It's been 20 years since the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the world we live in is still shaped in many ways by the events of that day. Join the Ford School and Wallace House for a special retrospective on 9/11 with journalist Beth Fertig of WNYC, who covered the attacks and their aftermath, and Aisha Sultan, a nationally syndicated columnist who has written about the U.S. Muslim experience in a post-9/11, post-Trump America. Lynette Clemetson, Director of Wallace House, will moderate the conversation.
Michael Barr: Hello everybody. Good afternoon and welcome. I'm Michael Barr, the Joan and Sanford Weill Dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. I'm delighted to welcome you all here this afternoon for today's Policy Talks event, which is also co-sponsored by Wallace House. We have what I think will be a compelling look at how the events of 9/11 continue to reverberate in our society. I'll hand off shortly to Wallace House Director, Lynette Clemetson, who will moderate the session. But first I'd like to say a few words about the Josh Rosenthal Education Fund. Today's Policy Talk lecture is named for Joshua Rosenthal. Josh was a 1979 University of Michigan graduate. He spent his last year here at the policy school, and then went on to earn a Master's degree at Princeton. He was passionate about world affairs, and he worked in the field of international finance. He died in the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001.
MB: Josh's mother, Marilynn Rosenthal was a long-time Michigan faculty member. And it was very important to her to shape some meaning from what happened on 9/11, to honor her son's optimism about the world, and also about how mutual understanding, dialogue and analysis can improve communities both here in the United States and around the world. Marilynn and others, established the Josh Rosenthal Education Fund, which enables the Ford School to encourage new and deeper understanding of international issues. Marilynn passed away in 2007, and we are very grateful to the whole Rosenthal family and to their friends for their ongoing support of the Ford School. Our moderator today, as I mentioned, is Lynette Clemetson, Director of Wallace House and the Knight-Wallace Fellowships. I'm honored to serve on Lynette's Board, and I'm always impressed with her leadership. Lynette came to the university after a long and distinguished career in journalism, including National Public Radio, The New York Times and Newsweek. Now, let me pass things over to Lynette, to introduce our speakers and moderate the conversation. Thank you, Lynette.
Lynette Clemetson: Thank you so much, Dean Barr. Thank you for having us. Wallace House frequently partners with the Ford School, and we always enjoy our events together. This one, today, feels especially meaningful. It's a real honor to do this in memory of Josh Rosenthal and the Rosenthal Education Fund. And I'm so thankful to you Dean Barr, for choosing this lens to talk about this significant 20th anniversary of 9/11 and to approach this anniversary through a conversation framed around journalism and the work of journalists. Because, the work of journalists on that day and in the weeks following and in the years following, really have shaped our understanding of that pivotal moment in time.
LC: And as we talk to students today in the broader community, so many of the people joining us today may have not been born in 2001 when this happened, or may have been too young to remember it. But certainly their lives have been shaped by this event in the way that the lives of young people born in these years around COVID will have their lives shaped by the events we're living through now. So, it's my pleasure to be here and have a conversation today with two esteemed journalists, Beth Fertig is a senior reporter at WNYC, the NPR station in New York. And Beth is also a University of Michigan alum and an arts editor with the Michigan Daily. So Beth, we are really pleased to welcome you home to University of Michigan.
Beth Fertig: Thank you, it's great. [chuckle]
LC: And joining Beth in conversation with me is Aisha Sultan. Aisha is a nationally syndicated columnist with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. And she is an alum as well, because she is a former Knight-Wallace Fellow, and we are always happy to welcome our Knight Wallace Fellows back. So, Beth and Aisha, thank you so much for joining us today.
Aisha Sultan: Absolutely.
LC: So, I wanna start, I think the way a lot of these memorial conversations are starting this week, but I think it's important for people who don't remember September 11th, 20 years ago, to start with what we were doing that day. It is one of those events where we all remember exactly what we were doing when these events began to unfold. I myself was working for Newsweek Magazine in the Washington Bureau. I had an early interview that morning. At 9 o'clock, I was interviewing Senator Russ Feingold, about campaign finance, and had a small TV in the corner of my office. And we were on the phone, talking about campaign finance when the second plane hit and I remember pausing and being in shock and realizing that we needed to get off the phone and that something was happening. And so, I'd like to start by asking you each what you were doing that morning. And Beth, I wanna start with you because you were in New York and it was an important morning in New York. It was the morning of the mayoral primaries and Rudy Giuliani was term-limited and there was a very important race happening in New York City. What were you doing that morning?
BF: Yeah, that's the alternate timeline, I guess if [chuckle] things hadn't happened as they did that day, I would have been covering the mayoral primary that night. And so, I was sleeping late, because I thought I would be working late going to an election night headquarters as a reporter. I was covering politics for WNYC at the time. But instead, my news director woke me up shortly before 9 o'clock in the morning, and he sounded very, very hyper, which was not like him, and he said that a plane struck the World Trade Center and I needed to cover it. And he wanted me to find mayor Giuliani and the police commissioner, and that he was sending another reporter to the Trade Center. And I think I said something like, "Can't you get somebody else?" Because I thought it must have been some little propeller plane or something else that was not significant.
BF: I was gearing up for this important primary election, and I could tell by the tone in his voice that this was something else. This guy had been a Mideast Bureau Chief for NBC News, and he said, "No, no, you have to do this." And as I left my apartment, I lived in Greenwich Village at the time, exactly one mile north of the Trade Towers, and I used to see them all the time on my way home. I ran into the street with all my equipment and there were lots of people filling that street looking south, and both towers were burning. It was surreal to see this bright blue sky with flames and smoke pouring out of these silver towers. And my heart was racing, and I just ran as fast as I could to catch a subway train, which was only a couple of stops to the Civic Center of Manhattan, where city hall and the police headquarters and our radio station were all located at the time.
BF: And I ran around going to city hall and to the police headquarters building asking, "Do you know where the mayor is? Do you know where the police commissioner is?" And the police officers were telling me, "No, no, these buildings are being evacuated. The mayor went to the World Trade Center to his command center." Now, Mayor Giuliani had insisted on building a new emergency command center across the street from the World Trade Center a few years earlier, which a lot of people thought was a bad idea because in 1993, the Trade Center was bombed and it was an obvious target but he insisted on that. And I told these police officers, "Come on, there's no way he went to that building." And they said, "Yes, he did, but be very careful. We didn't tell you to go there. There's a lot of glass falling." And as I tried to get there and the streets were filled with people looking up at the burning towers, I saw a police officer as I was trying to cross the street about three blocks away, she told me, "I can't let you cross." I said, "It's very important that I go there. I'm a journalist." I had my microphone out. And then she said, "I'm doing this to save your life."
BF: And it was almost on cue as she said that the South Tower started to collapse, I turned on my recording equipment, I recorded the sound of the building collapsing. I narrated what I was seeing, and then I ran with everybody else. And thankfully, I ran into a colleague who's also a good friend, Marianne McCune. She had just gotten down there, and we spent the next several hours together interviewing people. Her cell phone worked even though most phones had gone out that day, she was able to call into our on-air studio, and we took turns bringing survivors and witnesses to the phone to talk about what they had seen, and then we were still on the phone when the second Tower collapsed and narrated what we were seeing there. And after that, we eventually split up and we worked for the next five days straight.
LC: That is such a... That working for the next several days straight, I think, is something that all of us who were working at that time remember, and even just hearing you talk, Beth, it brings back so many visceral memories of that morning and I have a million questions. I want to before I bring Aisha in, remind our audience that you can submit your questions, we're gonna make time at the end to take your questions, but we have our Twitter handles on the screen, you can submit your questions and someone will be monitoring them and making sure that I get them. So feel free to start submitting your questions as we talk. Aisha, Beth is in New York, I am in Washington that morning. Tell us where you were that morning.
AS: So I'm in the heartland of the country in St. Louis, Missouri, where I was working as an education reporter, and I'm in a Central time zone, so I was in the shower, getting ready to go to work. And all of a sudden my husband starts screaming for me to come right away, come right away. I thought he had gotten hurt or something, so I just threw a towel around me and ran out to the living room where he was, and he was sitting in front of the TV or standing in front of the TV, and we watched both of us like in shock and disbelief, watched what was happening. And my immediate thought was, I have cousins who work in the Twin Towers, let me... And my impulse was just to try to call them. Of course, the phones were down and couldn't get through or anything. And then the second thought in my head was... And I don't know if I said it out loud or if my husband said it, but one of us did, we were like, "Oh God, I hope this is not Muslims. I hope Muslims aren't the ones who did this," because we just knew that given the enormity, we'd never seen an attack or a crime, an act of terror like that before in our lives, that whoever was responsible, that the rest of our community would pay a price for it regardless.
LC: And to just say directly, you are Muslim-American.
AS: Right, right. I am Muslim and so is my family. And so I went, I quickly got dressed and went to work, and our editor at the time said, "Go to schools, talk to... Find out what schools you can go to, talk to students, talk to teachers, talk to principals, find out how they're processing this, what are they saying to kids, how are they helping kids understand what's happening," 'cause at the time, TVs were on, and it was a... Young kids were watching traumatic things happen and did not really have a sense of how to understand it. And I remember driving and all of a sudden feeling like people were looking at me differently.
AS: It was just this hyper awareness of... Because the suggestion was already out there that it was a terrorist attack, and I was a little nervous, and I was covering predominantly White schools. And I walked into a school and I'll never forget, I sat down at a lunch table with some kids and this young girl, high schooler, she's like, "Wait, aren't you the people who are attacking us, aren't you from the... Aren't you from where the country... The where we're being attacked from?" And I was like, "No, actually, I don't think we know who is attacking us right now, and I'm not, I'm from here, I'm American." But it was just this very primal instinctive reaction that in the center of the country, there was this fear of what's gonna happen next, I think everybody in the country had that, but who can we blame?
LC: That's right, yes. And I think it's worth noting before we talk about... More about how the day unfolded, and you both alluded to it, in how you got and shared information that 20 years ago, we were in a very different communications ecosystem, right. There were no iPhones, there were... It was getting a call on, I guess we had flip phones maybe, but even reporters having cell phones at the ready wasn't necessarily a normal thing, I think people were still using BlackBerries in 2000...
AS: I think I had a pager, I think I had a pager.
LC: A pager, a BlackBerry... I know it's a...
BF: I had a pager and a small cell phone, it was pre-BlackBerry. [chuckle]
LC: And it was certainly pre-social media, and so the way that most people were called on to assignment and the way we were all getting information, I remember, Beth, as you described what you... What was happening with you in New York. When I jumped off of that interview with Senator Feingold in the morning, I ran to my editor's office and said, "Okay, I'm going to New York." And he said, "Get to New York." And as Aisha described, you couldn't call New York, you... All the phone lines were down, You couldn't book any travel because things shut down so quickly. And I remember working for about 45 minutes to try to find out how I was gonna get to New York, and I went back to my Bureau Chief's office and we were on Pennsylvania Avenue about a block from the White House, and there was a big picture window, and I said, "I can't get to New York." And he said, "Don't worry about it. You're needed here." And I looked out his window and you could see smoke coming from the Pentagon, and the day just unfolded, and there was... The way we were all trying to scurry for information and facts, and TV became such an important part of how things were communicated that day, Beth, when you... As it became clear in the hours after 846 and 903 and as... After the Towers fell, what did your day become?
BF: A scramble, and a very emotional scramble, I'll tell you, I sound calm when I'm talking about it now, but at the time, feeling and then seeing the Tower fall, I felt it in my feet like a subway rumble before I saw it come down, running, being in that crowd of people who were panicking, seeing my friend and colleague, and the two of us hugging each other and crying. It was a very, very difficult experience because we didn't know at that moment what our job should be. On one hand, I'd collected all this tape, but I couldn't go in the office building 'cause it was evacuated... Our radio station was downtown, we were outside the building and we couldn't go in, I couldn't get my cell phone to work, but hers did, which was miraculous. And when we got on the phone with our morning anchor, it was like, "We've got them, Beth and Maryanne are there, they can talk about what they're seeing." And I was so scrambled in my head about what I had just seen.
BF: In this little bit of my brain, when I first saw the South Tower go down, I thought, "Maybe they got everybody out and now they're bringing the building down for safety." Because you can't comprehend something that huge, the first time you see it, it's too big for your brain to take in, especially if you don't know anything about structural engineering, and I didn't know about the melting point of steel. So I have that little story in my brain, but then I knew that that's bananas. And this is a terrorist attack. This is deliberate. And I couldn't say very much on the air because I didn't know very much, all I could say was what I was seeing in front of me, and when the anchor first got me on the phone and said, "Beth, what are you seeing?" It was like I was new all over again at my job, and I said something like this, I recently read the transcript. "I'm just glad there isn't any more disaster." [chuckle] And I thought, "Come on, that's ridiculous. I'm a professional and get it together." And then I started describing exactly what I was seeing, police telling people, go north, go west, or go east.
LC: And your editor cut away, cut away from...
BF: Yeah, I think he cut away for a moment. And Maryanne got on the phone and she started putting witnesses on the phone... Oh yeah, that's what we should do. Get eyewitnesses to talk to the studio, and then we got more and more of them, and then we were telling more information as we were seeing it and describing firefighters washing themselves off in the Foley Square Fountain and people that we had just spoken to and what they described and then we were live on the air on her phone when the second Tower collapsed. And at that moment, the morning anchor is asking, "What are you seeing?" And I couldn't see anything, except smoke, and I didn't want to say something that wasn't correct, and all I could say is, "It seems like it's come down, I'm seeing a lot of smoke, but I can't see anything." And he said, "Well, I can see in the studio on the television that it's gone down." And so, you don't know what is happening in a disaster like that where you are only one small piece of this gigantic puzzle, and you have to be very careful and accurate about what you're saying, and as the day went on...
BF: Just one more thing that was important to nail down, obviously, who did this? Which we were gonna find out eventually, but what caused the towers to come down? What caused all that stuff in the air? When I got to the Police Academy where Mayor Giuliani was gonna give his first press conference, we in the press core were very confused about what had happened. And we didn't know if there had been bombs set off or chemical explosions. And we really wanted to get the straight answers and we kind of divvied it among ourselves of who was gonna ask what, and I was the, I think third question in the press conference, and I asked, "Do you know what caused the towers to come down?" And that's when Giuliani said, "It was, there's no evidence of a bomb or anything like that, it was the collapse from being struck by airplanes."
BF: And we learned more and more that day, and we learned more and more over the months ahead about, were there chemicals in the air? We had so many questions about were people safe? What was gonna happen? There were rumors about more bomb scares. There were rumors about people being found alive in the pile who weren't there. So, it's very difficult when you're a reporter and you're under all that stress to be as accurate as you can, but you also know it's better to err on the side of caution than to say something that's going to be inflammatory or dangerous if people get the wrong information.
LC: And also a challenge. Aisha, you were reporting on people who were consuming those first-hand reports from New York and from Washington, and later from Pennsylvania, and reporting on the reaction of people in the country, which is also this moving, very complex jumble of feelings and facts and reactions, and what became of your day, and how did you manage that?
AS: I think that... If I remember, I think the Metro reporters were divided up and were feeding to a rewrite editor in our newsroom. So, it was like we were all giving different feeds from different areas and parts of town, and someone was sitting in a desk somewhere trying to make a story out of it. And so, we were just trying to get as much on the ground. What's happening? How are people reacting? How are people trying to process this or cope or understand? And people wanted answers from us and somehow they thought that because we were journalists, we might know something they didn't know and we did not know anything, all we knew was what... And all we had were questions. And so that, you're going... You're approaching people, and especially I was talking to younger people, and back then you could walk into a school and talk to younger people, you can't really do that anymore, but I had to be really mindful about what I was saying, how I was saying it.
AS: People were scared to death. People were scared to death. There was so much anxiety. I was so anxious. I felt... It was almost like an out-of-body experience because my body was... The adrenaline and the fear and anxiety was releasing so many biochemicals that you sort of... To be able to do your job, you had to have this out-of-body experience where this autopilot of writing down notes in a notepad, asking people questions, looking at their face, reading their emotions, trying to... Just like you go into this autopilot sort of thing, and inside there's a churn, there's a churn in your chest, there's a tightness inside of you. I didn't know if my cousins were alive, and I didn't know when I would know or what was happening, and you just have to like... I don't feel like you can box it and compartmentalize it and put it aside, but you have to shift into a different way of operating in the world at that time. So, your body is feeling these things like anxiety, fear, grief, anger, a million tumultuous emotions, the people that you're talking to are experiencing those things as well, and you're just trying to write down words that make sense to give to someone else to put into a coherent story.
BF: But that's also what we know to do. So in a way, that's like a comfort that that's the one thing we know what to do.
LC: That we get process it through being a reporter and through writing things down and through capturing bits of information that later will hopefully make sense.
AS: Well, and it's not like in that moment we weren't... In that moment, you really are that proverbial first draft of history where you're just like, what is happening right now? That's all I can tell people. In history, people will read this and say in St. Louis, when this happened, this is what people were thinking and doing, and that's it. No answers, no analysis, it was like, this is the draft of what happened.
LC: Yes, and so much... It has become a cliche to say that 9/11 changed everything, but so much changed after that, and things change that we know and that we now joke about, about how we move through the airport and things that didn't exist before 9/11. TSA and the Department of Homeland Security, that didn't exist before. But there are also things that have become, in some ways, normative in society that certainly are not normative for the people impacted by them, that also changed that day. And Aisha, I wanna ask you, you recently wrote a piece recollecting this time that we're talking about now for Newsweek Magazine, it's in this week's Newsweek. And the cover package is about Muslim-Americans and how Muslim-Americans have found a voice and place in society across various ranges of society since 9/11. But your piece was really striking that you talk about some of these events, but you also mentioned that in that day, your younger brother, his teacher told him that she couldn't stand to look at his face, and he was asking a question like all of the other children because he wanted... He was scared and he wanted to know what had happened that day. And instead of reacting to him with compassion, she turned her own fear on to him. Can you talk a little bit about what changed from that day for Muslim-Americans in the short aftermath and over the months that would follow?
AS: So, I was born and raised in this country, and my parents were immigrants. And so, when you're negotiating between a different culture of your parents and where you're from, there is always a little sense of being different and otherized, especially if you're growing up in a predominantly White school or neighborhood. And so, that was not an unfamiliar feeling to me to be on the outskirts of American society or to not feel like you totally belong. But I had up until 9/11, never doubted my sense of security and how institutions would treat me or my community, I'd never doubted that and that completely changed after 9/11. I did not know if we would be put into camps like the Japanese were after World War II. I did not know if we would suffer a physical attack.
AS: I'm the eldest of six, and my family is all in Texas, and my mom was wearing the hijab, so she was clearly identifiable and she worked in retail, she worked in a department store, so she was in a customer-facing job wearing hijab in Texas. And my brothers were in high school, one in middle school, one in high school, and it was... I did not know what would become of us, and I had never had that experience in my own country, and I did not know if we still had a place here, I did not know if our... It was just an extremely painful experience to try to process the pain and anger and anguish of what was happening in our country, and to also feel under suspicion all of a sudden for it. For like the worst thing that's ever happened, that you've ever seen, and all of a sudden, by some association, you are now implicated in it, even if you had nothing to do with it. It was really, it was really hard to describe.
AS: Now, the immediate ramifications, we saw an increase in hate crimes all over the country, especially in New York, a huge spike in hate crimes, but then we saw the state action that came. We saw the Patriot Act, we saw a two-tier justice system, we saw informants and surveillance and government powers used against our community in ways that had not been done before and stayed in place. We saw America began two decades long, as we just know a two decade long war in Afghanistan, and a war in Iraq, and we saw... By certain segments of the society that the enemy was not just terrorists, Islamic fundamentalists or extremists that were attacking us, but now anybody who associated that faith was suspect. Your allegiance and your place in this country was suspect.
LC: And I wanna come back and talk about Afghanistan and where we are 20 years later. Because, it's obviously a poignant time to be talking about this, but I wanna go to Beth and talk again about the things that have changed because, also political reporting, the news business, what people will accept from the news, what people are willing to believe is truth has changed greatly. And there's been a lot written about those days after 9/11 saying that, that for a time, the country was united. Now, as Aisha just pointed out, that certainly was never true, but at least there was some sense of that. But I often find myself thinking if 9/11 had happened today in the information system that we have now, would people even have believed it in the moment, would there have been any sort of shared understanding of the facts, and I guess we know that there weren't then, and there are many conspiracy theories about 9/11, but what are your thoughts about how journalism has changed in people's faith and trust in news and the media?
BF: I feel like 9/11 was the end of the 20th Century, and for a lot of reasons. I covered the first demonstration when we started bombing Afghanistan, and I saw people on the left who were taking a very similar stance as people did around Vietnam, that we should not ever go to war. We shouldn't be in this part of the world. I saw people on the right saying, "Bomb the hell out of them, we gotta get them." And I felt like, you guys don't understand, everything has changed, this isn't a war about land, this isn't a conventional war, the enemy is living in a cave, this is terrorism. And 20 years later, we obviously still haven't figured out how to deal with that. I also saw the change in the media in terms of social media and the ability of anybody to claim that they're a reporter basically. At that time, we were still the gatekeepers, everybody was watching the main networks and the cable stations and listening to NPR, and we were just continuously providing information. And it was the most photographed event in the world, I believe, and we couldn't stop looking at those pictures, trying to figure out what happened, trying to take it in.
BF: And there was, despite what Aisha was saying, which is tragic about the treatment of Muslims, overall, Republicans and Democrats were coming together. And there was this sense that everybody was there for New York. I met people coming from all over the country to help volunteer on the pile downtown to clean up the wreckage. A man from Honduras who said, "Your country helped my country after the hurricane, I wanna be there." This was a moment where it looked like we could stand united almost, but then it frayed, and it frayed really badly because of politics, because of people choosing not to believe certain things. There were conspiracy theories that started soon after, and I only learned years later that my own reporting played a role in that, because on the air for NPR I described the South Tower coming down in a way that resembled a controlled demolition. People decided to use those words to bolster their theory that it was an inside job, that it was a controlled demolition, which it's not.
BF: And it was very upsetting to me as a journalist to see that, but I also know that if that had happened today, it would be a thousand times worse, where people wouldn't even believe what we were seeing. They would say that it was false flags or it was actors, the crazy stuff we've heard about Sandy Hook, there would be a lot more of that than there was then. So, I feel like that's why it was the beginning of another era in media in people fraying and not having the same set of facts that they even chose to believe. But I also blame the media, because I feel like there's been such a retraction in local coverage around the country, and the cable stations only do talking heads without real package reports, and if you don't see reporters in your neighborhood, in your community who look like you, who care about you, who represent your community and cover the things you're interested in, you're not gonna believe the media either. It's really...
LC: Well, it's quite true, if it happened today, we wouldn't have the press core that we... That was able to be mobilized on the ground that day because so many jobs have been eliminated and...
BF: We'd have Twitter.
AS: Right, and it was interesting, back then the Post-Dispatch and several other papers would send reporters to Fashion Week. That was New York Fashion week.
BF: Oh, right.
AS: We had our fashion reporter there in New York sending us news reports from what was happening that week.
LC: I forgot about Fashion Week, yes.
AS: It was Fashion Week, and so there was this whole cadre of fashion reporters that were now covering a terrorist attack.
LC: Aisha, you mentioned some of the disparate impacts of the changes that were made then. You brought up the Patriot Act, which of course had opened the door to government surveillance of citizens that didn't exist before, but also a criminal justice system that was inequitable before. But then this whole new layer of targeting Muslim-Americans, Arab-Americans, and this... Something that we still have this dissonance about, the word terrorist and what we see as terrorism and what we call terrorism. I was really struck... The events of January 6th this year, what would seem, by any reasonable definition to have been an act of terrorism, but that we're not trained to call that terrorism, but we're trained to call something else terrorism. And how do you look back at 9/11 and think about that legacy that's brought forward in how we can't shake certain disparate treatment?
AS: Well, I think that even prior to 9/11, there had always been stereotypical problematic coverage of minority or marginalized communities in America by the mainstream press. That was not something that just happened on 9/11. And there had been problematic coverage of the rest of the world, and the way that what was happening in the rest of the world was presented to American readers and consumers of news. But 9/11 cemented in the minds of some people who were advocating a certain position for... Of certain politicians, of certain opportunists, of certain law enforcement, that terrorism could only be equated with a Muslim perpetrator or someone who was claiming to be Muslim. And there was a little thought experiment that happened in our community, any time there was another politically motivated or religiously motivated attack that was reported in the news, and it was a White person or a Christian person, and it was never described... It was a lone wolf, or it was somebody who had a mental illness, you could just do this thought experiment of what if it was a brown Muslim person or even just what if it was someone with a Muslim name? How would this be reported right now, and you can...
AS: There was an abortion clinic that was shot up, even before what happened in January, years ago and the perpetrator clearly said it was a religiously motivated attack. It was never once described as a terrorist attack, someone was killed, it was never... And it was just that over and over and over again. But I will tell you that as... Even from my own community, the Muslim-Americans would ask me, "Why does the media do this? Why is there this double standard?" And I never really had any good answers for that, I really... I never did. But in the immediate aftermath, and I would say for a few years after, the biggest concern was, is the government going to target me or will someone who has a grudge against me or doesn't like me make a report to the FBI or some hotline that's been set up to, if you see something, report something, so will someone who just doesn't like me being here, file a report against me? Will the FBI be knocking on my door? Will I be held indefinitely in detention, because now you could be... Especially if you were not an American citizen, you were a legal resident here, you could be held indefinitely without any charges against you, if there was a terrorism investigation against you. Will secret evidence be used against me? Will I be deported?
AS: These were very real questions and concerns among the community. Like just survival, survival was a big issue, and trying to stay under the radar so you did not get caught up in some dragnet where there were... Somebody told me who is a fellow journalist in St. Louis, that the FBI in St. Louis has a dossier or file on every Muslim, known Muslim in this region. And to know that, and I was in my 20s, to think that, "Okay, the government can listen to my calls, can subpoena, can get my records, my phone records without any warrant, can... And there is a file on me somewhere." That is a scary feeling for an ordinary, regular citizen who's never been in any kind of trouble with the law or had any kind of interaction with the law, to all of a sudden feel like one false move or someone doesn't like you, and you might not ever be seen from or heard from again? It's a really weird experience.
LC: I want to, one, make sure we're checking in for questions. I'm certain there are questions from our audience, and as we get some questions queued up, Beth you like all of us who are reporters have been following, I think what we can describe as a catastrophic departure from Afghanistan, and it raises these questions of the War on Terror and the nation-building that happened after 9/11, and our aims and what we were aiming toward in terms of America's power and standing in the world. As you think about where we are now, what are your thoughts about our response to 9/11, and what we did and why, and was it worth it?
BF: Wow, it's a big question. I think if I were in the military, I would be very, very hurt, right now. I can understand people feeling like, what was this for? And as a just civilian, it's unbelievable to me that it's been 20 years. And I found the email I sent to my friends when I covered that rally that day that we started bombing Afghanistan, and that's why I said it felt like the end of the 20th century, because the responses were so... They just seemed so tone deaf, both of them. There had just been this horrific attack by people who wanted to cause terror and spread their version of a religion that was fundamentalist and extreme, and there were people on one hand saying, "Let's bring them to due process. Let's have a trial." And people on the other hand, screaming, "Bomb them." And neither reaction felt right for what we were up against. It seemed like the whole paradigm has shifted at this moment. And in the coming weeks, we had Anthrax letters being sent to politicians and to the media that were terrorizing us. Every day, you didn't know what was gonna happen in your office place. Would I come to work and find little spores there? And would I be...
BF: Like people in Israel or Northern Ireland, or Britain or other parts of the world, where violence is much more common, would I be afraid to ride the subway, because somebody would bomb my subway car? Or the trash cans in the street, would they have to be removed? That's what I thought of for days and weeks afterwards, it's, what shoe is gonna drop next? And so, it feels so futile now, all these years later that Afghanistan is back to where it was, if not worse. All these nation-building efforts didn't work. It's heartbreaking to me. And meanwhile, our school system is so inequitable. I covered schools too, for many years, like Aisha and I covered the disparities in education in New York City. We've seen the situation with Black people and Brown people being targets of police violence that exploded in a crescendo last year around George Floyd's killing. The pandemic. So many major societal problems that it feels like nothing has changed in 50 years, almost. There's this wonderful documentary, Summer of Soul, about this great concert that was in the Summer of 1969.
LC: Questlove, yeah.
BF: Yeah, that Questlove produced. And it's this phenomenal concert that got overlooked because Woodstock was the same year, and you watch that and you hear the calls against police violence and the war in Vietnam, and you just think, "God, where have we progressed since then?" Obviously, a lot has changed and things are better for many people, but things are not better for many other people, and all this money and all this war and all this time and effort, and it's... Yeah, it's a lot to process as a journalist, and I'm careful about weighing in on my own opinions here, but I feel pretty safe in saying like, I just wanna throw up my hands.
LC: Well, we have questions here, I think fair questions about journalism's role, the media. I'm very reluctant to use the term the media, because...
LC: Because I think it encompasses a lot that doesn't have anything to do with journalism, but there are questions here about journalism's role in public opinion, and the way the country moved over these 20 years. It is only fair to say that journalism played a role in what the public believed and felt and supported. And so the question asks, "How has the media changed the way in which Americans viewed the Iraq and Afghanistan wars? At first, there seemed to be cheerleading and then it changed and now there's a split about the withdrawal." And so, how do you think back on journalism's role and culpability in the way the public accepted or perceived these events?
AS: Well, I feel like definitely there were national media actors that were culpable and advanced the argument that was based on faulty intelligence that Iraq had chemical weapons, that the invasion... That Iraq was connected to 9/11. But you know, that was a huge, very public failing of our profession. There's a difference between source-driven national journalism that has to happen and versus on-the-ground reporting. Those are very different types. And then there is, like you said, a big difference between the cheerleaders who are the opinion heads on cable news and cable news really exploded with people who had their own agendas and reasons for wanting a war in the Middle East, and their own financial incentives for wanting a war to persist. And those were not always disclosed to the viewer, where the viewer may not have always known the entire context of the information that they were being given at the time. So I do see it as a really shameful failing as a media, and... I'm a columnist, I am part of a system that can be complicit in shaping people's opinions, but I feel like that's just a major... That you can't deny our responsibility, our collective responsibility in that.
LC: You may have just answered this question, but I wanna ask it explicitly because there's a question here about it, and Beth give you a chance to answer your thoughts on this. It's a two-parted question about the role that diversity or the lack thereof in US newsrooms played in the coverage of September 11th, and then what was the biggest story the media missed on 9/11? So, Beth, I'll let you take that.
BF: I can honestly say that my newsroom should have been a lot more diverse on September 11th, and we have worked since then to improve matters, but it still has a way to go. As is the state of the industry overall, sadly, I don't know, 'cause I don't have that crystal ball to say what would have been different, but I do believe we would have had more understanding of the complexity of Islam and different viewpoints if we had had a person who was Muslim or from that part of the world on our team that would have... Actually, we did have somebody... She was from Pakistan, by way of South Africa. But it always helps to have people who are part of that conversation, otherwise, you don't even know what your own biases are, if you're missing things that you're not even aware you're missing, right? And, I'm sorry, what was the second part of your question? The biggest story that we missed?
LC: The biggest story missed... And there's no way to answer that, universally.
LC: It's a really tough question.
BF: The big story that we missed was what led to 9/11. My colleague Jim O'Grady and the History Channel did this phenomenal series, a podcast series called Blindspot: The Road to 9/11, where they look at the pieces and the missed signals and intelligence failures, it was phenomenal. It's really worth finding on your... Whatever podcast system you have, Blindspot: The Road to 9/11, and on Saturday, Jim edited it down to a two-hour version that's gonna be played on public stations across the country, including WNYC, you can live stream it. But it's the intelligence failures, I think will have to be... Number one, the story that was missed.
LC: We have a question here about views and input and influence of Muslim-Americans in the United States, and the question is, will we get to a place where public opinion shifts to be more inclusive, and Aisha that was a lot about what you were writing about, in the Newsweek piece.
AS: I read...
LC: If I can just do a shot out for public media, because Beth mentioned newsrooms trying to change as this coverage of Afghanistan has been happening, I think it's really worth noting that Asma Khalid is the White House correspondent for NPR and hearing her and seeing her represented in the press core, covering the White House, is a shift that should not go unnoticed.
AS: Absolutely. No, there has been much greater representation and now you do see more American Muslims, columnist, reporters close to... And having these conversations and being engaged in these conversations, the way that we were just absent before. So I feel like Muslim Americans do have more of a voice and are a broad part of the conversation, but that said, when you do have a marginalized, historically marginalized group, start to make gains in representation, there can be an even stronger push back to silence that from people who are threatened, who do not want them. There is still a pretty substantial and vocal percentage of the country that holds Islamaphobic views. That's just a fact, you can see that in all the polling, and there were people who exploit that. We had a president who openly talked about a Muslim ban.
AS: Would you talk about a Jewish ban, a Christian ban? And if another country was talking about that, how do we think about that? How would we describe them? And our president was doing that. And so I think part of the question, somebody asked the question about how does the lack of diversity affect the coverage? I think that even in the framing of what's happening, so when you have a predominantly White or Western perspective looking at, "Oh, America is gonna go in and liberate these Afghani women, or we're gonna go and save these people from themselves," that's a particular perspective. That's a way to frame a story, to sell it to a certain audience that may not be the smartest, best or most fair or just way to frame it.
BF: Can I just add there, there were a lot of really hurt people after 9/11. In New York, we lost 350 firefighters, something like that. I'm getting the wrong number, and I apologize, but I spent a week with a firehouse that lost 11 guys about February of 2002. And I understood the bloodlust, for lack of a better word, the desire to strike back when I was with those guys. And there was one night where I got my own dinner. Firefighters love to make a big dinner spread, and I just didn't want them to assume that I was gonna eat with them, so I brought my own dinner and I picked up some Indian food. And I brought it to the firehouse, and I sat there at the table and there were a couple of guys who had just come back from another memorial service. They were having them constantly. And he seemed a little drunk and he's like, "What are you eating?" And I said, "Oh, it's just some Indian food I picked up nearby." He's like, "Bomb them. Bomb them all." And I go, "India?". And he's like, "It's all the same." And I thought, "Oh my God. This is what we're up against as media in trying to explain to people first of all, India is not part of Afghanistan. [chuckle] But second of all, this desire for revenge because of what had happened." There were so many lives that were affected by this.
BF: And yes, it's a small number, when you compare it to how many died in Afghanistan years later. 3,000 is an enormous number, nonetheless. And all those families and all those firefighters and all those rescue workers and first responders and people who worked in the towers, it's a very, very large community. And all the jingoism that was going on around then, because we felt wounded as a society. America had never been attacked, not counting Pearl Harbor, but on our shores. And I think it was such a shock to our system. Again, the end of the 20th century, the end of the American century, where we're the big guys. And so people had all these emotions and anger, and that made it even more incumbent on us in the media to be very clear about who was responsible for this, the causes, to vet all the intelligence that was coming. We have hindsight now. But at the time, it's also they say the fog of war. I really think there was some of that going on.
LC: Yes, and it... Go ahead, Aisha.
AS: Oh, I'm sorry. I'd just like to add, I wrote my very first opinion piece for the Post-Dispatch, it ran the Sunday right after 9/11. And I wrote about the experiences that my family had, like you mentioned in Texas, and our fears, the compounded pain of being a Muslim during this attack and 95% to 98% of the response I got was kind, supportive, "You are part of us, you are part of this country, you belong here. We will stand up for you, we will defend your right to be here." I don't know that that would be the case now in our current discourse in the polarization and the ugliness that's been normalized on social media. I know it wouldn't be the case now, but that was the... There was a moment of time in our country, and if people remember nothing else, I hope they remember this, there was a moment of time when we were wounded, when we were scared, when we were angry, when people were still able to reach out to strangers who were different from them, from a place of compassion. That was a real moment in our country that that and Lynette and I were all part of. And how do we ever get back to that?
LC: Well, I knew that this hour would go too quickly, and Aisha, you brought us to a close because I was gonna ask you, what are you thinking about as we head into this weekend? What's heavy on your heart? What are you thinking of as a journalist who covered this? And I think that you posed the right thought and the right question. I think we're all thinking about aspects of this. And I know that this anniversary, Beth, you've gone back to listen to some of your old tape, and yes, there is a way that we do the work that we have to do, but I also know that you're both feeling the memories, the implications of that work that you did 20 years ago.
LC: I want to say thank you for your work in those hours, days, weeks, months and years since that pivotal moment. And thank you for continuing to do what we know journalism should do, even if that's not always what's projected in the larger media ecosystem, that you stand for what journalism should be doing in society. And if you can, Beth, I know you're in a couple of programs that people may want to watch this weekend. Could you just tell the audience about these documentaries that you participated in and the podcast?
BF: Yeah. I was among many people interviewed in a documentary about journalism on 9/11 and why it matters today, the way we covered it then. And it's very, very well done, although I got to warn you, it's tough to look at some of that footage. But it was very well done, and it's by some people who also did a book called, Running Toward Danger immediately after 9/11. And I was among the many journalists they interviewed then and went back to 20 years later. That is available on Wondrium, which used to be The Great Courses, but it's Wondrium, W-O-N-D-R-I-U-M.
LC: And I think we'll share it for the people who...
BF: Yeah, yeah. You don't have to pay to watch it, you can sign up and then cancel your membership two weeks later before you're billed. But you can watch it, it's two hours long. And then they also did a companion piece on women journalists who covered 9/11, and they had 20 of us that they interviewed. And so we each get a little segment of about 15 minutes each. So you can hear more from me there and 19 other women. And then there's a podcast called, Been There Done That, by Jo Ann Allen at Colorado Public Radio. She was one of our anchors at WNYC back then, and she had a conversation with me about what it was like and what we were each doing at the station and in our different jobs and reflecting back on it. And then on Saturday, we will be doing our 9/11 coverage with our talk show host, Brian Lehrer and myself and Rose Arce of CNN, formerly of CNN, will be among the guests in the studio with Brian, taking calls from listeners. Yeah, it'll just be us. We'll be the only two journalists, I should say, taking calls, me and Rose. And so that's...
LC: That's a lot.
BF: That's a lot. There's also gonna be an interview with me tomorrow in The Cut, which is a segment of New York Magazine online.
LC: Aisha, I saw you on the BBC last night. I know you're having a busy week too, and your piece can be found in this week's Newsweek Magazine and...
AS: And also I wrote a piece for stltoday.com, my newspaper, the Post-Dispatch's website, in which I went back and reconnected with people who had written me 20 years ago to see how they... I read back their emails to them. I had printed them out and saved them in my basement. And I went through them and I reconnected with people, and I wrote about what it was like to read those to them and what their reactions are and how they feel about it now.
LC: Amazing. Well, thank you both for your work. I wanna thank all of you who joined us for this important conversation. And I know that there will be a lot of media to consume about this anniversary, but I hope that you will join the Ford School again on Monday for another policy talk about the aftermath of 9/11. This next event is on key developments in counterterrorism and national security since 9/11. So a very important conversation. Dean Barr, I wanna thank you for inviting me to have this conversation. And Beth Fertig and Aisha Sultan, thank you so much for your work, and good luck as we move through the weekend.
BF: Thank you.