Minute by Minute with the Broadcast News

By Jill Geisler
Group Leader, Leadership
11 September 2001

As I pack my suitcase for the Radio-TV News Directors convention, I reach for my customary morning TV news fix. I see video of disfigured World Trade Center towers. Forget packing. This former news director needs to see broadcast journalism perform at what should be its highest levels.

I grab a notebook. All my times are approximate and in Central time as I watch, switch, and scribble.

8:20 am. All networks show wide shots of the earliest damage. Fox News relies on video from local New York stations WABC and WCBS.

CNBC is talking over its NBC video with an eyewitness, a reporter from The Wall Street Journal. Anchors quote a “senior government official “ who says “one or both planes may have been hijacked for suicide missions.”

All networks show static, long distance shots of the towers. No one has yet to send video from the ground level near the buildings.

8:22 ABC: Peter Jennings refers to “what now becomes a rescue mission,” adding “there was no warning, no intelligence whatsoever” about this event.

8:29 NBC reports the President will speak soon from Sarasota. National correspondent Jamie Gangel, in a phoner, reports that her sources tell her “this is clearly terrorist related.” Matt Lauer and Katie Couric talk about two planes that hit the towers, referring to first as a 757 air bus that had been en route from Boston to Los Angeles, the second as a 737.

All networks cut to the President´s brief address from Sarasota. Most display in him in split screen, showing live video of the WTC at the same time.

ABC´s Peter Jennings describes the president as “clearly shaken.”

A Fox anchor ad libs about the President´s interrupted visit with children at a school, “Perhaps a little education worldwide would prevent this kind of thing.” Correspondent Rita Cosby talks about Osama Bin Laden, reporting there had been recent warnings for travelers heading abroad about potential terrorist threats.

NBC interviews former State Department terrorist expert Larry Johnson, who says he wants to be cautious about connecting the event to terrorists, but “I would be inclined to say that´s the case.”

I note that with the exception of the President, we haven´t seen faces of people who are speaking. Directors in booths everywhere understand the compelling nature of the pictures and our need to keep seeing them. Not only are people tuning in to the coverage every moment, but the story is in progress and nothing tells this story more clearly than the video.

8:38 Fox News reports the Nasdaq and New York Stock Exchanges have not opened. Anchors speak with a Wall Street Journal reporter by phone. His office is across the street from the World Trade Center. He describes hearing what sounded like a sonic boom. Fifteen minutes ago, he says, bodies started dropping from the World Trade Center. He says he saw 5 or 6 people who he believes leaped to their deaths.

CBS is showing the video of the second airplane hitting the second tower, running it in slow motion as Bryant Gumbel talks with James Kallstrom, who headed the FBI investigation into the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

8:41 NBC cuts to correspondent Jim Miklaszewski, who reports from the Pentagon that the building just shook and he sees construction workers scattering from the area. “It appears to be a small blast. Windows rattled. The building shook.” He promises more details as soon as he can gather them. “Please be careful,” urges Katie Couric.

8:42 ABC´s Clair Shipman reports smoke coming from behind the Old Executive Office Building. There is video of the smoke, from a camera position near Lafayette Park. No definitive word on what we are seeing.

NBC´s Miklaszewski is back with word that the Pentagon is being cleared. “This appears to be a highly sophisticated, coordinated attack.”

CBS reports from the Pentagon that the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine has claimed responsibility for the acts.

8:44 ABC reports a fire at the Pentagon and evacuation of personnel.

CBS reports all airports, tunnels, and bridges in New York are closed.

NBC´s “Mik” reports pandemonium in the hallways at the Pentagon.

CBS says the Pentagon bombing was a plane attack.

Fox reports that the Pentagon incident involved another large airliner, perhaps hijacked.

8:45 Tom Brokaw has joined in NBC´s coverage, reviewing the events to the moment, as the network shows both the wide views of the towers and D.C. and early pictures from the ground in New York.

I note several things. All network reporters are being cautious in their choice of words as well as their tone. They are serious, professional, and appear careful not to panic people. I note that Fox News´s cluttered graphic treatment makes their coverage difficult to watch. Too much design in the way of the story.

8:52 All networks report that airplane takeoffs nationwide have been canceled. Planes in the air have been diverted.

8:54 Fox reports that the Pentagon event may have been a helicopter crash. ABC reports the United Nations is ordered evacuated. Debris is falling onto the street from the World Trade Center. There is a call for help to pick people off the roof of the World Trade Center. From the Pentagon--an eyewitness report that a plane crashed near the Pentagon and there appears to be a fire in the courtyard. Quotes an AP report saying a U.S. official says “One of two planes hijacked after takeoff from Boston was American flight number 11 for Los Angeles” Jennings, clearly concerned, says “I realize we are going to put the fear of God into the West Coast and a lot of people waiting for that flight.” Jennings is having problems knowing which of several video feeds are being shown to viewers--calmly, politely, he asks his crew to give him the information he needs.

I think about the value of professional, well-informed, well-known anchors and reporters. When you hear the voices of journalists you recognize and respect, you view with greater confidence, if not comfort. I note that despite the gravity of the story, the likelihood of it being a terrorist attack, that there is no jingoism in the delivery of this news.

9 am NBC reports a spokesman for the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine denies responsibility. Tom Brokaw notes that in situations like this, there are always “claims and counter-claims.”

CBS reports the Sears Tower has been evacuated in Chicago. Dan Rather has joined the coverage. During a morning filled with video instead of anchor faces, we get Dan full frame saying, “There is much that is not known. The word for the day is ‘steady.´”

ABC shows video of the southern tower of the WTC folding , noting it happened just moments ago. “My God, “ says Jennings, “We´re talking about massive casualties.” Jennings begins to speculate that in order to demolish a building, there must be detonation at its base. He seems to be suggesting further bombs. Reporter Don Dahler steps in to change the direction of the thinking, “The top part was totally involved…the weight at the top collapsed the building…there was no explosion at the bottom.”

Jennings invokes Pearl Harbor…and massive casualties. Dahler reports hearing rescue workers on radios screaming for help at the triage center.

9:06 NBC talks about “a real breakdown of anti-terrorism” efforts in the U S. CBS´s Harold Dow is breathless as he reports from a subway station around the corner of the fallen tower. He describes the scene from which he just escaped as “surreal and devastating.” Rather asks if the building came down. “Yes,” is the painfully obvious reply.

9:10 ABC reports it was a plane that crashed into the Pentagon.

Fox News goes to reporter Rick Leventhol on the ground near the collapsed tower. He cannot hear the Fox anchors, so he just talks. Talks about the victims with soot and dust covered faces headed his way. Tries to talk with some. Asks a man in fir fighting gear, “What´s your assignment?” He gets a two word reply: “Help people.”

9:16 CBS´s Jim Stewart in Washington reports the House and Senate are shut down. Metro police are on full alert. All flights grounded. The FBI offices are open.

I remind myself that I have been raptly monitoring ABC, NBC, CB,S and Fox…what about other outlets?

9:20 CNN Headline news has changed from its ultra-busy graphics to streamlined information about the event. Reports that the Capitol, State Department, and Treasury Department have been closed. The West Wing of the White House has been cleared due to a “credible terrorist threat.”

MSNBC has ground footage, taped outside the Pentagon. Interview with an MSNBC.com employee by phone, with an eyewitness account of what now seems like old news about the initial crash.

9:25 On ABC, Peter Jennings says “I´m still confused about what caused the building to collapse,” over powerful, close up video of the first tower breaking apart and falling. Jennings notes that “the other tower is leaning. Fire is spreading downward.” There is concern about the safety of rescue workers at the scene. Says, Jennings: ”New York firefighters have a reputation for staying until the very end.”

9:30 NBC has ground level video. Lauer and Couric talk about the rubble following the bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City. “Mik” reports that security officials have evacuated the entire area around the State Department following reports of a car bomb outside the department. He says another plane has been reported hijacked and is 20-25 miles outside Washington D.C., headed for D.C. Reports Donald Rumsfeld refused to leave the State Department. Admiral Clark was taken to an alternate command site.

Another hijacked plane headed to D.C.? I think about the people on board. So far, in all of this reporting, we have seen buildings, and dust…and only a few people. This has been a “macro” view so far. I think about the thousands of personal stories that must be told.

9:32 ABC reports that an American Airlines headed from Dulles to LA was hijacked, with 60 passengers and crew on board. Jennings reads an AP report of an car bomb outside the State Department.

MSNBC is checking hospitals, including those in New Jersey that are poised to take in victims.

CNN is carrying video from WNYW in New York--the remaining tower is falling. “Good Lord,” says correspondent Aaron Brown, “There are no words.”

9:35 Over video of the second collapse, NBC´s Tom Brokaw says “The profile of the United States has changed. Terrorists have declared war on the United States.”

Fox reports a hijacked plane is headed to Washington and military aircraft have circled the capital.

NBC reports a huge, gaping hole in a Pentagon wall.

CBS shows one of the shots I will never forget. It is a wide, wide aerial view from the harbor. The Statue of Liberty stands proud and strong in the foreground. Behind her, Manhattan--all of it--is shrouded in smoke.

9:36 ABC is showing video from ground zero near the WTC. People are walking toward the Brooklyn Bridge exit. The air is gray. People are covered with ash and dust, cell phones at their ears.

9:40 Fox reports it was US Air flight 737 that crashed into the south end of the Pentagon. At the bottom of the screen, the super reads “Hijacked plane now en route to D.C.” Fox is relying on video from local ABC affiliate WJLA in Washington.

On CBS, Rather describes the story aptly as “A well-orchestrated orgy of terrorism” as we again see the unforgettable harbor view of the event.

NBC shows and describes people fleeing from the second building collapse, from a ground vantage point 10 blocks from the WTC,. “Emergency workers are coming out stunned, “ says the reporter, “struggling for breath, with breathing problems….emergency workers had to get out to survive…now they are trying to regroup and go back in.”

And that´s when I witness the second signature scene of the morning. Two firemen in full gear reach to one another. They embrace. This is, after all, a story about human lives.

9:50 Fox has slapped a label on its coverage “Day of Terror.”

CBS reporter Byron Pitts is with a New York firefigher. Over video of the chaos, we are allowed to listen in as the firefigher talks by phone to his wife. He tells her he is all right.

9:55 ABC reports there is no car bomb at the State Department. On CBS, Rather quotes Edward R. Murrow: “No one can terrorize a whole nation unless we all are accomplices.”

NBC reports that Osama Bin Laden may have predicted this event three weeks ago when he warned there would be a future terrorist event.

CBS labels its coverage “Attack on America.”

10:20 Fox reports US Air says all its planes are accounted for, contrary to earlier Fox reports.

10:21 NBC reports live from outside Stuyvesant High School near the World Trade Center. The area is being evacuated because of bomb threat.

I walk through every channel on my cable system and see how other media outlets have responded:

ShopNBC is carrying MSNBC coverage, reporting 156 lives on two American Airlines planes have been lost. There is a message on screen: “In light of the tragedy that occurred this morning and the impact on each of us as American citizens and particularly those who have been directly affected either in person or by family and friend, we here at ShopNBC have temporarily suspended programming…..” The Shop at Home Network, the Home Shopping Network, and QVC also suspend programming. Onscreen messages direct viewers to turn to “your news channel.”

TBS is carrying CNN coverage.
TNT is carrying CNN coverage.
CSPAN2 is running the live broadcast of Washington CBS affiliate WUSA.
Univision is has a statement about the tragedy from Mexican President Vicente Fox.
ESPN2 shows ABC live coverage.
FX is running Fox News live coverage.
Court TV is covering the story.
VH1 is broadcasting coverage from WCBS, the local New York O&O, instead of its originally scheduled program “Rock and Roll Jeopardy.”

I continue to shift from channel to channel for the latest information. It is nearly 11 am and I need to file this report.

Before I stop taking notes, I check another channel: The Eternal Word Network.

The religious haven is running an old, taped program.

They should have been live today.

 

© Copyright 2001 The Poynter Institute. Reprinted by permission from http://www.poynter.org.

In accordance with The Copyright Law of the United States of America, Chapter 1, § 108(b)(3), this work may be protected by copyright.


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