On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I became one of only a handful of the 150-plus professors at my university who did not cancel their morning classes. I did not for two reasons.
First, students needed the familiarity of routine in which to find some measure of comfort and counsel. They needed to be seen by adults who could determine which of them really needed the help of the university’s counselors.
Second, I teach journalism, and my two morning classes were both news writing. The tragedy of that day provided, sadly, the rarest of teaching opportunities.
As the students walked down the hallway toward my classroom, I watched their faces. Before each class, I sent several who were in tears to the university’s counseling center. In each section, I asked if any students had friends or family anywhere in Manhattan or Washington, D.C. Then I gave students a deadline writing exercise of little consequence.
When all had finished, I turned on the TV in the classroom. They watched Aaron Brown of CNN standing on the rooftop of a high-rise building with the burning Twin Towers in the background. This is what I told them:
All over campus, people are confused, hurt, sad and angry. Professors are just as confused; most have canceled classes. The university’s president has yet to speak to us en masse. [He never did that day, by the way.] You’ve just done an assignment under the most extraordinary pressure you’ll ever have as a student here. Some of you chafed, some of you teared up â€” but you all did it. I’m proud of you.
That’s Aaron Brown of CNN on the screen. You think he wants to be there? He knows people in New York, perhaps in the Towers; he has fears and concerns of his own for their safety and well-being.
But he’s there for one reason, and it’s the most fundamental truth of being a journalist: When all other people are losing their heads, journalists must keep theirs. Journalists, too, of course, need to cry and process privately their own emotions. But in the heat of the moment, people need journalists who are professionally cool and competent. That’s what we do, and that’s what I hope you learned today.
In September 2004, Brown spoke at Cornell University and said he found covering the terrorist attacks that day exhilarating. “But people forget that people who do what I do are both reporters and citizens,” Brown said. “As a citizen, a father and a New Yorker, I was, and remain, heartbroken by what happened that day.”
I’m proud of what my students learned that day. In the midst of tragedy almost too large for them to comprehend, they learned at depth what it means to be a journalist. Aaron Brown demonstrated what journalists did all over America that day â€” stay calm and tell what happened and why.
When I read the incessant attacks on mainstream journalism (including some of my earliest posts) as outdated, outmoded and increasingly irrelevant, I chafe. In terms of telling people what they need to know in times of crisis, who can do as good a job as the 55,000 journalists in the newsrooms of American dailies trained to keep their heads while everyone else loses theirs?