Working in a Wartime Capital
The first signs that 9/11 has brought about a change in Washington journalism greeted me the moment I stepped off the elevator onto the fifth-floor newsroom of The Washington Post. An announcement beside the elevator reminded the staff that there would be an evacuation drill at eight, and another at midnight. There were other changes as well. The fifth-floor mailroom was gone, removed in the wake of the anthrax scare. Instead, a self-ventilated room had been set up on the floor below where all newsroom-bound mail was to be opened. Boxes of latex gloves and disposable masks were at the entrance. Inside was a memo offering "Some Characteristics of Suspicious Mail." A red bin carried the ominous warning, "Remove at Your Own Risk." The newsroom itself looked familiar enough, except for a poster of Osama bin Laden. "Wanted, Dead or Alive," it read, with a line drawn through the word "Alive."
These were a few physical manifestations of a post-9/11 world, but I was more interested in things less visible. My mandate was a broad one, to survey the landscape of Washington journalism and see what changes, if any, had been wrought by the September attacks, and to measure the tensions between the press and the administration of George W. Bush. I had worked twenty-one years as a reporter in Washington. Then, three years ago, I moved to Ohio. Now I had returned to see what might be different, and to gather the thoughts of former colleagues and others about what it is like to work there now.
I was duly cautioned by several of them that it is too early to know which changes are transient and which might be lasting. Good advice. So consider this merely a snapshot from midsummer 2002, as the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks approached.
It was a familiar picture in a way. Washington journalists have always tended to see themselves at the center of things, opening them up to charges of Beltway Blindness. But today they live and work in a wartime capital that is indeed a focal point for an anxious nation and a troubled world. Not since Watergate have journalists felt such a strong sense of mission and responsibility. Most agree that Washington, their home, is a rich target. But those who cover what is simply called "the story" are riding a tide of adrenaline, sobriety, restraint.
For many Americans, in the shorthand of memory, September 11 has become synonymous with the loss of the World Trade Center. That 189 people died at the Pentagon and that a fourth airplane was heading toward the capital before battling passengers brought it crashing down sometimes feels like a historical footnote next to the spectacular loss of the towers. And while some of the reverberations of the terrorist attacks may have grown more faint in Phoenix or Kansas City or San Diego, they are still palpable here in Washington, which continues to feel itself in the terrorists' crosshairs. Citizens throughout the city share a sense that there is yet a second shoe to drop.
This was particularly true as the anniversary of 9/11 approached; the humid air of summer seemed that much heavier with apprehension, as the city bolstered its defenses. In July, a federal design panel approved $800 million to enhance security in the capital, including more landscaped barriers and reinforced "street furniture," expanded buffer zones, stone benches and steel bollards.
Journalists, too, see and feel their city under invisible siege, off and on the job. "Every day when I go to work, I have to be scanned and mugged and swept and sniffed," says Mark Knoller, White House reporter for CBS Radio News. Hafez Al-Mirazi, the Washington bureau chief for al Jazeera, the Qatar-based Arabic-language TV news network, says he has had no thoughts about his personal safety, but others apparently do. Before September 11, he was negotiating with a real-estate agent to lease space for al Jazeera in the Freedom Forum building. After the eleventh, he was told that tenants there were fearful he might become a target, and that he should look elsewhere.
But while journalists often report on potential nightmare scenarios, few express any personal concern. At the Washington Post, the antibiotic Cipro was made available to the staff during the anthrax crises and a handful of reporters apparently availed themselves of it. Counseling services are available but few have expressed the need for help with stress. Most reporters on the Big Story are totally absorbed in the work.
"I never think about danger, but that is my way of dealing with trouble -- I deny it," says Post columnist Mary McGrory over lunch with me and White House correspondent Mike Allen. "I'm just heavily into denial," she says. "Maybe you think about it," she says, punting to Allen.
"People talk about it a lot," says Allen. "It used to be that when you were at the White House, you thought you were in the safest place in the world. People are no longer sure of that."
McGrory notes that covering JFK's death in 1963 helped her deal with the trauma of that event. "Don't you think when you're doing something about something that it lessens the emotion?" she asks. "If you're in the middle of it and you're doing something, it's somehow not as bad, would you say?" Then, with a glint of mischief, she asks Allen. "You are at the dangerous White House every day but you're busy. I'm assuming that it's dangerous -- I'm respecting that point of view." Allen laughs cavalierly, and the subject is changed.
Besides, exposure to speculative risk pales beside the actual perils faced by colleagues. "Obviously," says Leonard Downie, Jr., the Post's executive editor, "all of us sitting here in this newsroom thinking maybe we're somehow vulnerable to something can only look with admiration and awe at what our foreign correspondents do. We had reporters crossing the Hindu Kush in a driving snowstorm on horseback and reporters under fire and all kinds of grave difficulties. I do think that gives people in the newsroom perspective."
But Downie, like his peers throughout the city, acknowledges that, for terrorists, Washington may be the ultimate target. Just as terrorists came back to the trade center after a failed attempt to bring the towers down, "One of the scenarios is that they still want to come back to Washington, that they have unfinished business here," Downie says. "The plane that went down in Pennsylvania was headed for the White House or the Capitol. And then we are reminded every day by the continuing upgrading of security arrangements around town. We're reminded we're a potential target. We don't feel it's inevitable, but we feel we're in a different kind of location than Cleveland."
The president has his "shadow government" in seclusion, so the press has attempted to ready itself. Just three blocks from the White House, the Post has developed detailed contingency plans. So too have other news organizations.
Knight Ridder's Clark Hoyt, describing that bureau's preparations, says: "We have an emergency plan with a variety of scenarios in case we're not able to work out of this building, whether the servers and the other vital equipment could be accessed remotely or whether they would also be down for some reason." The bureau has put together phone trees for contacting staff if the office is inaccessible. Editors and reporters have been instructed on what to do and where to report, with temporary headquarters to be set up in the homes of those who have reliable Internet access or convenient locations. If the bureau needs "longer-term temporary" headquarters, Hoyt says, it has contacted "hotels in radiating rings going out from Washington that have the appropriate Internet access and facilities." If all else fails, the bureau will rely on remote servers at Knight Ridder centers in San Jose and Miami.
Television news has also prepared for virtually any contingency. "We have plans galore for how to handle X crisis, Y crisis, with places we'd go if for some reason there's a water emergency, a power emergency, a bomb emergency," says ABC's Robin Sproul. "We'd have different plans in place on how we would regroup and keep covering the story. We have upgraded the computer access so that if something happened in northern Virginia we have a Maryland place or two. And we have a deal with a person who has a satellite truck that's sort of on-call to us. We keep that in far-out suburban Maryland.
"We've tried to anticipate every layer of shutdown and have something like a solution at every turning point," says Sproul. "But there does come a point where there are no solutions."
The sober circumstances are leavened with a newsroom's usual black humor. I asked Downie if the Post has an order of succession in the event that he and his senior deputies are, to put it delicately, indisposed. "No," he laughs, "in fact we were joking today that the Loudoun County Extra editor may be running the paper if there's a direct hit on this building."
Most Washington reporters, print and electronic alike, though they are keenly aware of Washington's exposure, seem relatively unfazed. Not all, however. One veteran journalist, who in the past has not been easily rattled, now finds himself wracked by anxiety. He does not want his name used, fearing that candor will draw unwanted attention from his peers and his superiors -- or even make him a target for terrorists. Since 9/11 his work has required that he spend every day reporting on some aspect of "the story." He has lost weight and feels isolated and vulnerable.
"Some of the people who have access to sensitive classified materials," he says, "are the most scared. They say there is really scary stuff and the capabilities of the U.S. government are not matched up well. They know there are people loose in the country and they don't know who they are and they have no prospect of finding out. If you talk to people who get these classified reports they are freaked out. And that freaks me out.
"The weekends are my only escape -- and getting home," he continues. "I try to seal off my life at home and I have restricted my flipping around on cable channels -- I can't tell you how debilitating that was, how deranging. I don't watch as much cable news. I read good books and spend time with my family. I think reporters were more affected by this than they acknowledge. Friends and relatives around the country moved on, but those of us in New York or Washington are still in it. There is simply no escape from the grinding nature of it."
ABC's Robin Sproul is not subject to such anxieties but is sympathetic to those who are. "I haven't been to a social event, a business event, a charity event, or a gathering at school in which this is not the topic of discussion. I don't think I go anywhere, and probably most of my colleagues don't, where people who are not journalists don't want to know 'What are you hearing?' I get hit with that all the time."
And what she is hearing is not comforting. "People who are generally unshakable are very worried and that, of course, is scary," she says. "They generally say, 'It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when.' You start with that as a given every day in Washington."
The Post's managing editor, Steve Coll, who has reported from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and the gulf war, says he came to terms with his own mortality before the current crises. "That's the price of being a foreign correspondent," he says. "The first time you realize that 'hey, it's okay,' it's a relief. I don't feel anxious about dying on the job -- that is so liberating."
But Coll is also a husband and a father. "I try to communicate my sense of peace and confidence to my family, and try not to drag them into my equation," he says. "We have a family plan that includes them going in an opposite direction and me coming into the office. My advice to them is to get in a car and go. We have a plan and a place to meet if communications fail, and I'll get there when I can -- if it's as bad as that."
For Coll, such matters are not cause for panic, but simply reflect the new awareness that America's illusions of invulnerability have ended. "It's a common discussion to have these days," says Coll, "to think about life and family. This is what the rest of the world lives with. It's the human condition. No one granted us immunity." And where is the family meeting place? "That's a secret," he says, laughing. "It's classified."
Q: Is the Bush White House different post-9/11? A: I'm the last person in the world to answer that question. They didn't return my calls before 9/11 and they haven't returned my calls since 9/11. -- Mary McGrory, columnist, Washington Post
As the first anniversary of the 9/11 attack approached, I asked dozens of seasoned reporters throughout the capital to reflect not only on what the events of 9/11 have meant for Washington journalism, but on how well the press is performing and whether the Bush White House stands apart from other administrations in its zeal to control information and access. Getting journalists to agree on anything is like herding quail -- but some broad patterns and shared observations emerged, some common misgivings and apprehensions, and some hopes and aspirations, tempered with the usual journalistic tinctures of cynicism and altruism.
Long before 9/11, which happened to be David Broder's seventy-second birthday, he sensed that there was something different about this administration. It was apparent, he says, even on a visit to transition headquarters, a place that, in past administrations, was filled with young people "gossiping like crazy" and chit-chatting about their new jobs. What Broder found instead was a kind of corporate regimentation. "I was struck by the difference," he recalls. "This was so controlled." Neither Broder nor many other Washington reporters say the Bush administration has shown the deep hostility toward the press of the Nixon administration or the final months of the Clinton White House. "I don't think they are looking for a fight," Broder says, "but they are certainly looking for control of information. The word I would use is 'corporate' -- both internally and externally. They had the attitude that one way in which they could control the agenda is controlling the flow of information." New York Times writer Bill Keller recently wrote of the administration's "secretive, country-club executive style."
Those who are seen to undermine that control are called to account. At the White House, Post reporter Mike Allen recalls that following a story he wrote about the decision to reopen Reagan National Airport, the president himself "made quite a sarcastic remark" to someone wrongly suspected of being a source on the story. On other stories, Allen says, the White House will deny until the very last moment that the president has reached a final policy decision, thereby maintaining control of the story. Says Allen, "They don't consider it a final decision until he's stood in the Rose Garden and announced it."
Barbara Cochran, a former CBS bureau chief and president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, puts it strongly: "A frightening suppression of the news," she says. She and other longtime reporters note that a number of factors compound the problem. First, the much-discussed question of how critically to report on an administration that is waging a largely invisible war -- the fear that vigorously challenging the administration's stranglehold on information may appear to be unpatriotic. (The president, of course, remains more popular than the press.) Secondly, Democrats, as the opposition party, might once have been counted on to challenge administration policy and to provide information withheld by the White House. But Democrats, too, have been reticent, say reporters, at least until the spate of corporate scandals and the approach of congressional elections.
Finally, administration efforts to maintain a tight hold on ultrasensitive subjects have been indirectly aided by the crush of news. For example, suggests the Post's Steve Coll, the Afghan war, important as it was, absorbed massive reportorial energy and resources that might have gone into ferreting out, for instance, the full scope and nature of the government detentions of immigrants or the political and human rights implications of America's liaisons with foreign intelligence agencies.
Many journalists also acknowledge that some of the pressure they feel on the job in Washington now is self-imposed. "It's crossed my mind from time to time that you don't want people to think you're unpatriotic," says NPR's Nina Totenberg. "But lots of things cross my mind. It's not necessarily a bad thing, you just sort of have to live with it." She remembers once telling Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell "the only thing I hate about my job is that some people hate my guts." His response: "You can't worry about that."
"Well, I do worry about that," admits Totenberg.
That worry, multiplied across the profession, has caught the eye of the Post's media reporter Howard Kurtz, particularly as applied to writers of opinion. "Very few columnists and commentators these days are willing to challenge the administration on the basic prosecution of the war on terrorism. There is a certain radioactive element to the war on terrorism, and any journalist has got to be awfully confident and awfully careful before challenging the president and his team on that subject."
Among most reporters, the first weeks after September 11 were generally characterized by a deferential tone toward government officials and by appeals to patriotism. "There was a strong sense among all American journalists in Washington that we were citizens and that this was an attack on the United States," says John McWethy, ABC's chief national security correspondent. "I think it has taken journalists many months to sort out what their roles as journalists are versus what their role as citizens should be."
McWethy still sees one symptom of this ambiguity and it bothers him -- the use of the word 'we' in press conferences and briefings when reporters are referring to the U.S. government or to U.S. forces. McWethy estimates that half the questions asked at Pentagon briefings now begin with a reporter asking "Why don't we" or some variation. "It's just something I am sensitive to," he says. "American journalists pride themselves on being independent from the government, and when they say 'we' they blur the distinction."
Many reporters, though by no means all, say that this administration holds a tighter control over information than its predecessors, and that it suffers from less dissension. Among these is Bill Plante of CBS, who has been covering the White House for eighteen years. "They enforce this by keeping the press secretary in a position where they often don't tell him some things because they want him to have deniability," says Plante. But Plante's colleague at CBS Radio, Mark Knoller, who's covered six presidents, takes a different view. "Every administration I've covered," says Knoller, "has tried to control and manipulate the information with varying degrees of success. We had to fight for information then as now."
But at Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon or John Ashcroft's Justice Department, getting at the reality behind the rhetoric can be hard slogging. Rumsfeld regularly rants about leaks and an irresponsible press. He has called for a full investigation of a July 12 leak to The New York Times about U.S. war plans for Iraq. Even some stalwart sources have second thoughts about talking to reporters, fearing investigations and polygraph tests. Now the FBI is even investigating members of Congress who serve on the intelligence oversight committees. The administration is trying to find out who leaked information to the press regarding intelligence lapses before 9/11 and, if nothing else, to send a chill through those who would contemplate future leaks.
Ironically, the source of many recent leaks is not Congress but the military itself. The more pressure is brought to bear to stifle debate, the more adamant these leakers are to get information out. Thomas E. Ricks, who covers the military for The Washington Post, says there is a clear pattern to the leaks regarding the prospect of war with Iraq. "The guys who were the junior officers in late Vietnam, that is to say the second lieutenants and platoon leaders of the early 70s, those guys are now three-star and four-star generals and for thirty years one of the major lessons of Vietnam that they dwelled on is, 'Don't go to war without the informed consent and backing of the American people,'" says Ricks. And so some within the military have broken ranks and, ignoring the iron strictures of Rumsfeld, conducted stealth campaigns to foment the sort of public debate that this administration has gone to great lengths to suppress.
Ricks has reviewed every word Rumsfeld has said in press conferences and interviews since last September and what he sees disturbs him. "Hard facts are few and far between," he says. In fact, none of the principle revelations of the war in Afghanistan -- the first stationing of American troops on former Soviet soil in Uzbekistan, the first firing of a missile by an unmanned aerial vehicle, the first fielding of a significant CIA paramilitary force since Vietnam -- none of these, says Ricks, have been disclosed by Rumsfeld in his briefings.
At the Justice Department, Totenberg notes, contact with the media is monitored and a representative from the press office sits in on interviews. Reporters don't need to be told what a chilling effect such a presence can have.
One of the questions that hangs over Washington journalism today is whether the press has been aggressive enough in pursuing answers, particularly with regard to detentions and the treatment of those being held whose names and alleged offenses are cloaked in secrecy. While some news organizations have devoted considerable resources to crack that secrecy and to hold government accountable for potential violations of civil liberties, they have had limited success.
"The press has been astonishingly muted about these detentions," says Newsweek's Evan Thomas. "I think this relates to people being afraid. They want to keep these potential terrorists -- even if they're not -- behind bars. Journalists are occasionally people. They share the same fears of terrorism, and they are more willing to look the other way because of that. I am sure that we will decide in retrospect that we went soft on the administration and let them get away with too much. It's inevitable."
Nearly a year after 9/11, another change is apparent to many Washington journalists -- their definition of news. To appreciate this, one need only look back to the months preceding 9/11. As others have noted, the summer of 2001 was marked by the hysteria of shark attacks, the last remnants of the most begrudging presidential election in history, and, of course, the tawdry affairs of an obscure California congressman and a missing intern. "We had reached a very low ebb on the Condit story by August," remembers Evan Thomas. "I remember being on This Week with Sam and Cokie and wondering, 'What the hell am I doing here?' We were just mindlessly bashing Condit. That was a particular low point."
For many, the embarrassment and discomfort that went along with that spate of stories was swept clean away by the events of 9/11. In their stead, reporters found a restored sense of journalistic mission. They were debating issues of substance -- secrecy, civil liberties, foreign policy -- rather than the stains on Monica's dress.
Paul K. McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum, says that before 9/11 the credibility of journalists -- certainly Washington journalists -- was at a low point because of "sensationalism, superficiality, and softness." At least in the short term, he says, Washington reporters enjoyed a surge in public esteem as they covered the crisis. "In some ways," says McMasters, "the Washington press corps is the canary in the coal mine for the press."
Hard News is king again, with national security front and center. But various domestic stories, Wall Street excepted, have sometimes had to claw for air time and column inches. Washington reporters, once stereotyped as caught up in the minutiae of the capital, now find themselves increasingly covering subjects that know no boundaries and that integrate the foreign and domestic into a seamless story. Ironically, as Washington has looked beyond itself, it has become more central.
And there is a sense that news emanating from Washington is not only chronicling history but shaping it. Says Bill Plante: "The concerns I've expressed, the kinds of choices we make, the affects on civil liberties -- those are any reporter's concerns. Our role is to be the watchdog, the town crier, to let people know what's happening.
"The question of whether we are going too easy on these people is one that depends on who's doing the asking," he says, "but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be called to account. This is a difficult time in the nation's life. The choices we make today may have a very lasting impact. So, in that sense, our role is very important and we ought to take great pains to do it well."
The Post's ombudsman, Michael Getler, sees 9/11 as further evidence of the need for journalism in Washington and the rest of the country to practice what he calls "alertness." Not unlike the intelligence agencies that have been taken to task for failing to detect and thwart the attacks of 9/11, journalism, too, was lax in preparing the nation either for the attacks or for the foreign hostilities that seethed behind them. Journalism, says Getler, has a responsibility to be vigilant and to recognize what really matters in the morass of stories that daily confronts and sometimes confounds it.
To Leonard Downie I give the final word, because there is none. He is convinced it is premature to speak of the legacy of 9/11 on Washington journalism, that we are only midstory. "How long the changes will last, I don't know," he says. "Clearly other things are going to happen."
Ted Gup, a former Washington Post and Time reporter, is the author of "The Book of Honor: The Secret Lives And Deaths of CIA Operatives" and is the Shirley Wormser Professor of Journalism at Case Western Reserve University.