it now with endless, high-level joblessness, feeble wages for many who have jobs, a shrunken middle class, poor prospects for young people, and not much hope of improvement. We have many, many lives wrecked by terrible physical and mental injury due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Q. How have the events reshaped the self-image of the US?
A. There is no single perspective. Mine is that America is a great country with stunning natural beauty and nurturing, enterprising people but it has been terribly hurt by too many corporate-funded, self-absorbed leaders and a rise in mean-spiritedness.

Q. How has people´s trust in the authorities and politicians been affected?
A. Since Vietnam trust in government has been low. Now it is lower, almost nonexistent. It is so low that it’s a wonder there is so little talk of an ‘American spring.’

Q. At large: Have the journalists and media succeeded in asking the right questions after the attacks, and to the response to the attacks?
A. Journalism is getting better and worse at the same time. There has been some great reporting; the New Yorker Magazine, New York Review of Books, the New York Times, occasional news accounts elsewhere in the mainstream press, and a good number of excellent books often get to the bottom of things. Growingly, online reporting is independent, original, relevant. That includes reporting by advocacy groups on subjects like criminal justice, environment, health care – new sources for intelligent, powerful reporting. But overall, there isn’t enough sustained good work, and many regional and local news organizations seem to not even care about covering important issues. On Nieman Watchdog we write about this from time to time, most recently in articles on coverage of Afghanistan
by John Hanrahan. This is a very important issue in that some of us hold to the idea that a strong, consistent watchdog press might arouse the public and, thereby, force more responsive government.

Q. Do you see any lasting effects from 9/11 on how journalists and the media work and what issues they are interested in?

A. Again, there is no monolith here. There are many dedicated reporters and editors.

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