BOB GARFIELD: Welcome back to On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. If we were doing an installment of our Word Watch series this week, the word unquestionably would be "War." War is widely applied to situations that are military, policy and personal. Recently it's been used in all those contexts. On the first day, even before President Bush invoked the word, "War" played heavily in the headlines of many newspapers. But not in all of them.
For instance the New York Times headline on Wednesday said: U.S. Attacked. But USA Today, the self-styled nation's newspaper ran with: 'Acts of War.' David Colton is page one editor of USA Today and he explained how the decision was made.
DAVID COLTON:That evening we obviously decided to go big and bold with the most dramatic photo we could, and we found a photo of the Trade Center being hit by the second plane, and one of the night editors wrote up a headline that said An Act of War, and we had a long debate about it -- because "an act of war" obviously is an official act. There hasn't been a declaration of war since World War II.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Were there any dissents to--?
DAVID COLTON:Yeah, there were-- I wasn't even completely sold on it. You know I said it, it feels a little jingoistic. It feels a little -- us taking a viewpoint. It's obviously an act of terrorism, but an act of war is -- has some political content to it. And we discussed putting quotes around it because a lot of people in town were saying that - there were certainly plenty of senators saying that it was tantamount to an act of war. And our USA Today/CNN Gallup Poll came in during this discussion, and one of the questions we had asked is: Do you consider this an act of war, and 86 percent of the public had said yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But when you put quotes around it the suggestion was you were quoting an official who would be in a position to make that determination, not just the public or some random senator somewhere who was using some political rhetoric.
DAVID COLTON:Well, all those objections I think fade in the common sense fact of what had happened, and we decided to put single quote marks around it, attributed to both our poll and the sentiment in Washington and go with it, and-- when the President woke up the next morning and spoke to the nation and said this is not act-- these are not acts of terrorism; these are acts of war -- I think that kind of, you know, just showed the common sense reality of what the situation was.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Do you think if the poll that had 86 percent of the people citing the acts as acts of war against the United States, if that poll had cited say 30 percent, do you think you still would have used the headline?
DAVID COLTON:Maybe not. Maybe not. I think the poll was a very good indicator of the-- the common sense of the country I think, and I don't think anyone woke up the next day and thought we are at war with someone. They knew that there was an act of war committed on the country. We have been careful not to go with figs- or promos that say: America at War which-- if you look at TV, America's New War is what CNN is doing. A lot of us - a lot of the media is using it in a more generic way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:When Rumsfeld was asked if this was an act of war he fudged a bit. He said that it was a vicious, well-coordinated, a massive attack against the United States. What words the lawyers will use we'll characterize it for them, and then the questioner went on to say so does this mean the U.S. is at war then?
And-- he wasn't ready to answer that question, the secretary of defense. We know that a headline is there to grab a person's attention. On the Wednesday in question, of course you didn't need a headline to grab anybody's attention.
So do you think the purpose of the headline has changed?
DAVID COLTON:I just think we had to capture the moment of what had happened in a non-tabloid way, and I think we, we perfectly captured what happened. There's a striking photo of the Trade Centers that is not overly gruesome. The page is full of information. And the Act of War in quotes backed up by reporting in the paper and public sentiment I think is a perfectly valid headline. We're really proud of that front page.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Colton, thank you very much.
DAVID COLTON: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Colton is the page one editor of USA Today. [MUSIC]