Most Media Failed in the Disaster

As I write this, only a day has passed since the attacks started. We still have no body count. The only silver lining I can grasp is the lessons we might take from this attack and apply to our future defense. Though media people might think this is a realm reserved for security consultants and government types, we need to realize that we play an important role. For better or worse, we are the interface between terror and the public.

Special Kind of Terror

This is a role we can botch, as we saw Tuesday morning. Historically, terrorist attacks have been reported as past events — recountings of horrors that have since ended. Tuesday, the world’s public experienced true terrorism: not just the awareness of an initial attack but also the probability of additional imminent harm.

There were still planes up in the air, F-16s scrambling, live footage of a United plane slipping into the middle floors of an office tower. Along with the immense scale of the violence, the difference between having been attacked and being under attack is what made this event so horrifying.

Most Media Fail

As the terrible events were unfolding, people in New York City, Washington (D.C.), and cities across the nation were denied communications and access to important information.

Cell networks dropped out completely (as of this writing, it is still unclear if the government did this deliberately). Landline telephones proved just as useless, with millions of aunts and uncles, parents and friends calling everyone they knew in New York City to see if they were OK. I, too, was tempted to call an investment-banker friend but knew that someone else could better use the circuit.

Through some quick emails I was able to confirm that he and my D.C. in-laws were safe. I didn’t dare use my cell phone, remembering the story from a couple years ago of the woman in a South American earthquake who couldn’t call out to tell people she was trapped under a building.

The broadcast media — as we can now expect — covered the event like a pageant, showing footage of the violence, then stepping back to show beautiful people on rooftops reacting emotionally. We learned a lot about how “incredible” and “devastating” and “awful” this was to the empathizing talking heads, and in this two-hour crisis period we learned very little of the real information we needed.

In the critical two hours, we needed to know this:

  • Four planes were hijacked (not the six different ones mentioned on CNN at various times, giving the impression of still-impending doom).
  • Those planes all came from East Coast airports, leaving around 8 a.m. — meaning that targets beyond the distance of Chicago were not yet threatened.
  • People in New York’s southern districts ought to leave their cars and walk out.
  • Both cities need blood donations.

I was able to see all this by about 10:30 a.m. because I was online at the time. By checking a few bulletin boards, I was able to get very reliable information from people I knew in different parts of the country.

“We’ve got one plane on the ground at Cleveland Hopkins that they are searching for bombs and another in the air space over Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit corridor that they can’t make contact with,” wrote one bulletin-board poster about an hour before the networks reported the downing of the flight in Pennsylvania.

At 8:39 a.m., a Pentagon employee and fellow bulletin-board user posted the following: Made it out of the Pentagon … I work in the wing of the Pentagon that was hit. The building is so big and strong that I did not hear or feel anything. The alarms went off, we walked out into the parking lot and saw the smoke. Everyone thought it was a helicopter crash at the heli pad… Thank God a large portion of the area was not occupied due to the renovation. I was able to see the falsity of many other incidents, such as the CNN-reported “car bomb” incident at the State Department and the nonexistent “other plane” that was supposed to be heading toward the Pentagon. Unfortunately, most people in D.C. didn’t know that until after noon, when CNN told them that the initial report (now attributed to another network) had proved false.

Interestingly, the major news sites, such as MSNBC, contained only glosses of their television coverage. Only through direct contact with other people in other parts of the country was I able to get the more accurate picture. Even the Associated Press and Reuters didn’t have stories online (aside from one-sentence leads) until about 11:30 a.m. At 11:30, it was over.

In the absence of hard information — aside from the captivating footage of exploding buildings — people made poor decisions. I saw large evacuated crowds forming outside huge buildings such as the Prudential Center here in Boston. Traffic crawled. We made a great target.

The dual vices of self-importance (“Of course we would be considered a target”) and concern about civil liability (“If they die at home, it’s harder to sue us”) combined to make many universities and office complexes evacuate. I think that contributed more to the chaos than it did to the safety of those kicked out of work and school. It certainly congested things.

It’s easy, and certainly very tempting, to cast blame about when events like this take place. The media, as always, will be the focus of a lot of undirected rage. Our very powerlessness makes us want to vent at officials and at the media. But we need to be cautious in our criticism.

I think it unfair that so much talk has already been focused on “intelligence failures.” Why is it that whenever a domestic crime takes place, we see it as part of life, yet when an international crime takes place, it constitutes an “intelligence failure”? It’s as though the very presence of a foreign national in a conspiracy suggests that we should have foreknowledge — so long as we’re not so incompetent as to ignore it. This type of blame we can do without.

What We Can Do Better

I think we must focus on these failures instead:

  • We have too few broadcast news sources, and each of them seems to be reporting mostly what the others are saying. My wife wanted a PBS-quality news program, but when we turned to the local affiliate it was showing “Teletubbies.”
  • At first I thought the TV broadcasters were being deliberately dramatic, but I began to sense that their more overwrought statements were the product of ignorance. The comments about this being like Pearl Harbor struck me as particularly dumb. Tuesday’s attacks were just like Pearl Harbor, except that they didn’t destroy our Pacific Fleet. And they didn’t open up the West Coast to attack by an imperial power. To TV journalists, a “sense of history” seems to mean trying to create an iconic piece of footage that will later be deemed historic. I saw four or five doing good imitations of the announcer at the 1937 Hindenburg crash. Maybe the TV people should hire people who look smart and are smart.
  • Let airlines make information public by making them exempt from related lawsuits later. American and United knew how many planes were going rogue. They knew when those planes were all accounted for. In incidents past, airlines were concerned only for the lives of the people on their planes; now they have a new responsibility to the lives their planes can destroy on the ground.
  • Some enterprising news Web site will hopefully see the unmet need of real online reporting. Although all the details were there for the taking in the online bulletin boards in real time, someone needed to act as editor and verifier for this raw data. I’m hopeful this will give rise to a new news source, and as a media buyer I’d recognize its value.
  • The government, in its normal fashion of attempting to build a strong case against suspects, has been very tightlipped about the tactical details of the events. This is enough of a security threat that the public needs to know details of how this happened, even if certain evidence is put in jeopardy for future prosecutions. Remember that tape of the call to the 911 call center in Pennsylvania? We won’t likely hear its contents until some trial years from now.
  • I fear that all the media I’ve been watching have been jumping to conclusions. We’ve been talking about a sophisticated, “split-second timing” operation. In fact, the attackers might be from a sophisticated group, but I see no evidence that it requires one. It was 10 to 20 guys with (possibly air-legal) knives who seemed to be at the whim of normal airline delays — hardly split-second timing. I understand the need for the administration to prepare the public for retaliatory moves against Bin Laden and his host country, but it irks me when media play along without much scrutiny. I know it’s horrible to consider, but this might be an operation that — with a little pilot training — just about anyone would have had the ability to perpetrate.
  • Finally, when talking about security measures, the media needs to point out the measures that are merely palliatives. How many people believe that the ticket counter question, “Did you pack your own bags?” will actually ever save a life? It probably will prevent United from being sued some day for civil damages, but it’s not a security measure. I heard several people on TV talk about “more questions” to ask at the counter, and I wanted to scream.

The Internet proved a hopeful glimmer through these events. It withstood big blows and sudden rushes of use, as it was designed to do. Perhaps more important, it allowed people to communicate with others. There was just as much bad coverage online as there was offline. But those who wanted, and knew how, could dig deeper to touch the real people who knew what was going on. That direct connection to real people remains the Internet’s strength.

Editor’s note: For more on the impact of the September 11 attack, check the special section of internet.com’s E-Commerce/Marketing Channel, The Trade Center Disaster: Industry Response.

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