Students and professors alike settled into the plush armchairs of the Connolly House on Wednesday evening for the journalism program’s first in-person event since the start of the pandemic.
At the front of the ornate Andover Room, framed by a stained glass window, Charles Sennott, founder and CEO of The GroundTruth Project, described the evening of the attacks on Sept. 11, when Congress stood arm-in-arm on the steps of the Capitol building and sang, “God Bless America.”
“It was a moment of watching our country’s leaders, Republicans and Democrats, coming together while our country was under attack,” Sennott said. “Go from that to Jan. 6, 2021, when people stormed the Capitol.”
In an event titled “9/11: Beyond Remembrance: Teach-In about the Global War on Terror,” Sennott spoke about his journey covering conflict in the Middle East and how the fear caused by the Sept. 11 attacks adversely affects America today.
He also emphasized the importance of “Ground Truth,” which, as coined by NASA, is when a person on the ground takes a measurement of the same thing as a satellite in the air. When the readings are in conflict, NASA says to trust the human reading.
“There are many truths in the world,” Sennott said. “But the truth you get by being on the ground, I think, is of the higher order because you see it and feel it and you bring it on.”
Early in his journalistic career, Sennott, then-police reporter for the New York Daily News, embarked on a 28-year-long reporting journey following his coverage of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
“Journalists have to think, why would they want to do that?” Sennott said. “Who are these guys? What were they trying to do? That journey led me to become The Boston Globe’s Middle East correspondent.”
Sennott continued to ask these questions for the next eight years, he said, often risking his life amid conflict in the Middle East.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Sennott was one of the first reporters on the ground in Afghanistan. Although the Taliban controlled the country at the time, he said he felt compelled to fulfill his journalistic duty in spite of the imminent danger.
“This is my role,” Sennott said. “I’m here to see what’s going on and report back to my community. And that service, it’s nowhere near as high a service as someone like a fireman or soldier defending our country, but I think it’s important, and often a task that requires courage. And I had courage, but I was also really afraid.”
Some fear can propel people to try to do good things, Sennott said.
“But then there’s fear that’s used to divide us,” Sennott said. “That’s how I ask you to go beyond remembrance into asking hard questions.”
Following the attacks on Sept. 11, politicians sold fear to the American people and divided them, he said. This fear also stems from America’s decision to launch its “War on Terror” following the attacks.
“We stop thinking how we can pull together,” Sennott said. “And we start thinking it’s us against them. I think it’s a powerful contagion … Suddenly, if you’re not part of the program, you’re against the program.”
Sennott also attributed the spread of fear to recent changes in journalism, which has strayed from grounded and personal stories crafted from the ground.
“I think there’s a kind of crisis of the soul in journalism, a sense of doubt in what we do,” Sennott said. “I think our task is to serve people by giving them enlightenment, forming them in working like hell to be fair, not partisan, not opinionated. Go at it by seeing what’s there on the ground and bring it home and tell people a story.”
Sennott founded The GroundTruth Project in 2014 to help achieve this goal. The organization aims to raise the next generation of journalists by placing them in underreported corners of the United States and the world, according to its website.
Sennott hopes this work will help to move journalism back in the right direction.
“I think journalism done well—journalism that is of service—is a binding agent for divided communities, pulling us together around a shared set of facts,” Sennott said. “If we’re doing it right, it should do that.”
Sennott encouraged the American people to be proactive in their pursuit of transforming the United States from a country of fear to one of courage.
“There is no monumental event which is going to happen,” Sennott said. “It is not coming. It is up to small acts of hard work and local journalism to unite this country again.”
Featured Image by Stephen Mooney / For The Heights