Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Major detour on the road to a Pulitzer Prize

English: World Trade Center, New York, aerial ...
World Trade Center, New York, aerial view March 2001.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every time I looked up from my seat on the news copy desk, the black column of smoke rising from the ruins of the World Trade Center was framed in the tall window of The Record's fourth-floor newsroom in Hackensack.

I had worked until 12:30 a.m. and had slept through the suicide attacks, but when I awakened at 10:30 on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, there was an answering machine message from an editor to come in right away. I got to work at 11:45 a.m. and helped put out an 8-page extra with a bold, front-page headline over a photo of the buildings in flames: "Terror Hits Home." Then we turned our attention to a special 32-page section with no advertising for the next day's paper.

This was the biggest story of my life and the biggest for everyone else at The Record, including the new editor, Frank Scandale, who shared a Pulitzer Prize the Denver Post won for coverage of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. The atmosphere in The Record's newsroom on 9/11 was electric, with everyone walking around and talking to each other, rather than using the Atex message system we usually relied on.

As afternoon turned into evening, chief photographer Rich Gigli reviewed the images sent in by his photographers and those from other sources. Manhattan's Twin Towers, smoking, on fire or with an explosion of flames as one of the passenger jets tore inside, predominated. At 8:30 that night, he finally saw a photo different from all the rest, the one he had been waiting for all day -- three firemen defiantly raising the American flag above the rubble only hours after the attacks -- and it came from one of his best photographers, Thomas E. Franklin.

He raced out into the newsroom and ran into a wall. Even though Franklin's exclusive photo on Page 1 of The Record would be unique, even though it would advance the story and even though it would make the small Hackensack daily stand out among worldwide competition, the editors told Gigli it would be too expensive to remake the front page. In a monumental error of news judgment, The Record's editors put money before journalism, relegating this extraordinary image to a back page.

Some observers think that decision doomed Franklin's chance of winning a Pulitzer, the most prestigious prize in journalism; indeed, he was only a finalist in 2002.

But other newspapers saw the value of the photo. It ran on the front page of the Oregonian in Portland, on the West Coast.

And the New York Post also ran Franklin's photo on its front page, without credit. The Today Show on NBC in New York did a piece on the photo, again without crediting The Record. Finally, on Friday, three days after the attacks, Gigli and Franklin appeared on Today to set the record straight.

When The Record decided to reprint the 8-page extra we put out on 9/11, Nancy Cherry, one of the news copy desk chiefs, announced to me and the other copy editors that the higher-ups told her the front-page photo caption, which misidentified which WTC tower was which, would not be corrected in the thousands of reprinted copies, because it would cost too much.

Life Magazine listed Franklin's image as one of the "100 Photographs That Changed the World," and the photo is part of the permanent collection of the Library of Congress.

In 2002, the United States Postal Service introduced the "Heroes" stamp, featuring the flag-raising photo. Proceeds from the stamp have raised over $10 million dollars to help families and rescue workers of 9/11. Also in 2002, an autographed original print signed by Franklin and the three firemen pictured in the photo sold for $89,625 at Christie's Auction House, with proceeds benefiting two 9/11 charities.

What role Scandale, editor of The Record, had in keeping the photo off Page 1 is unknown. But in the ensuing years, he launched coverage of 20-year-olds that failed, reduced the amount of local news in the paper and widened the rift between dayside (reporters and editors like himself) and nightside (news, layout and copy editors, the so-called production staff).

The Record asked 'Eye on The Record' to remove the flag-raising photo from this post.

Coming soon: Should The Record's editor be replaced?

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