As we look back to the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the U.S., it's worth asking a question: If America were attacked again on the same scale, would we be able to unify nationally as well as we did two decades ago?
The answer appears to be “No.”
COVID-19 is a prime example. Here we have, arguably, the biggest national emergency the country has seen since 9/11, and the politicization, the finger-pointing, began almost immediately:
Trump attacks House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocrats scramble to reach deal on taxes On The Money — Sussing out what Sinema wants Overnight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Key CDC panel backs Moderna, J&J boosters MORE over a February statement when she encouraged shoppers to visit San Francisco’s Chinatown https://t.co/ojKfbxZQvD— Bloomberg (@business) April 16, 2020
Now juxtapose those with headlines in the aftermath of 9/11. Despite George W. Bush being seen as an illegitimate president by a decent chunk of the country (following a Supreme Court ruling in Bush v Gore in the Republican candidate's favor, regarding Florida’s vote recount), there was no hint of partisanship or blame:
Sept. 12, 2001 headline pic.twitter.com/vGJ8QPwr5I— Daniel J.B. Mitchell (@CalPolicy) September 12, 2018
The front page of the @BostonGlobe on Sept. 12, 2001: "New day of infamy"— Meredith Tibbetts (@mjtibbs) September 11, 2018
The cutline reads: Alone amid the ruins of the first World Trade Center, a man called out an offer of help yesterday. "It looked like nuclear winter," said one nearby worker. pic.twitter.com/1TW4t9P5L9
So, what's changed?
The three big cable news channels were around in 2001, as were the Sunday morning talk shows and evening newscasts. The New York Times and Washington Post were two of the biggest print news outlets in the country, wielding influence in the process.
What wasn't in existence was social media, which, more than anything else, changed political journalism — mostly for the worse.
How so? Well, for starters, it allows those who play straight-news reporters in print and on television to share their feelings on those they cover and the day’s news. Feelings also can be defined as opinions. That said, what we've witnessed over the past decade (especially during the rise of Twitter) is more and more journalists making themselves the story by sharing their feelings and opinions — and in the process, exposing their political worldview and biases toward particular politicians.
The following are tweets from reporters and editors, not opinion-makers:
Trump on message so far, inasmuch as his message is "airing grievances about people who have wronged Donald TrumpDonald TrumpHarris stumps for McAuliffe in Virginia On The Money — Sussing out what Sinema wants Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — The Facebook Oversight Board is not pleased MORE"— Alex Burns (@alexburnsNYT) October 20, 2016
good description of the challenge for journalism— John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) December 22, 2019
hard for reporters to say plainly that the Republican Party, at this point in our history, is fundamentally broken
but it is https://t.co/HXHn3cmJ4N
I wish that I didn’t suspect that the prolonged, poorly explained public absence of Melania TrumpMelania TrumpMcCain: Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner had 'no goddamn business' attending father's funeral GOP leader's remarks on Fox underscore Trump's power White House orders release of Trump records to Jan. 6 committee MORE could be about concealing abuse. I wish that it was a ludicrous prospect. I wish that the @POTUS wasn’t a man with a history of abusing women, including those to whom he is married.— Jamil Smith جميل كريم (@JamilSmith) June 3, 2018
There are thousands of other examples, but you get the idea. This perhaps would be (relatively) fine if the partisan divide were split evenly among journalists, but it's not. A 2014 Indiana University media study, for example, found that just 7 percent of journalists identify as Republicans. And before the 2016 election, a study by the Center for Public Integrity found that an overwhelming amount of campaign contributions – nearly 96 percent – went to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMeghan McCain: 'SNL' parodies made me feel like 'laughing stock of the country' Hill: Trump reelection would spur 'one constitutional crisis after another' Trump defends indicted GOP congressman MORE over Republican nominee Donald Trump.
So, with social media fanning the flames while exposing many journalists for taking a side, it provides a stark contrast to the Twitter-less days of 2001, which had such a sense of national unity and compassion. Compassion for the victims and their loved ones, for those who ran into those buildings in Lower Manhattan – the New York firefighters, the city and Port Authority police, the EMTs, all ordinary citizens performing superhero acts to save lives – and for all those who volunteered for weeks in the smoking rumble.
It's almost impossible to envision a moment in 2021 in which a president walks onto a baseball field to a standing ovation of 57,000 fans, six weeks after a major terror attack, and not be booed by at least half, all while Twitter blows up with memes and GIFs marinated in heavy snark. But that's just what happened before Game 3 of the 2001 World Series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and New York Yankees.
There was President Bush, wearing a Fire Department of New York jacket over a bulletproof vest, waving to a roaring crowd chanting "USA! USA!" in a deep-blue state. No one cared that he was a Republican. He was the American president, who also happened to throw a perfect strike from the mound, sparking a proud reaction from those in the stadium and tens of millions watching at home.
You can watch the video here.
Today, it feels as if we've never been more divided as a country.
"As part of a pattern of eroding confidence in how well the media is serving its role in American democracy, people largely see increasing political bias in news coverage and say the media bears blame for political division in this country," reported Gallup in a 2020 survey.
After 9/11/2001: Almost three out of four Americans (74 percent) said the nation was "united and in agreement about the most important values," per Gallup.
In September 2021: About one in three Americans (34 percent) say the country is united and in agreement about the most important values, per a recent NBC News poll, or a 40-point drop.
Things oftentimes get nasty on broadcast news and social media. The politicians who are the most active and childish on Twitter seem to get the most airtime.
Civil debate? Compromise? Problem-solving? Not happening.
We're a long, long way from Sept. 12, 2001.
Joe Concha is a media and politics columnist for The Hill.