In the midst of the Monica Lewinsky debacle I ran into a reporter I had known for many years, and greeted him with the usual pleasantries. What he offered in return was something of a cri de coeur. "Every time I write a story, I feel like I ought to take a shower afterwards," he said glumly.
At the end of a catastrophically seamy decade for the press in America, a decade that began with Long Dong Silver, Gennifer Flowers and the pathetic posturing self-pity of O. J. Simpson and wound up with Gary Condit's obfuscatory interview with Connie Chung about his sex life, every radio, television, news-magazine and newspaper reporter in this country may well have been ready for a bar of soap. As for the viewers, listeners and readers: well, we all know what you thought of us.
Then the pendulum swung back, literally overnight. Stories of Condit's extramarital activities, which had sadly superseded the search for a young woman named Chandra Levy, were left in the dust by the most monumental and moving event in the history of modern news gathering. The coverage of the destruction of the World Trade Center and the subsequent war against the terrorists has been superb; members of the press found themselves simultaneously elevated and humbled by the magnitude of the events. The example of rescue workers gray with grime and exhaustion, pregnant widows holding tight to their children's hands and all those now dead who phoned home with valedictories forced the men and women telling their stories to rise to the occasion.
If there are any blessings connected with the horror of death and destruction, this may be one of them. On-air hypothesizing about facts not in evidence was kept to a minimum in the crucial early days. Background material on the groups involved and the historical issues in play were carefully reported and thoughtfully written. For perhaps the first time since its inception, all-news-all-the-time seemed absolutely necessary, not merely a series of 24-hour cycles to be filled. Reporters are citizens who just happen to carry notebooks, and in these stories of valor and love and survival and self-sacrifice they found the venue in which to be flagrantly human in full view of their fellow Americans. When, last week, the media itself became big news, its employees the suspected targets of anthrax exposure, the line between those who produce the stories and those who live them was blurred even further.
Naturally, not everyone in all walks of life managed to be appropriate during this momentous month. The writers of "The West Wing" went pedantic; if they really thought their viewers needed a lecture on tolerance and terrorism, they had underestimated both the nation's intelligence and its mood. The people who present the Emmys had the good sense to cancel an event that would have seemed like a puppet show at a funeral, but the people who present "Access Hollywood" felt some need to bring on the marionettes anyway in a broadcast on what the Emmys might have been like. Winners. Losers. Dresses. But you knew that, didn't you? (As for the argument that Americans need broadcasts that will take their minds off the events of Sept. 11, the Miss America program, with Tony Danza waxing patriotic and Miss New York identifying her state as the home of--ouch!--the Empire State Building, put the lie to that one.)
The mayor of New York, who had seemed mean-spirited during much of his tenure, was utterly transformed, radiating a palpable sense of both solemnity and determination. The president, after an initial rhetorical effort that fell short of the immensity of the event, rose to the occasion as well with a speech to Congress that managed to combine both the inspirational and the unequivocal. Jerry Falwell was hugely inappropriate with his comments suggesting that gay men and women, legal abortion and the ACLU were somehow responsible for the terrorist attacks. But the left wing that the Reverend Falwell loves to hate behaved well, despite the fact that many left-leaning Americans are pacifists with some sympathy for the poverty and desperation of those in the Middle East. You can tell this is true because whenever people wanted to suggest that the left had been inappropriate, they were reduced to quoting the same tired blame-the-victim piece that Susan Sontag did in The New Yorker.
"Difficulty, my brethren, is the nurse of greatness," said William Cullen Bryant. "A harsh nurse, who roughly rocks her foster children into strength and athletic proportion." A month after the most significant historical event of most of our lifetimes the harsh nurse has been working double shifts. Just a week after the Trade Center fell down almost gracefully, with a motion like a great seismic curtsy, the actress Kate Burton and her fellows began performing on Broadway in a production of "Hedda Gabler," and found themselves galvanized by the moment in history. "We felt a very special obligation to give the audience our very, very best because of everything we'd all survived," she said. "Our perspective about why we do what we do had changed. You know, during the blitz in London, Winston Churchill tried to keep the theaters open, because he said if he had not then what were we fighting for?"
Can this last? Will the horror fade, and the understanding of what is truly important fade away, too? Will Americans return to fussing over slow elevators and obsessing about who wins "Survivor"? Once we've risen to the occasion, perhaps the view is too grand to give up, like the panorama from the top of those audaciously tall towers. "I cannot remember when our profession in all its dimensions performed so well under such difficult circumstances," said Tom Brokaw of NBC News, days before his own assistant tested positive for anthrax infection. "I hope this will be the beginning of another golden age of television news in which we stay on the big important stories and the audience stays with us." Out of the gray dust, a golden age. Can it be so?