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One of journalism's finest hours. (Webbsite).

Gail Collins holds no public office or top corporate post, but ranks as one of America's most influential figures. As the first woman editor of the New York Times editorial page, she is a trailblazer. It's not surprising, then, that after a full day at the Times she works at home on a history of women. `I'm up to the 1920s now,' says Collins, author of two earlier books--one, Scorpion Tongues, on political gossip, the other, The Millennium Book, written with her husband, Dan Collins.

Supervising, coordinating and editing the work of 14 writers, Collins has a powerful influence on New York Times editorial policy. And because the Times is a major voice on US domestic and foreign policy, it is a must-read in chancelleries worldwide. Moreover, the Times is said to influence the content of other major media, including television. The newspaper thus shares enormous responsibility for the way the nation, and, to some degree, the world goes.

So I couldn't miss an opportunity to meet and hear Collins on a recent trip to her hometown, Cincinnati, Ohio. She spoke to the annual awards banquet of the Cincinnati chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, of which I was founding president in 1967. Part of her brief was to stress the essential public service print and broadcast journalists perform. She did this by driving home the dependency of democracy on a free and unfettered press and reviewing the Times' experience after 11 September 2001.

The Times won an unprecedented seven Pulitzer prizes (American journalism's highest awards) this year. It modelled the best of journalism with its post-11 September coverage. Times management gave its news and editorial teams carte blanche to do whatever it took in manpower and cost to bring readers the most complete, accurate and sensitive report possible. An ad-less section, for example, was cleared for coverage.

It was a decision far beyond the bottom line in one of journalism's finest hours. It came, moreover, at a time when most media organizations were hard hit by the economic recession.

On 10 June the New Yorker magazine profiled the Times' new executive editor, Howell Raines. `For its 12 September edition, the Times deployed some 300 reporters, 30 staff photographers, and two dozen freelance photographers,' wrote Ken Auletta. `There were 74 bylines accompanying 67 stories, filling 33 pages of a 96 page paper.'

In her Cincinnati talk, Collins said that whereas the paper normally receives 500 letters a day and publishes 20 `we were receiving 500 an hour after 9/11'. Prior to that tragic day, Collins said she and her colleagues had talked about how they might infuse their opinion pages with some lighter fare. `9/11 changed that,' she said.

But while hundreds of Times staffers became swiftly engaged in the story in different parts of the world, Collins was confined to her Manhattan office. It was not until Saturday 15 September that she was able to take a walk to get more of a feel for what had happened. For example, she went to Washington Square Park where people had put up posters symbolizing their grief. She also ran into US Senator Hillary Clinton whom she had covered and knew was now gripped by emotions far removed from anything political.

Seldom, if ever, has the word `change' been heard in America as much as since 11 September. We Americans have examined our lives and paid more attention to our government, religious institutions and, yes, the press than perhaps at any time in history. In her new post, Collins can help Americans and decision-makers worldwide find their way toward a brighter, safer, less-violent future--a path that calls for change in our attitudes, motivations and relations with all our neighbours near or far.

Robert Webb is a former columnist and editorial writer for the `Cincinnati Enquirer'. He lives in Alexandria, Va, USA.
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Author:Webb, Robert
Publication:For A Change
Date:Aug 1, 2002
Words:643
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