BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the eve of the fifth anniversary of September 11th, 2001, we've heard references in every medium to the events of that day, right down to a new Al Qaeda tape featuring the 9/11 hijackers. CNN is even offering a complete replay of that day's programming online. But though many note that it's been five years since 9/11, it may be more accurate to say that actually it's been five years of 9/11 – that is, of the ensuing wars, bitterly divisive politics and widely fluctuating appraisals of the press. We spoke to then-CNN anchor Aaron Brown on the first anniversary of 9/11, and he called it a defining moment for his generation of reporters.
AARON BROWN (Tape): We had waited a long time, I think, for that moment. Our generation had been defined by O.J. and Princess Diana, and we proved that we were very much prepared to handle the biggest story of our lives. I'm incredibly proud of my business on 9/11 and in the days and weeks and mostly the months afterward.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But how about the years afterwards? I asked this week if he still felt the same.
AARON BROWN: [SIGHS] I didn't think that the program did a terrible job on the buildup to the war, but I'd kind of like that one again a little bit. I would absolutely have liked to then – and I said this whenever we talked last – I think the issues surrounding the Patriot Act are important. I'm not one of those people that thinks it's all terrible, or, frankly, I'm not one of those people who thinks it's all good. What I am is one of those people who thinks that you can't know if it's all terrible and all good unless you really look at it. I'd like that again. I'd like to lay it out. Here's what it is. Here's exactly what it allows. Here's what government can do today without a warrant. Here's what it can do tomorrow.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And when you talk about the run-up to war, you're basically talking about a closer examination of the evidence and the pretext for going to war presented by the White House?
AARON BROWN: Yeah. I think so. I mean, I actually think the mistakes that I made there had more to do with how I played the stories. It's not that people who were skeptical of whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction got an airing, because, in fact, they did. I'm not sure it was presented as clearly as I wish it had been.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And why do you think that is?
AARON BROWN: Oh, you know, I don't know. Because I'm not as good as I wish I was. The one thing I don't think is true is the thing that people think is true, which is that we were cowed or afraid. I do think that we, because broadcast tends to do this, we were chasing New York Times stories – a lot. But we were also chasing the inspectors and listening to the inspectors. I'm just not convinced that I played that balance – not we, not CNN, not the media – that Aaron played that balance as well as he should have.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there a big lesson here for journalists in the way these past five years have been covered?
AARON BROWN: I'm certain there are, there's -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
AARON BROWN: - not a lesson; that there are lots of lessons. The one that, you know, sort of being a bit outsided now and looking in, which is a kind of interesting perspective, is that, you know, every day those of us who think of ourselves as reporters need to wake up and almost literally look in the mirror and remind ourselves what it is that a democratic society requires of its press. This isn't a popularity contest. We are there to do serious work, keep governments honest, keep entities honest. And just because a terrible thing has happened, you don't get to walk away from it. You need to keep pushing. But reporters can't separate themselves from their life experiences, and I think that's what happened is that we a little bit lost sight of the basic function because we were hurt also. Our country was also attacked. And I know that that affected coverage, and it's not to our credit that it did. It just did. I think people get this. I think most of us know. And most of us would like a do-over, in truth, on this, and perhaps if it were to play out again, we would handle it differently. But, you know, that's not how life works. You don't get a do-over.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Aaron, thank you very much.
AARON BROWN: Always good to talk to you. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Aaron Brown was CNN's news anchor in 2001. This is On the Media from NPR.