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From the November 2003 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 50, No. 11)

From the Editor

Dog Day Aftermath

Alice Chasan

The deceptively simple questions “What happened?” and “What’s happening?” spring reflexively to the lips of most people confronted with a rupture of the unusual into the normal flow of daily life. Think of the many versions of the phrases in languages you know. Their ubiquity attests to the human drive to get oriented, to place ourselves inside the loop. Because the gestalt is far greater than the sum of its parts, being able to grasp the shape of things confers a distinct advantage, in everything from basic survival to social situations.

As with all generalizations, this one masks the reality that the need to know occurs with varying degrees of intensity in different individuals. Along the continuum, some are satisfied with the basic outlines or the authorized version of a story.

Others, however, regard “What’s happening?” as an invitation to an inquiry. And as for those of us who play out the thread of understanding, turning around an event or phenomenon and viewing it from all sides: If we’re lucky, we find a berth in a field like journalism, where the realization that a story “has legs” gets pulses racing.

Two years out from the attacks of 9/11/01, the simplest answer to “What happened?” has become formulaic, woven into personal and national narratives. Yet the ancillary questions following from that stunningly anomalous day keep producing answers—and more questions—that change our interpretation of the initial fact pattern. Journalists investigating and reporting the burgeoning tangents inevitably have irked those overwhelmed by the often ugly, frightening implications.

There’s a lot of anger in America about the fact that the terrorism story won’t go away. The urge to turn it off, and thereby get a handle on the morphing narrative, can and frequently does produce a related response: kill-the-messenger syndrome. Sometimes the pressure on the press comes couched in accusations of sedition or simply gets packaged with the dismissive notion that all journalists are cynics or hand-wringers. Many American news organizations have caved in, soft-pedaling the follow-up reports, or letting go some of the myriad investigative strands that now lead to the rationale for a U.S. occupation of Iraq and other aspects of post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy.

The French are in the process of answering “What happened?” after thousands of the elderly died unexpectedly during the heat wave of 2003—a calamity officials in Paris at first coldly described as “surplus mortality.” A newly aggressive French press has traced the anatomy of the disaster and led the call for reforms in national labor, social-welfare, and health-care policies. The soul-searching prompted by the tragedy spurred disturbing revelations about the government’s unpreparedness for the events, and passionate, introspective commentary about the social and political roots of the crisis.

American journalists might give French colleagues the benefit of their own decidedly checkered performance during a societal calamity: Stay with the story, however hot it gets. Because what happened in France was far more than a meteorological fluke, a steady focus by the press on its ramifications could bring a breath of fresh air into French political discourse.

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