Reassessing 9/11, not rehashing it

The Anniversary Story has increasingly become a franchise of the newspaper business.

The list of occasions and events deemed worthy of note grows longer each year. It has expanded from staples like Pearl Harbor Day, D-Day and the birthdays of beloved leaders to such things as the ends of wars, Supreme Court decisions, assassinations and major storms. Some receive annual recognition; the list expands and the stories get longer when we reach five-, 10- or 100-year anniversaries.

This is a fairly recent phenomenon, and not one I applaud. Too often, consistent and predictable anniversary obsession leads to stories that appear only because we have arrived at a circle on a calendar, and even when we have nothing to say about a particular event, we say it anyway.

So I’ll confess to a bit of personal eye-rolling at the news that The Plain Dealer had chosen the July 4 weekend to begin its series of stories leading up to the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. I know some of you did, too. Ten weeks? How many stories on 9/11 do we need, after all?

But a funny thing happened as the stories began to roll out. The series hasn’t read like overkill at all. In fact, there have been so many interesting pieces about how life and perspectives have changed since the 2001 attacks, it has left me wanting more.

“On the first anniversary, we had lots of photos, lots of tears,” said Chris Quinn, who directs the paper’s news coverage. “After that — even on the fifth year — we made the decision to be more muted. We felt that it was still too raw to do a huge thing.

“But the feeling was that for the 10th, that’s the first real milestone at which you can take a sober assessment of all that has happened. People in Cleveland respect mourning, they respect history. So we decided to do this up.”

Many papers will put out special sections on Sept. 11 — as will The Plain Dealer. But Managing Editor Thom Fladung said editors didn’t want to dump everything into one giant section.

“We wanted to put together a series of interesting, A1 stories,” he said. “That’s how people experience newspapers: They pick up the paper and see what we’ve got for them today.”

The series began with a fascinating interview by reporter Michael Sangiacomo with a retired air traffic controller about the hours during and after the attack. It was information most of us had never read before, because the controllers hadn’t been allowed to talk about it.

The next week, Karen Farkas wrote about the twisted beams and other metal that had been salvaged from the rubble at Ground Zero, and the thousands of places they went, including many firehouses and other spots in Northeast Ohio.

Architecture critic Steven Litt wrote about post-9/11 building design, reporting that in Cleveland and other cities the emphasis has been on open, inviting spaces — a refusal to surrender to the bunker mentality many feared would take hold in the wake of the attacks. Science writer John Mangels followed that up with a piece on the structural changes in skyscraper design — changes that are invisible to the public eye but will work to harden the buildings against attacks and other dangers.

Last Sunday, Brian Albrecht and Robert L. Smith reported on the patriotic reaction of young men and women to the attacks that increased enlistment in the armed forces, and told the stories of three from Northeast Ohio.

If you missed any of those, you can find them at

Next Sunday’s paper will offer the reporting and perspectives of the four college interns who worked at The Plain Dealer this summer, representing a generation that has never really known the world as it was before 9/11. The following week, we’ll have several more stories, including reflections from staffers Evelyn Theiss and Michael Heaton, who were in New York during and immediately after the attacks, and a piece on Ground Zero today.

Then, on the actual anniversary, we’ll offer a photo-driven special section and, in the Forum section, reflections from you. If you haven’t seen the published invitations to have your say, you can find out how at

This series takes the anniversary story to its best potential. The calendar is only the starting point; from there, the staff asked new questions, talked to previously unheard-from people and brought a fresh perspective to this sad date in our nation’s history.

I thought I had read all I wanted to know about it. Turns out I was wrong.

This column was originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Aug. 28, 2011.

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