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JOURNALISTS SUFFER FROM EMOTIONAL FALLOUT, TOO

The first rule of journalism is to distance yourself from your feelings and bias, and report the facts objectively.

That ideal may work at journalism school, but it's different in real life, as many print and broadcast reporters who covered the terrorist crisis in the past 10 days have learned.

Keeping emotional objectivity has been all but impossible. Even a hardened and experienced newsman like CBS' Dan Rather sobbed while talking about the terrorist attacks while appearing with David Letterman. ABC's Peter Jennings wept during news coverage, and NBC's Tom Brokaw more than once could be seen struggling to control his emotions while sitting in the anchor chair.

But it certainly wasn't just superstar television anchors who had to cope with the overwhelming emotion of this unfolding story.

"I'm a sea of conflicting emotions right now," said Susan Harrigan, who covers Wall Street for Newsday, the Long Island newspaper. "Like everyone else in New York, I'm trying to get back to normal, but it's hard."

Harrigan, who has been a reporter for more than two decades and covered the Vietnam War, was two blocks away from the World Trade Center when it collapsed. She was off work but ran to the building, near her apartment, to cover the story. Harrigan knew many of the business people killed in the building's destruction.

"I feel guilty for having been able to write a story about an incident in which so many people died," she said in a telephone conversation this week. "I thought I was going to die.

"I haven't been able to be as tough as I want to be," added Harrigan, 56. "I had one day off after covering this tragedy. On that day off, I went to church and cried. I couldn't stop crying in church."

It may feel overwhelming, but such a reaction may be positive.

"Journalists are supposed to distance themselves from stories, but they are human," said Rem Rieder, editor and senior vice president of the American Journalism Review. "You're kidding yourself if you think you can cover a story like this and not be affected.

"It may not bother you as much when you are in the middle of it and throwing yourself into the story. It's afterward, when you're all done, that it hits you."

News organizations, especially in New York, have offered help to journalists.

"For all of us, these events hit in waves and there has been a full range of responses and emotions," said Toby Usnik, director of public relations for the New York Times.

Usnik said the Times has offered help to employees through its Employee Assistance Program. The company, he said, has kept communications lines open to reporters and editors, offering counseling sessions, as well as food and lodging at the paper.

"People need to hear what's going on," Usnik said. "Some people couldn't get home. We invited people to bring their family to the office. We brought in food and gave them a place to sleep."

Living and working through this tragedy may forever alter the people who report the news.

"I don't know if I've changed since I've been back on the job for the past few days," Harrigan said. "But I do feel much more aware and sensitive to what other people are going through. And I know how people feel when they survive such a terrible event."

President George W. Bush has been criticized for his lack of communication skills and his weak media presence. Some critics say he's not scripted enough, while others charge he's scripted too much when he makes public appearances.

But the tragic events of Sept. 11, and the days following have shown that Bush can overcome his lack of video presence, mangled syntax and smirky facial expressions.

The president's finest moment may have been when he went to New York City and talked to firefighters and rescue workers at ground zero with a bullhorn. Bush's depth of feelings and sincerity shone through, and he commanded not only respect but admiration. He also took the press corps by surprise earlier last week when he became teary-eyed while talking about the attacks.

Still, he has a habit for falling into a cowboy jingoism. Bush's Texas slang of "wanted dead or alive," "chasing them into the hills" and "crusade" against terrorism, seem out of place in these uncertain times.

There have been three dominant media presidents during the modern television era that began in 1960: John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Each were able to use television to reassure and comfort the American people during a major crisis Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and the elder George Bush never mastered the medium and in many ways that may have contributed to their political downfall.

Television can define a presidency as much as world and national events.

The pressure on President Bush now is to rise to the occasion, not only as a leader but also as a communicator. Meeting those challenges may not only define the future of his presidency, but also his place in history.

e-mail aviolanti@buffnews.com

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