I hope you don’t mind if I go a bit off-topic and personal today. Time has been short this week, and this is top of mind:
“Wake up,” said my wife as she shook my shoulder. “You’re going to want to see this.”
As I sat up, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, she indicated the TV at the foot of the bed. There was a building on the screen, with a plume of smoke billowing out of it. Barely awake, I knew that I recognized the building and that something was really wrong with it, but at first I couldn’t remember where it was.
My wife had to leave for work, but I remember someone on the television saying that they thought a plane had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. Then, as they showed the burning skyscraper, a passenger jet streaked into the shot and smashed into the second tower. It was so stunning and unlikely a thing to see — Wait, was that a plane? — that for a moment I wasn’t sure that I really had seen it at all. Unfortunately, however, there was no mistaking the smoke, the fire, the frightened and desperate people flinging themselves hopelessly out of upper-story windows, the destruction as the towers crumpled down upon themselves.
At the time, I was managing editor of the San Francisco Independent, a three-day free newspaper whose owners recently had purchased the San Francisco Examiner. I regret to admit that mixed in with sorrow for the people who were already dead, and those I began to realize would soon die, I felt embarrassed and frustrated that my paper was on 200,000 doorsteps that Tuesday morning with no indication of the tragic events of that day. I’m not proud of feeling that kind of personal embarrassment when people were dying, but there it is.
Later on, of course, once it became clear that what had happened was an act of deliberate terrorism, I began to fear for the safety of my family, and to wonder what kind of scars that day would leave on my country. I also recalled, with a chill, a message that someone had left on my voicemail at the newspaper just a few months before.
A man claiming to be “the Muslim community” (whatever imagined monolithic group he thought that was supposed to be) had called my office at the paper a few months before and had left a voicemail threatening me or the paper — it wasn’t very clear — with some kind of bombing. I can still hear the caller’s voice as he said that we had made “a big mistake” by running a front-page photo of that year’s Gay Pride parade that showed a group of participants who identified themselves as gay Muslims. In San Francisco, the annual parade is a big deal, and at the time (as today) many gays were struggling to reconcile their homosexuality with their desire to practice their chosen religions. So this group taking part in the parade for the first time was controversial, but it was news. And it was a good photo.
The police hadn’t given the threat much credence when I called them and played it back for them, and it wasn’t the first time I had been threatened in the course of my work as a journalist. But I couldn’t help wondering who had made that call, whether they would make good on their threat, and what they thought that would accomplish.
The next day, on Sept. 12, 2001, the San Francisco Examiner — then under editor David Burgin — produced a controversial and iconic front page that bluntly captured the feelings of many Americans, once they found out what happened on Sept. 11. It consisted primarily of a photo of the burning World Trade Center and a huge banner headline in all caps: “BASTARDS!”
I never got on well with Burgin, but I remember two things about which he was right. First was his contention that the main reason people read newspapers is habit, and if you’re going to make a successful newspaper you can’t expect to do it by virtue of getting people to pick up a single issue — you have to make people come back to it every day because that’s what they always do. Second, interestingly, was that single issue of Sept. 12, 2001. There are plenty of times when a newspaper should analyze and question the events of the day, but there are other times — this was one of them — when the best thing a paper can do is to reflect what its readers are feeling. In reflecting the gut reaction of many Americans, Burgin created what probably will be the single most enduring image of the Examiner of that era.