Myth and Terror on the Editorial Page: The New York Times Responds to September 11, 2001

Article excerpt

This article studies New York Times editorials in the aftermath of September 11 from the perspective of myth. After defining myth and reviewing a wide range of scholarship that approaches news as myth, this article considers the ways in which editorials can be understood as myth. Textual analysis shows that over the course of four weeks, the New York Times drew from four central myths to portray events: the End of Innocence, the Victims, the Heroes, and the Foreboding Future. More than editorial "themes" or political "issues," these were myths that invoked archetypal figures and forms at the heart of human storytelling.

On 11 September 2001, the New York Times editorial page took up three commonplace issues. The lead editorial, "The Politics of Panic," upbraided President Bush and Republicans for seeking tax cuts in the face of a slowing economy. "The summer has barely ended, but President Bush and his Congressional allies are already frantically rewriting their script for the fall," the editorial began. Another editorial reproached as unethical a Columbia University professor who had sent fictitious complaints to Manhattan restaurants. A third editorial outlined the newspaper's recommendations in primary elections being held that day around the city.'

By 8:48 a.m., before many New Yorkers even read the page, those editorials would seem terribly mundane.

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon caused immediate turbulence throughout journalism. Daily newspapers published special editions. Network television and radio responded with nonstop, commercial-free news programming. Weekly magazines scrapped cover stories and rushed out early issues. Online news sites pulled advertising and images to accommodate the explosion of traffic.

The New York Times offers an especially interesting subject for those interested in journalism and September 11. The Times already was long established as the preeminent national newspaper. Studies affirm the influence of the Times in national and international circles.2 The Times also sets an agenda for other news media, from broadcast news to rival newspapers.3 The attacks on the World Trade Center were also "hometown news" for the Times, providing the paper with even more justification and opportunity for concentrated reporting on events. The paper responded with an intensity of coverage seen perhaps only in wartime. Reporters were pulled from numerous locations to cover the impact of the attacks. The paper soon began publishing a special section, "A Nation Challenged," printing the sports pages upside down so the printer could accommodate the extra section.4

How did the editorial page of the Times respond? The editorial page is the site where newspapers self-consciously and directly react to events. Because of its status in social, political, and journalism communities, the editorial page of the Times can be particularly noteworthy, especially in times of crisis. Study of the Times in the aftermath of September 11 may provide insights into the interplay of editorial policy and public politics at this critical time.

The Social Role of Myth

To see how the national newspaper responded to the attack, content analysis might be undertaken, measuring column inches and weighing subjects and themes in the pages of the Times. However, this article argues that conventional counting and content analyses may miss the social, symbolic power of the words and that journalism may fruitfully be understood from the perspective of myth.

In the days after September 11, Times editorials attempted to explain and give meaning to terrible and complex events, telling stories of heroes and victims, of high tragedy and great loss. They strained to understand a struggle between good and evil. They tried to make sense of almost senseless events. In doing so, they took up the role of myth.

Traditionally, myth has provided the stories that make sense of a society, for a society. …