No producer could have staged the horror for television more dramatically. By crashing the first hijacked jetliner into the World Trade Center Tower 1 at rush hour, the terrorists caught the attention of TV stations' morning traffic helicopters ringing Manhattan island. Those choppers were well-positioned to deliver live pictures a few minutes later as the second passenger jet plowed into Tower 2.
As the twin towers stood for their final hour, television crews had time to capture images of frightened evacuees pouring through the streets, trapped office workers clinging to the outside of the buildings and—most chillingly—terrified jumpers choosing to plunge to their deaths rather than face the 2,000-degree flames consuming the upper floors. And finally, TV captured the New York City icons' slow collapse into the streets.
Most bombings, plane crashes or disasters have TV rushing to the scene after the fact. The attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was made for TV.
"Terrorism has become an act of mass communications," said Joan Deppa, a communications professor at Syracuse University's Newhouse School, who authored a book on the media and Pan Am Flight 103, downed by terrorists in Scotland. The second plane, she said, was "meant to crash in front of us. The first plane that came in … was to get the attention of the media."
That it did. Camera crews rushed to the rooftops (CNN has the best vantage point), and reporters, generally based in midtown Manhattan, rushed downtown, sometimes without their crews.
With traffic instantly gridlocked, CNNfn's Allan Dodds Frank ran into the subway station beneath the network's Manhattan bureau, finding three other CNNers doing the same. When the subway stopped over a mile short of the Wall Street area, they ran on foot.
Fox News morning anchor Jon Scott, a self-described "wannabe pilot" who carries aviation magazines in his briefcase, was overwhelmed. "The details were coming so fast, the information was coming so fast," he said. "Who'd figure you'd hit the World Trade Center twice, then the Pentagon and then a report of another plane crashing in Pennsylvania?"
Joel Cheatwood, vice president, news, for the CBS-owned stations said the biggest challenge was "getting our arms around the magnitude of the story" and then staying focused.
The logistics of coverage became the immense, immediate challenge. WCBS had a satellite truck within blocks of the towers that was running low on fuel. The dilemma: If it went to refuel, the authorities wouldn't let it back in position, but then, cops weren't going to let anyone bring a canister of fuel within miles of the deadly terrorist attack. The outcome: CBS negotiated a refueling.
Considering the wall-to-wall coverage, radio and television reporting was remarkably informative, maybe even calming. But there were mistakes, too. ABC, MSNBC and Fox reported that a car bomb had exploded outside the State Department in Washington. CNN apologized for identifying Adnan Bukhari, of Vero Beach, Fla., as a suspected pilot of one of the hijacked planes when, indeed, he was still in Florida.
When police detained 10 people at New York airports Thursday night, stations widely and falsely reported that some were armed with knives. And many networks reported on Wednesday that the official toll from the Pentagon fire would be around 800; the actual number, whenever it is finally determined, will be hundreds fewer than that.
In Baltimore, WBFF-TV asserted that local men believed to be "mid-level players" in the attacks were being questioned Wednesday night by local police, although police said they had told the station's reporter beforehand that he had bad information and that the men were merely questioned and dismissed.
New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani Friday slammed the media, saying that false reports of survivors can play with the emotions of people with missing family and send rescue workers on fruitless chases. "Some of it can be very dangerous and emotionally damaging," he said. A fire official scolded reporters for talking to fatigued firefighters for information rather than getting it through official sources.
And far away from the scene, the AP found itself in a tense situation with the Palestinian authorities. A free-lance photographer who captured images of Palestinians celebrating the attacks was apprehended by officials and told the material must not air. Phone calls in the name of the Tanzim Militia, an armed group associated with Yassar Arafat's Fatah group, made threats on his life, and Arafat's cabinet secretary said the Palestinian Authority could not "guarantee the life" of the cameraman if the footage was shown. As a result AP didn't release the footage.
AT THE BEGINNING
Last Tuesday would have been a hot news day even without the terror.
"We were lucky that we had a primary day and we are beginning to train for the new facility, so everyone was in and we prohibited vacation," said Steve Paulus, senior vice president and general manager, NY1, New York's all-news cable channel operated by AOL Time Warner.
Shortly after the crash, local stations began calling up reinforcements from co-owned stations outside the market. WNBC-TV, for example, called in reporters and crews from sister stations in Philadelphia, Providence and the Hartford-New Haven markets. WNBC-TV News Director Dianne Doctor summoned in-studio production personnel from outside markets to give relief to her troops.
NY1 pulled in reporters from a similar Time Warner Cable operation in Tampa.
At the Pentagon, first on the scene was the Associated Press mainly because AP Radio reporter Dave Winslow lives across the street from the Defense Department headquarters. He looked out his window and saw the plane plow into the building. He called in to AP, confirmed what had happened, and went immediately on air.
Simultaneously, Eugenio Hernandez, an AP video journalist, was driving by the Pentagon and saw the plane crashing. He borrowed a tourist's video camera and began shooting.
One problem with covering the collapse of New York City's tallest buildings is that critical radio, cellular and microwave links were housed there.
"All our communication devices were on top of the World Trade Center," said Dan Forman, news director for WABC-TV. "We couldn't use two-way radio, no cell phones. We were able to use Nextel, a kind of half-way house between two-way radio and telephone service."
Because CNN lost its microwave facility, it was forced to set up a temporary receiver on the roof of its New York headquarters (and use a series of portable transmitters on the street). "We'd never had to do this before, but desperate times call for desperate measures," said Barclay Palmer, an executive producer.
Reporters for Washington's all-news WTOP(AM) moved immediately to the Pentagon but couldn't get through on their cell phones to file reports. So they typed out text messages on pagers, which anchors read on the air.
And, of course, Tower 1, the first hit, hosted the broadcast tower for the city's major TV stations, knocking them off the air, except for WCBS-TV, which had a backup transmitter on the Empire State Building (see story, page 20). Most stations are hardwired into local cable systems, so their coverage was never interrupted and many viewers never noticed.
COOPERATION IN CRISIS
Even non-news cable networks switched to news. Disney-owned ESPN dropped sports on Tuesday and picked up ABC's feed. Similarly, Viacom networks MTV, VH-1 and TNN ran sister network CBS's feed. Oxygen and some Time Warner Cable systems around the country picked up AOL Time Warner's NY1. TLC took a feed from the BBC. Shopping networks QVC and the Product Information Network, along with HGTV, suspended programming, with notes onscreen explaining their deference to the disaster and recommending viewers tune to news outlets.
Nielsen Media Research estimated that 79.5 million viewers were tuned in between 8 and 11 p.m. watching ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel, CNBC, MSNBC or CNN Headline News (or TBS or TNT, which were also carrying CNN reporting). By comparison, this year's Super Bowl drew 86 million viewers.
Nielsen said the level of homes using television jumped about 13% nationally.
In New York, just over 76% of households were tuned to coverage while almost 74% of Washington-area homes were tuned in.
On cable, CNN proved that, for all its recent ratings problems, viewers turn to it in a crisis. The network averaged a 5.5 cable household rating Tuesday, vs. 2.9 for Fox News and 2.1 for MSNBC.
Few were paying attention to ratings at the broadcast networks, which spent the week as 24-hour news networks. They planned to return to their entertainment schedules last Saturday night.
National radio networks—including ABC Radio and Westwood One-syndicated CNNRadio and Fox News Radio—sent their feeds out to any station that wanted it. ABC radio and TV reporter Ann Compton was traveling with the president Tuesday and filed reports for all broadcast operations.
In Washington, NBC's coverage, along with its owned station and market leader WRC-TV's reporting, was replayed on eight Clear Channel Communications radio stations in the area, the result of a business relationship between the two entities.
As the story broke, all the major TV news organizations, at the suggestion of veteran 60 Minutes
producer Don Hewitt, agreed to share all video footage and satellite feeds, agreeing that it was more important to get information out than to compete. The agreement expired after the second day.
The agreement did not preclude labeling video as "exclusive." About 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, CBS ran video it had obtained exclusively that showed an astonishing, clear view of the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center, as anchor Dan Rather apologized for the profanity aired in the raw footage. Similarly, ABC News aired compelling, exclusive footage of one of the tower collapses from a street-level view, but made the video available to all.
ALL TOO REAL
In New York, the hour delay between the attack and the buildings' collapse turned the Trade Center towers into a time bomb. Just as they swallowed fire fighters racing inside, the crumbling towers threatened to engulf journalists standing on the streets.
Harold Dow, correspondent for CBS's 48 Hours,
was almost wiped out by smoke and debris. He ran into a subway station and into a shoe repair shop for shelter.
"Maybe we were a bit cavalier about going through a restricted area," said CNBC business anchor Ron Insana, who normally works at the network's New Jersey headquarters. In lower Manhattan for a breakfast meeting, he had to duck into an unlocked parked car to escape debris from the first tower collapse.
CBS News correspondent Carol Marin narrowly survived a fireball explosion as one of the towers collapsed. She was at the scene midmorning looking for a CBS News crew on her cell phone. Suddenly, the phone went dead, and a fireball erupted in the wake of huge explosion. A New York City fighter grabbed her and smashed her against a building. "I could feel his heartbeat," she recalled later. She was then passed off to a policeman, and the pair made their way through black smoke that covered lower Manhattan like nightfall. Finally, she reached a paramedic truck and was given oxygen and taken away from the scene. She wasn't hurt seriously but recounted to a colleague that "it was the closest I've ever come to death." She later discussed her experience on the air with Rather.
"We're lucky not to have lost anybody on the ground," said WNBC-TV General Manager Dennis Swanson. "One of our cameramen, Jeff Scarborough, was shooting pictures when the towers came down. He's a Vietnam veteran, and he said it was worse than anything he'd seen over there. We ordered our people on the ground to get out. There were several close calls."
WABC-TV's N.J. Burkett was doing a standup not far from the World Trade Center, just before the first tower collapsed. "Our camera tilted up to show the tower, and it just blows. We heard a boom and then a rumble; firemen were screaming to get out. I said, 'We got to get out of here.' It's all on camera. We ran, and we kept on running until we felt secure. We went into an office building. What's haunting me today are the dozens, if not hundreds, of people who were standing with us. I think a lot of them were buried. And what if the doors of that office building were closed?"
Even grizzled journalists had to overcome the shock of the tragedy itself. At the same time they were covering the horrific story, some reporters had to deal with their own grief as it became clear that friends had been killed in the terrorist attack.
"Five of my friends died, and one is missing," said WNBC-TV reporter Scott Weinberger. "A lot of us are in this situation where we're dealing with our personal feelings but doing our jobs at the same time." He broke several stories last week as events unfolded, including one about the Iraqi Embassy's attempt to finalize a large insurance policy for a building located in Virginia not far from the Pentagon.
People from other departments were also pitching in. WNBC-TV Program Director Adele Rifkin was manning the phones and, at one point, found herself on the phone with a witness at "ground zero." The woman was hysterical, imploring Rifkin to call ambulances to the scene, where people were jumping from or tumbling off the two towers. "She kept saying 'Oh my God, there goes another one,'" Rifkin recalled a day later.
Journalists eventually treasure their war stories. But NY1's Paulus worries about the effects of the World Trade Center terrorist attack.
"The blessing has been that we've been so busy working that we haven't been able to focus on what happened," he said. "I'm concerned that we have very young staff members who saw some very horrible sights. We have kids who saw dead bodies and people jumping out of windows."
But veteran reporters weren't immune, either. "One of our field producers who has been in the business for 32 years walked into the newsroom," Paulus said, "and burst into tears." Last week, that producer wasn't alone. —Written by John M. Higgins