After Sept. 11

By staff November 1, 2001

On Sept. 11, Robert Plunket, who writes our humorous gossip column, "Mr. Chatterbox," was at Sarasota's Booker Elementary School with President Bush and his entourage. Through a quirky combination of circumstances, he had been offered press credentials from the White House to join the Presidential tour through Florida. After we all stopped laughing at the idea of Bob, with his deadpan humor and air of fussy bewilderment, hanging out with the real reporters from the New York Times and CNN, we decided it would make a cute story. So we sent him off with a borrowed cell phone (so he could pass for legit on the press plane) and stern admonishments to wear a coat and tie. Our light-hearted story, of course, instantly disappeared into the maelstrom of that day's events; and when Bob and photographer Rebecca Baxter, who had accompanied him to Booker, came running into our offices in horror, we turned down the radio we were huddled around to ask them about the President's reaction and plans. This happened shortly before press time for this issue; we've replaced Bob's "Mr. Chatterbox" and our "Limelight" photos with his account of watching what he describes as the last day of cheery, buoyant optimism for the President-and the rest of us.

A lifestyle magazine like this one rarely gets even such a peripheral view of unfolding world events; and in the aftermath of that cataclysmic day, our usual concerns, from selling ads for luxury real estate to photographing glamorous people at black-tie parties, suddenly seemed very insignificant indeed. A few days after the attacks, I heard David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, voice a similar reaction. He had pulled all the cartoons and the back-page humor column from the next issue, he said; but beyond that, he predicted that future issues would focus on more serious stories than the political sex scandals that, "to our everlasting shame," have obsessed us all so long.

If such a weighty national magazine questions its coverage, what about us, with our pretty images of upscale consumption and lifestyle? As the bright expression of a city that basks in warmth, wealth, security, ease and leisure, we tend to focus on pleasure and entertainment rather than somber soul-searching.

And yet, like every magazine, newspaper and radio or television station, we're also about connection and community-values that have never seemed more vital than they do right now. We connect our readers with each other and with our city, and on our pages, a vision of Sarasota emerges. In easy times or tough times, we can reflect and express what this community stands for and cares about, and that's a mission-and privilege-we take more seriously than ever now.

I thought I treasured America's freedom of the press, but only now do I realize how we depend on it. Reeling with loss and confusion, we were all beyond comfort; but there was no one I would rather have spent that first terrible week with than the people that television, newspapers and NPR brought to me, from world leaders and political scholars to novelists, priests and ordinary men and women across the world expressing their grief and support.

In those first, frenzied days after the disaster, the press kept us informed and kept us together. It brought us voices of our leaders, voices of information and voices of inspiration. Most urgently of all, it brought us the voices of the victims, in those final calls that people made to those they loved. Like you, I'm sure, I will be forever haunted by those last, tenuous threads of human connection-"I'm scared we won't get out"; "Take care of our daughters"; "You are my best friend and I know you'll look after everyone"; "We're going to do something to stop them" and over and over, "I love you." It was harrowing and heartbreaking, but even as we sobbed, we had to listen-to witness. It was the press that gave us that terrible privilege and that bound us all together, the doomed and the living, as fellow humans and countrymen.

Freedom of speech, freedom of artistic expression, freedom of the press. Those freedoms, so painful when there's so much pain to witness, are the bedrock of every form of journalism in America, and of our society itself. We understand that now, and we will not forget it.

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