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Tracey E.Schelmetic

[September 19 2001]

Dot Com Commerce

By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Managing Editor, CUSTOMER INTER@CTION Solutions

Reflections On The Job Of The Press During A National Tragedy

I admit I am at a bit of a loss as I settle down to write this column. In light of last week's cataclysmic happenings, I can't quite bring myself to discuss chat software or the latest dot com demise. After the events of last Tuesday, such issues seem frivolous to the point of ridiculous this week.

On the other hand, I'm not a CNN reporter and I probably can't tell you anything you don't already know. I haven't interviewed Colin Powell, I don't know where they're hiding the warships and I've never attended a presidential press conference. Despite this column and the fact that I often report on new technologies from trade shows, vendor visits, etc., I consider myself an editor first and foremost not necessarily a journalist or a reporter. That said, I plan to indulge in a little good old-fashioned op-ed and share some reflections on the job of the press in a national disaster.

Whilst cycling seven miles to nowhere at the YMCA today and listening to the news on the radio, I realized that the press are in a bit of a rough spot this week. The amount of big news stories to break are lessening, but the various news organizations realize that no one cares about Jennifer Lopez's navel or the discovery of a heretofore unknown dust cloud in the Horsehead Nebula this week (though I must admit I worry about people who care about Jennifer Lopez's navel the other 51 weeks a year). In a sense, at this moment I am in the same position as CNN or the New York Times. I have no new information or answers for you but I can't bring myself to ramble on about an unrelated and far more low-key topic. Nobody cares this week. This week, we are patriotic, we are nice to one another (how many strangers have smiled at you or spoken to you in the last week, as opposed to the rest of the year?) and we are touched that most of the rest of the world seems to be allied with us in grief and potential retribution. Yes, Wall Street opened for business on Monday, but even that seems to have more of an element of "They can't beat us/We shall overcome" than "Show's over folks, back to business as usual."

The amount of press releases I received last week slowed to a trickle and most of them concerned donating office space, offering hotlines, etc. A couple of releases, though, seemed to capitalize on the events of last Tuesday to sell product ("Telephone lines busy? Use our serviceno busy signals!"), the authors of which were flamed so fiercely that if we're lucky, they may never write another press release. But by and large, both the press and the public relations industries did admirable jobs.

There were, however, some exceptions.

Here goes (deep breath) Why is it that large news agencies always feel the need to slap a label on a situation, even a relatively minor one? This week, news organizations emblazoned their slogans across the TV, their interview backdrops, their foreheads (wellnot quite, but almost). "America Under Attack!" screamed one. The only thing the slogan was missing was the "registered" symbol to prevent other news organizations from stealing their "idea." I'm not trying to pick on CNN all the other news organizations had similar, and often cheesier, slogans.

Another peeveinterviews with people so fringe to the situation it takes you ten minutes to work out why we might care what this person saysfor example, at least one of the news agencies interviewed Tom Clancy the day of the disasters. As inTom Clancy, the novelist who wrote The Hunt For Red October and Clear And Present Danger. Yes, I know he wrote a book that deals with a terrorist attack on New York and that he's knowledgeable about military issues. But interviewing a novelist, no matter how germane his chosen subject matter is, trivializes an issue. It surprises me no one brought in Bruce Willis to ask him how he would handle the situation.

The most alarming trend in the news last week and earlier this week was this: the broad discussion of the location of U.S. warships and aircraft carriers, the opinions from high-ranking (but sometimes anonymous) government officials on what form retaliation would take, and the possible timeline for military action.

Does anyone think that network news television airwaves stop at the U.S. border and bounce back? Some wise person in the news recently pointed out that since terrorist organizations seldom have the benefit of having a government behind them and thus all the intelligence resources that go along with formal government, these terror groups get their information from news organizations. We all heard reports of Saddam Hussein regularly tuning into CNN to keep track of what was happening during the Gulf War. In other words, if I know that a fleet of U.S. warships is stationed off the coast of a certain country, chances are good the people responsible for this atrocity are going to hear about it, too. Makes sense, doesn't it?

Sure, as a civilian I'd like to be informed of what's happening in the world but do me a favor and don't tell me military secrets. The less secrets I know, the less secrets they know, and the better I feel about the safety of the nation. I'm willing to sacrifice a little freedom of information for some national security aren't you?

Lest I seem to be doing all complaining and no commending, let me fix that. I respect and admire the decision of many of the news organizations to not air some of the more disturbing and tragic footage they are holding in their coffers. I was glad to see reporters in the field (the ones that were staying out of the way of rescue crews, that is) looking tired, careworn and less-than-perfect. Had all the news agencies parked a perky Suzy Lipgloss or an over-tanned, hairsprayed pretty boy in front of the cameras I would have been faintly incensed.

Finally, the decision of most of the radio and television stations to run no advertising during the first two days was something to be commended. They understood that the American public would have reacted with revulsion to a pause from live, breaking news or footage of New York and Washington D.C.'s
heroes -- the firefighters, police departments and emergency crews -- to a toothpaste commercial.

So I'm not decrying the role of the news media. During a horrific time such as the events of September 11, these news organizations are our primary source of information. I spent the day glued to my radio, not having access to a television. The news media organizations carry the awesome responsibility of communicating the state of the union to the American public and often, serious events have a way of ennobling them, at least for a time.

Let's hope this ennoblement takes hold permanently. Let's also hope that patriotism and Americans being nice to one another also sticks around as the aftermath recedes.

Tracey Schelmetic may be reached for comment at tschelmetic@tmcnet.com.

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