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People always remark on the blueness of the sky, on how perfect a Tuesday morning it was. It was unfathomable. The stark contrast between the beauty of the day and the terror that was only eight miles away made it difficult to figure out how to proceed. “People were in the West End, people were playing soccer on South Field,” Mike Mirer recalls. “As the day wears on and nothing else happens, it’s just sort of hard to square those two ideas. And yet they’re both completely present.” For editors of the Spectator, the routine of the board meeting offered some relief. Mirer, CC ’02 and the editor in chief in 2001, says, “Being in the room together talking about what we were going to do felt normal.”
The planes didn’t hit Low Library on Sept. 11. The Columbia Daily Spectator is a hyperlocal paper covering Columbia’s campus, Morningside Heights, and West Harlem, and typically avoids reporting on national news. But Columbia doesn’t exist in isolation. News that has a universal impact—and especially something as devastating as 9/11—needs to be shared.
In 10 years, the way news travels has fundamentally changed. But whether you find out via television or via text, devastating news brings people together. For the student journalists who witness and write about their peers coming together, reporting can have an overwhelmingly powerful effect.
It was nine o’clock on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Nick Schifrin, CC ’02, was sitting in a classroom in the International Affairs Building, about to begin a Shakespeare class. Simone Sebastian, CC ’03, was just waking up and listening to the radio. And Mirer was fast asleep.
Schifrin, Spectator’s managing editor that year, had entered class and heard the much-circulated rumor that a small plane had hit the Twin Towers. The rumor was spread the old-fashioned way—by ear. There was, of course, no Twitter, no Facebook. Schifrin had recently purchased a “big, bulky cell phone” but relied more on his Spectator-issued pager.
The impact of what had really happened wasn’t yet understood, and Professor David Kastan proceeded with the lecture as usual. “When I went into that class,” recounts Schifrin, “all I knew was that there was a rumor that there was a small plane crash in south Manhattan. By the time the class was over, the second tower had already fallen. It’s inconceivable, the notion we could have started that class.” He remained in the dark until an hour and a half later, when he left class and saw a crowd around a television in the IAB fourth floor lounge.
The magnetic power of the television set was in full force that day. After Mirer woke up to a call on his dorm room ROLM phone, he quickly checked the New York Times website on his laptop (which Mirer described, like Schifrin’s phone, as “big and bulky”) before seeking out live coverage. He ran down the hall to his RA, who had the TV on, and they watched in horror as the first tower fell. But it was important to be with loved ones, and Mirer quickly left to join his girlfriend—now wife—Anna Cash, CC ’02, at her parents’ house on Claremont Avenue, where they again turned on the TV. They took no more than 29 minutes to get there, because then they watched the second tower fall.
“TV was huge for us, huge not just because of the images and the information, but because TV watching is communal,” Sebastian, the former city news editor, says. “Gathering around the television didn’t just provide a way for us to get information, it provided a way for us to be together that day.”
At 11:14 a.m., Schifrin emailed Spectator’s managing board, moving their daily meeting up six hours to 2 p.m. “Please share any needs that anybody has; today, perhaps we can be more of a family than a staff,” he wrote. When Mirer logged in after watching the North Tower fall, he says, “I checked my email and there were already people sort of taking notes back and forth to each other—what we were going to do, what our next steps were.”
A university-wide email alerted students that classes had been canceled, though many professors who had heard the news before entering their classes chose to let their students go.
“Suddenly everybody knew,” Mirer says. “It seemed like everybody knew, everyone who had a TV knew. People could see it happening from East Campus.”
Reset the stage to a different, but related, scene: May 1, 2011, about 10 p.m., the night before the last day of spring semester classes, and thus the last night of regular production for Spectator. I was sitting in the Spectator office, surrounded by at least two dozen computers and laptops, buzzing iPhones and Blackberrys. I was all ready to pack up my bag and study for my final the next day when Jim Pagels, CC ’13, and Spec’s sports editor, emerged from the sports office.
“Did you guys hear? Osama bin Laden is dead.”
Nobody spoke. We looked to Jim’s face—was he making some kind of sick joke?
“What? No. What?”
We each directed our browsers to the New York Times website, where a 40-word, unbylined brief confirmed the rumor. I turned to my news editors, Leah Greenbaum, CC ’12, and Sarah Darville, CC ’13, and asked, “Should we do something?” The answer was obvious as soon as the words came out of my mouth—of course we should do something.
I grabbed a notebook. I didn’t know it then, but I had just booked my next eight hours, running around campus, calling student leaders, and ultimately taking the train to ground zero to witness an outpouring of nationalism as I had never seen it before. It took all of five minutes to go from not knowing about it to reporting on it and another 10, upon returning to the office, to determine that I would forego studying for finals and head downtown that night.
Without a doubt, 9/11 and bin Laden’s death are two wholly different events. Still, even though they both impacted billions of people worldwide, the reactions of the comparatively miniscule Columbia community are stories worth telling.
‘To Start to Form a Narrative’
On Sept. 12, 2001, Spectator ran a two-page spread written by 10 different reporters capturing individual moments throughout the day and across the campus: the story of two suitemates in East Campus who went to the roof, were asked to leave by Public Safety, and saw the North Tower collapse from their suite at 10:28 a.m.; of the somber vigils in St. Paul’s Chapel and on Low Plaza; of the AEPi brother who sat on the brownstone’s stoop, trying to contact his uncle who worked near the towers.
Unlike a traditional news story, there is no lede. There is no hook. Much like the way in which the news of the attacks was disseminated that day, the article provides short snippets of anxiety, uncertainty, grief. You read about the emotional confusion of a graduate student who has just learned of the news, but you then zoom in on the fear that attendees at an Ivy League conference in Lerner faced, realizing that many of their former classmates could be trapped in the buildings.
When news of this significance breaks, there’s a rush to be a part of it in some form or another. That’s why scores of Columbia students packed into a car on the 1 train to ground zero and joined thousands of others that night this past May. Whether it’s the urge to help in time of tragedy, to celebrate with the masses, or just to know what’s going on, in this city, there is always a forum for people to convene and share.
9/11 was no exception. The rush to do something—anything—was intense. People lined Amsterdam Avenue to give blood at St. Luke’s, but were very quickly turned away. “There really wasn’t need for blood. There really wasn’t need for much, but everybody was trying to go out there and help,” Ben Casselman, CC ’03, and former campus news editor, says. “A few people rushed down to ground zero—there was the wanting to do something even when there wasn’t all that much people could do. In that sense, I was always very grateful that I worked for Spec. It gave me something to do—I could feel like I was contributing.”
“I turned on the radio and the first words I heard were ‘terrorist attack,’ but they didn’t really make sense at that point,” Sebastian says. “So I listened for a while, and it fully started sinking in. As a student journalist at that point, I just went into journalist mode. I started thinking about how we were going to cover it.”
Even the phone call that jolted Mirer from his sleep—the first he would ever hear of the events—had Spectator in mind. Mirer recalls sportswriter Ian Rapoport, CC ’02, asking him, “Do we have anyone going down there?”
Although the series of vignettes was the most significant part of Wednesday’s issue—occupying part of the front page and a two-page spread in the middle—the lead story was a Reuters article detailing the attacks more generally. Mirer said the managing board had opted against writing their own account of that national story because they thought it more important to document the reaction on campus.
“We told the story that we were in the best position to tell,” Mirer says. “We can talk about our campus with authority and we knew what was going on. We were there all day. Nobody else was going to tell those stories. That was our contribution … to reflect how our little community in a huge city responded to this extraordinary and terrible event.”
By noon, emails expressing interest in writing submissions for the next day’s issue had already reached Alice Boone, BC ’03, GSAS ’11, then-opinion editor and editor in chief in 2002. “That’s the most striking example of how Spectator was seen as some sort of sounding board even really, really early on,” she says. “Before anybody really understood what had happened, before the towers even collapsed.”
At around 10:30 a.m., Schifrin left his Shakespeare class. “The world that existed before the class had already been replaced,” he says. “Outside the room there was a TV. It was usually really loud in that little area, but it was silent then. … As I walked toward the TV screen and to the group, some people were already crying or hugging. Others were stupefied and shocked. They were staring at the TV with their hands over their mouths.”
Immediately, Schifrin took out a notebook and began talking with the people surrounding him. “We wanted to give a feeling for how a diverse community responds in diverse ways to a single event,” Schifrin says. “We were using our few resources to really try and show how we were all reacting in such extraordinary ways and such instantaneous ways to something that we already knew would change our lives forever.”
“It’s just sort of a totally extraordinary moment,” Mirer says. “What you do [when you hear breaking news] is you just start asking questions and you just start writing because that’s what you do on campus. Having something to do was a way to make sense of everything, to start putting it in perspective. To start to form a narrative.”
Boone sat in the office’s conference room trying to write the editorial with Ross McSweeney, CC ’02, then-arts editor. “We knew that we needed to find something to say as an organization, as an institution, at Columbia, but it also seemed like an impossible task,” Boone says. She began rifling through the bound volumes of old Spectators for inspiration. “I remember turning the pages of one of them, and the whole page just crumbled in my hand. It seemed funny that just the paper technology of the Spectator was crumbling because we could see it even then, from the ways that we were obsessively reloading CNN.com, things were changing.”
Reporting Triggers Memories
Elsewhere on campus, a freshman named Steve Poellot had returned to his room on the fifth floor of Carman after his professor dismissed his calculus class. Every class for the remainder of the day had been canceled, so Poellot, CC ’05, decided to walk downtown through Central Park with three of his floormates, Jennifer Preissel, photo editor in 2003, Bridget Geibel, and Alexandra Seggerman, all CC ’05.
Remembering a day 10 years ago is not an easy task, even a day as significant as 9/11. Although everyone I spoke with had hazy recollections of various details of the day, they were all able to speak vividly of a moment they had conducting an interview or taking a photo.
Speaking from his home in Geneva, Poellot tries to recount the events of that morning with Seggerman, to whom he is now married. The two bounce off of each other, reconstructing the timeline of their day.
“I grabbed my camera and we began walking down Broadway. I don’t think I really spoke to anyone from Spectator before we left,” he says, noting that, because it was only a week into his freshman year, he had only taken on maybe one photo assignment.
“No, the first thing we did was walk by the Spec office,” interjects Seggerman. “I remember waiting downstairs while Steve went up to get the rolls of film.”
Poellot agrees with his wife as the memory comes back to him. He questions whether he talked with one of Spectator’s photo editors or if he simply grabbed the film. “I can’t remember if I talked to one of them. They probably would have told me not to go,” he laughs. “But it certainly wasn’t an assignment and they didn’t ask anyone to go. It was more of—we just felt like we wanted to see what was happening more closely. The fact that I had a camera and could take photographs for the Spectator was just another impetus.”
As Poellot narrates his arrival downtown, however, he perfectly describes the shots he took—a news ticker declaring “There may be 10,000 people dead” in midtown, a police car covered in ash on Sixth Avenue, a couple hugging after the collapse of 7 World Trade Center, two policemen standing at the corner of Leonard Street and Hudson Street, a little four-year-old boy holding two big gallon jugs of water. “People weren’t sure if New York was going to be closed for weeks, if they should plan as if it was a hurricane,” he says, explaining the scramble for provisions.
Schifrin had a hard time recounting the managing board meeting that afternoon, but clearly recalled the moments in the IAB lounge and at the West End, the two vignettes he contributed to the article the next day.
And even though bin Laden’s death was just four months ago, the events of that whirlwind evening are not easy for me to parse together. I vaguely remember approaching revelers on College Walk, Columbia students singing “Roar, Lion, Roar” on the subway, and leaving the office at 6:15 the following morning. But I can very plainly picture speaking with the Jackson Heights woman who felt closure for her good friend who was the youngest firefighter to die at the scene, and with the marine cadet who knew he had to be on his boat at six the next morning, but wasn’t going to sleep, and with the two army veterans who, overcome with emotion, kept repeating, “This is a great day. This is a great day.”
In the grand scheme of things, TV remained vital. “For days afterwards, probably weeks, in any floor lounge, there was a TV tuned to CNN or some 24-hour news station. And there were almost always people who were gathered in front of it,” Casselman says.
For Spectator, “circulation was way, way up. The paper was grabbed everywhere it was offered,” Casselman says, pointing out that nearly every newsstand sold out of every paper on Sept. 12. “As much as I’m proud of the work we did that day, I think our role really emerged as time went on. We did the best that we could on the day of to say what this meant for Columbia, but the truth was we didn’t know—I don’t think anyone knew.”
There was no question it would dominate coverage, Schifrin says. He recalls his favorite piece that week, a story Casselman wrote. “It was about the smell,” he says. “It encapsulated this horror, because [even though] this thing was six or seven miles away, downtown, Tuesday night or Wednesday night, that smell drifted north. … There’s a lot of things that none of us will forget, but this in particular was unforgettable. It was acrid. It was burned steel and paper and bodies and heat. And it was all-encompassing.”
As the true impact of 9/11 became clearer, so did the paper’s responsibility to its readers. In the news pages, “We were able to play a more important role in covering how this affected Columbia, how Columbia responded as an institution, how individual groups responded,” Casselman says. Schifrin says he wrote or edited 50 obituaries of Columbia affiliates for Spectator.
In the weeks and months that followed, the paper received, “more submissions and more letters to the editor than we could possibly print,” Boone says. “What was really striking to me was that the subjects of those columns were ineffable emotions—grief, anger, fear, isolation, confusion—all these things that are really, really difficult to express. And it struck me that the thing that the most people wanted to do was write about how difficult they were to express. As an editor, my task was to help those people find some way to express it.”
Opinion columns, Boone says, “tend to be about certainties: ‘this is my opinion and I’m going to prove it to you.’” But 9/11 shook that framework, instilling confusion into the campus. “What we saw people writing that fall was really more of an exploration of contingency and doubt and uncertainty,” she says. The opinion pages were “like a muse to find a way to figure out what things you were going to stand for—what things you were going to hold firm to—when it seemed like the entire world had changed.”
At the same time I was taking in the revelry at ground zero as a staff writer, Schifrin—managing editor on 9/11—was standing in Abbottabad, Pakistan, broadcasting the world’s only report that included footage from inside bin Laden’s compound, in his role as ABC News’ correspondent in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“I think it is probably not coincidental that a higher-than-average percentage of the managing board members that year ended up pursuing journalism careers,” Casselman, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, says. His co-news editor Sebastian is now a staff writer at the Houston Chronicle, and Mirer is studying journalism at University of Wisconsin–Madison.
I went to ground zero in May first and foremost as a reporter, but I will always remember the scene as more than just part of an assignment. Seeing Columbia students joining in the chorus of elation, and then talking to them and analyzing it all, made me feel like a part of something much larger. To be in the same situation on Sept. 11 could have only intensified that feeling of community. And when you can engage with the work that you do, when it becomes more than just work—there is no feeling more rewarding.
In 2000, a Columbia junior murdered his girlfriend and Spectator covered it with a more sensitive, local angle, vis-à-vis the sensationalized tabloid coverage that followed. It was then that Mirer began to realize the value of a “localized community paper,” as he put it. 9/11 reinforced this idea. “When you are writing about a thing that affects the whole campus community, the campus community has a common reference point,” he says. “News becomes the common reference point. That’s always been the value of Spectator—the value of local newspapers.”
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