A Haunting Front Page -- Before 9/11 Changed Everything

By: Greg Mitchell Everything changed that day. Perhaps that's why millions of us still retain, filed away, the front page of our local paper for Sept. 12, 2001, carrying a banner headline that reads something like "America Under Attack" or "New Day of Infamy." But the true impact of what happened hit me harder than it had for quite some time this month while examining a routine, even dull, front page from the day before ? the morning of the terror attacks.

It happened because my son in film school was preparing to shoot his 10-minute sophomore movie, a fictional narrative based on a family in our upstate town who lost their father on 9/11. For many years my son played on a Little League team with one of the boys, and I coached with the dad all that time. The film opens on the morning of the tragedy with a scene of the father heading off to work, and my son wondered if I could help him locate a paper from that day.

This proved to be no easy task. Who saved that morning's paper? After quite a few calls and e-mails to New York area newspapers, to no avail, I finally convinced a gracious New York Times staffer to send me a PDF of Page One. Then I printed it out, nearly full-size, to send to my son.

Holding it in my hands, it produced a shiver. There was the weather forecast in the upper right corner, accurately predicting the memorable day as "mainly sunny ? high 79." Then it occurred to me that I would have read that very edition on the train to New York City that morning, speeding down the Hudson as one of the hijacked planes flew directly overhead, followed minutes later by a conductor announcing over the P.A. system, "You won't believe this folks, but a plane has hit one of the World Trade Center towers." I looked out the window and saw smoke far down the river. Then upon arrival at Grand Central, the conductor announced that the second tower had been struck.

But what really set me thinking, more than five years later, was this: The killings in America were confined to that day, but within hours of the terror attacks, events were set in motion that would lead to even more Americans perishing abroad in an unnecessary war ? not to mention all the dead Iraqis and the wasting of a trillion dollars. As Richard Clarke revealed, before 9/11 was over the administration was already boasting that it would attack Saddam, even without any proof of a connection to that day's terror attacks.

Looking at that front page reminded me of what was lost: the relatively peaceful "normalcy" of our lives then, and the hope that major problems plaguing us here at home (such as health care) could be tackled and resolved.

What was the lead upper-right headline that day in the Times? "Key Leaders Talk of Possible Deals to Revive Economy." Next to that: "Scientists Urge Bigger Supply of Stem Cells." Ho-hum, but a whole lot better than "Surge of U.S. Troops to Baghdad Not Producing Results."

Other front-page headlines from Sept. 11, 2001, reflect an innocence now lost: "School Dress vs. a Sea of Bare Flesh" and "In a Nation of Early Risers, Morning TV is a Hot Market." Oh, for those days when the Times was criticized for running soft news on Page One! If we could only turn back the clock.

This was brought home even more painfully on April 25 in Bill Moyers' PBS special "Buying the War," the most powerful broadcast-TV indictment yet of the news media's role as key enablers in the march to war in 2002 and 2003. While much of the evidence presented of the media's role as cheerleaders for the war was not new, it was skillfully assembled, with many fresh quotes from interviews along with numerous embarrassing statements by journalists and pundits that proved grossly misleading or wrong. Several prominent media figures, prodded by Moyers, admitted the media failed miserably, though few took personal responsibility. In fact, as he pointed out, the many pundits who got everything wrong in the run-up to the war ? and then everything wrong about it since ? continue to flourish on TV talk shows and with newspaper and magazine columns.

The war continues today, now in its fifth year, with the death toll for Americans and Iraqis rising again. Yet Moyers pointed out, "The press has yet to come to terms with its role in enabling the Bush Administration to go to war on false pretenses." More than just about anyone, many of those in the media no doubt wish they could turn back the clock to the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and do a lot of things differently in the months and years that followed.


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