The way a journalist remembers

View of Pennsylvania Avenue spanning from the Capitol Building to the National Archives from the top deck of the Newseum.

I have been thinking about this day since the night Osama bin Laden was killed. When I saw the news casts of students celebrating outside the White House that night, I realized I would be in D.C. on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and I began contemplating what that would mean for me as a newcomer to the city. Would I be afraid to leave the apartment? Would I need to fear for my safety on this day? And, on a more personal level, what would I do in the city that could best reflect on the immensity of this day in the country’s collective conscious?

A few weeks ago I reserved several free tickets to the Newseum, which was offering free admission for this weekend in honor of the 9/11 anniversary. As we came closer and closer to this morning, though, more and more people with tickets decided not to go, and I got nervous. I won’t lie: Part of me was scared to go out into the city today. Even though I boldly rode across town yesterday, I considered that maybe I should just stay inside today…just in case. At the last minute – and following some serious peer pressure – two friends convinced me to use my tickets and go with them. It ended up being the perfect way to spend this day in remembrance.

The Newseum is home to six stories of news and journalism history. Anyone could spend an entire day there and still be overwhelmed. As a young journalist, I could probably spend a week in that place and never be fully satisfied.

The photography hits you first. Because I am hardly skilled behind the camera lens, I admire those who can steal and preserve real life on film. Words are the rough draft of history, to borrow words, but good photography? That’s what moves people. At the Newseum, the collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs does more than move you. Humanity’s best – and worst – moments leap off the walls; they rip your heart out.

That’s just the first floor.

The tribute to 9/11 is the towering display of front pages from newspapers around the world, preserved from Sept. 12, 2001. The rows and columns stretch three stories into the air, but they all express the same sentiments: Attacks. Terror. Shock. “What do we do now?”

It is staggering. All of these pages with the same images of the same flames and the same horrors. Even after ten years, it still gets people. I think that is one power of print journalism as we knew it. It preserved moments in a paper time capsule, so that we can look back on this day and read only a few words and be right back in the moment.

The Seattle Times front page is located in the top right hand corner of this photo. The headline simply reads, "TERROR."

From an editor’s perspective, I would have hated to be in the newsroom that day. I can only imagine the gut-level, immediate response for constructing a front page: Give the photo best play; use few words, make them stand out. But that’s what each paper did, and when placed side by side, every front page blurs into the one beside it. The really good stuff, in journalism terms, came later, I imagine, appearing in the aftermath that followed. It came when rescue workers could not reach victims. When firefighters collapsed. When families begged for any signs of loved ones. When newspapers began to run obituaries. That’s what I can’t imagine.

To feel the full impact of this tribute, though, I think you have to find the front page of your local newspaper. I don’t remember reading The Seattle Times on Sept. 12, but my heart jumped a little when I located it at the top of the display. That’s what my parents read; that’s the paper I would have seen on my kitchen counter 10 years ago. I probably saw the picture, read that single word in the headline, and cried. I don’t remember.

How do you take a picture of this? You can hardly smile. I struggled. Sorry, the result is awkward.

We watched a short film about the first reporters on site at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. What those reporters saw is powerful because it was unfolding before their eyes. They were on assignment, yes, but they weren’t just covering another story; at points, they were running for their lives at the same time. The resulting coverage, which many of us remember watching silently before breakfast and before heading to school, is heartbreakingly human.

Audiences often criticize journalists for providing coverage that lacks a human element. Television reporting does tend to focus on the numbers – the number of people missing, the number of survivors, the number confirmed dead. But on that day, reporters were human, too.


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