One picture, one nation

The Sun, September 12, 2001

On the morning of September 11, 2001, my phone was unusually busy.

It was only seven in the morning and I was deep in my sleep in my apartment in Bremerton, Washington.

My new job had turned out to be a nightmare and I was serving my notice with the company. The day before, I had been involved in a car accident and I was convinced that it was the worst time of my life.

The first caller told me the World Trade Center had collapsed, and because she was from Singapore, I automatically assumed that she was referring to the nondescript building in Singapore.

By the time I turned on my television set, more calls had come in. My mother, whose geography is as good as the average American, thought that I was in Washington DC, where a plane had crashed into the Pentagon.

My newspaper, like most newspapers in the world, decided to put out a special edition and everyone on the payroll was mobilized. When I entered the newsroom, it was already in a state of pandemonium. Nobody was ready to work at this hour. More importantly, nobody was prepared for the scale of the disaster.

After the special edition went to print, our editor, who had just joined us from a sister newspaper in Albuquerque, New Mexico, convened a meeting to plan for the next day’s paper.

Ideas were flying around, so was temper. Everyone wanted to be in charge.

I sat in front of a television set, making a mental note of the key moments, preparing myself for the edition of my life when night falls. From time to time, I logged on to the wire services to see the images available for publication.

Everyone in the Puget Sound area was convinced that the evil-doers were planning a sweep from the East to West. Most pointed to the Seattle Space Needle and the ferry services as high-risk targets.

With less than an hour to press time, the front page of our newspaper was still a blank. Everyone wanted to know what I was planning to do.

I told them there were still no sign of any images that were in the same league as the famous picture of a firefighter cradling a baby in the Oklahoma City bomb blast.

I went back to the wire services again, convinced that something significant would appear.

Thomas Franklin’s picture of the three firefighters raising the American flag jumped right out at me this time.

In probably the biggest sales pitch of my professional career, I presented to the assembled group of senior staff my choice and my reasons for picking it.

“I am not an American and this is not my flag, but I am very sure that tomorrow, when people wake up, they want to see a symbol of hope. And this is the right picture. This is the ‘Oklahoma City firefighter picture’ of September 11.”

The clueless managing editor’s only concern was that when the paper was folded, readers would only see a sea of grey. Other dissenters argued that people expected to see the Twin Towers in flame.

I was told, “Every newspaper in the SeaTac area will have the towers and nobody will buy our paper.”

Their anger and grief had little to do with the bigger tragedies. Rather, they probably thought that I was going to put out a newspaper that would be a landmark journalistic disaster.

Scott Ware, my boss and editor, almost convinced me to withdraw my resignation letter when he firmly stood by my recommendation with a simple but authoritative ‘OK’.

His only instruction was to ‘let the picture breathe”.

Now that the front page visual was settled, he got himself entangled in another debate about whether there should be a period at the end of the headline: We mourn.

If dirty looks could kill, I would have died a thousand times that night. But by then, I was too tired and too elated to care.

When I strolled into the newsroom the next morning, the publisher congratulated me on a page that was differently powerful. We were sold out and feedback from our circulation colleagues was that readers preferred our paper over the others.

Scott had only one complaint, “You should have given even more white space.” But I knew it was a compliment in itself, for he chose to do this in front of people who had opposed my choice.

If journalism is truly a public service and not a profit-driven business, I received the best affirmation in the form of messages left on my voice mail. There were various requests for reprints of the firefighter picture from individuals as well as civic groups.

I called Franklin’s newsroom in Bergen County, New Jersey, to thank him for a wonderful picture but he had gone out to the scene to make more pictures. His boss told me that their phones were ringing non-stop with all kinds of requests.

I walked out of The Sun newsroom for the last time the next day, sad in general, but proud that I had fought and won this vital battle.

Scott was so moved by Franklin’s picture that he wrote an editorial a few days later.

A few months later, Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St Petersburg, Florida, selected the page I designed as one of the 10 best pages for September 11. The other winners included the all-important New York Times.

Franklin’s picture was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for spot news photography. In my opinion, he should have won but the jurors elected to award to a body of works instead for one singular image.

It was definitely a good way to end my newspaper career.

The column first appeared in Grain Magazine.