A 9/11 remembrance

Remarks on the 22nd anniversary

By Laura Haight
President, DWGC

At some point today, I will exchange a series of texts with a former colleague of mine from when I worked at Gannett Corporate Headquarters in the Washington-DC Metro area. We were not close friends at the time, but today she will reach out to me as she does every year on this day, and we’ll talk about her son, Oliver, who will celebrate his 22nd birthday next month. 

On September 11, 2001, we were at work on the 30th floor of the Gannett tower that overlooked the Potomac on one side, the Pentagon on the other. We were all huddled around TVs in a conference room incredulously watching what was unfolding in NYC. When we heard the department secretary scream, we looked up just in time to see American Airlines Flight 77 slam into the Pentagon. 

Our 31-story building shook, and mass hysteria took over. Seems on every floor, everyone had been watching the TV and didn’t need to take any time to wonder what that explosion was. We knew that we were the tallest building on the Washington skyline (even though we were in Rosslyn VA) and the largest media company in the country. Our dual towers also housed USA Today. We feared we might be a target too. 

So we ran. Several thousand people pushed, and shoved their way down the stairs. Val was eight months pregnant, and, as you can imagine, not steady and not moving quickly enough for the others racing down the stairs. I got alongside her and braced myself against her, keeping her close to the wall and away from the crowd as best I could. Together, we made our way down the 30 flights of stairs slowly but safely. 

It took hours to get out of Rosslyn and make the 12 mile trip to my home. And when I got there. I was humiliated and embarrassed. After a lifetime as a journalist, the biggest story of my life was unfolding and I had run the other way. 

Even though I was now in technology and no longer on the news side of the business, I knew there were things I could do to help: I could take notes, make calls, write briefs. I could get coffee. I got in my car and tried to get back to the USA Today building, but the roads were all closed. 

For years, I felt like a coward. But over the years of September 11ths that Val and I have shared, I’ve come to think that maybe that was the something I could do. I could help Val get safely down the stairs. 

I think every one of us has some kind of special connection to this day, regardless of where we were, what we were doing, or how close or far away we might have been.

In the aftermath, we wrestled with our better angels. We came together, more unified as Americans than I can ever remember. But we also brought hate and violence, directing it at Muslim communities and mosques. Our leaders — one of whom today faces a RICHO trial — stood strong against that mass hatred and hysteria. 

Today, 22 years later, we are more divided than I could ever imagine. Intolerance is our default position. Anger, hate, and violence are our daily diet; and we partake of it with gusto.

Many of our politicians fuel the division, revelling in the inadequacy of norms and chipping away at the functions of government. Courts are under attack and some justices – including those at the highest level – seem more concerned with finding bizarre justifications to bad decisions than upholding their lofty and crucial role as the backstop in our societal structure. 

In my view, there is just one thing standing in the way of a total breakdown of our society: The free press. 

Attacks on press freedom are not uncommon in many parts of the world, but they have been relatively few and far between in the US. That is until the MAGA-era. Last month, based on a complaint from one resident, police in a small Kansas town barged into the town newspaper’s office, confiscated their computers, their personal phones, and documents. It took a day or two, the death of the newspaper’s co-owner, and a court hearing for the equipment and documents to be returned. 

So great, the 1st amendment prevailed. But did it? Will it? This was hardly an isolated instance. 

You probably remember when CNN reporter Jim Acosta had his White House press credentials pulled because then president Donald Trump didn’t like his questions. A lesser publicized case occurred in Iowa in 2020, when a Des Moines Register reporter was pepper sprayed by police and arrested during a George Floyd protest. Although she identified herself as a reporter, she was held, charged, and indicted. She stood trial for “failure to disperse and interference with official acts”. She was acquitted in 2021. 

It’s all about access. And far right candidates know it. During the 2022 campaign, Doug Mastriano was running for Governor in Pennsylvania. He barred the press from any of his events, refused to be interviewed or answer any questions (except from far-right media), and printed out photos of journalists to give to staffers at events to ensure they were not able to get in. He lost, badly, to Josh Shapiro.

But there are other threats. Like lack of trust on the part of the community. The advent of alternative facts has made journalists’ jobs much more difficult. The growth of alternative media – crowd-sourced platforms like Reddit, and podcasts –  means that just about anyone with an opinion can build a following of readers, regardless of how diligently they gather their facts or what biases they represent.

In 2022, Pew Research reported that 53 percent of US Adults get their news on social media platforms, with 31 percent saying they get theirs from Facebook. 33 percent say they prefer to get their news via TV and a paltry 5 percent choose print media. 

What constitutes a vetted news source? Who knows. And that’s the problem. Even when print was king, you heard: “You can’t believe everything you read.” 

But now, we may start to question what we see with our own eyes. The growing footprint and reliance on Artificial Intelligence is a giant advantage for businesses seeking greater visibility into their operations and their customers’ preferences, and for journalists as well. But like all great technology advances (think cloning), there’s a big downside. Fake videos are getting harder and harder to deconstruct and the real possibility exists that the technology will outpace our control mechanisms – just in time for the 2024 election cycle. 

What happens to the idea of a free press when everyone is passing themselves off as valid information sources? When you can’t believe what you read OR see? When most people won’t take the trouble to vet what they heard or saw, and those who do may be thwarted by the vast array of conflicting information with no true and trusted source to sift through it.

What happens if a second Constitutional Congress decides to amend the first amendment? Or the court gets a case it can use to overrule Sullivan v. NYT, the landmark 1964 Supreme Court case that established that the First Amendment freedom of speech protections limit the ability of American public officials to sue for defamation?

Watch the video on press freedom and the challenges of journalism in 2023 from our featured program speakers Amy Wood and Andy Brack.

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