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American Journalism Review
Heartfelt Words About an Unforgettable Tragedy  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   May 2002

Heartfelt Words About an Unforgettable Tragedy   

Covering Catastrophe: How Broadcast Journalists Reported September 11, 2001

Edited by Allison Gilbert, Phil Hirschkorn, Melinda Murphy, Robyn Walensky and Mitchell Stephens

Bonus Books 303 pages; $24.95

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


When planes hit the World Trade Center last September 11, Tom Brokaw was stepping into the shower, Dan Rather was stepping out, and dozens of other East Coast broadcasters were chugging down orange juice, herding the kids to school or easing into the workday.

"We were discussing important issues, like Mariah Carey's rehab," recalled WPIX executive producer Wilson Surratt. "It was so beautiful outside."

"It was my birthday," said ABC producer Barbara Starr. "I made the critical mistake of wearing high heels."

Within minutes, normalcy disintegrated into a horror that seemed unspeakable, yet for these broadcasters required speaking. It meant uttering the unutterable, even in a near-panic for family, friends and personal safety. It meant deciding which emotions to suppress and which to share live. And it meant mobilizing in a moment, getting to the story by bicycle and tugboat, running barefoot through molten rubble, fleeing for life and reporting at the very same time.

This extraordinary book lets broadcasters tell the behind-the-scenes story of September 11 in their own words. From Brokaw, Rather and Peter Jennings to a WINS account executive who saw the attack and was drafted as a reporter, the book offers a play-by-play of what these journalists were doing and feeling all day.

Broadcasters are trained to be controlled and unsentimental, but no training prepares them to see planes flying into buildings and skyscrapers crumbling like paper. This book, beyond its compelling backstage detail, gives us a remarkable window into how individual reporters, like their nation, struggled through stages of shock, denial, outrage, pride and professionalism.

They had little time to reflect. "I got dressed, kissed my son...said goodbye to my babysitter, and ran," said Allison Gilbert, a WNBC producer, who conceived of this book and is a major contributor.

NBC correspondent Rehema Ellis ordered a sobbing cab driver to rush her to the World Trade Center. "But everyone's running away from there," the cabbie objected. Replied Ellis, "It's my job to go there."

"Turn around. Don't go there," a frightened woman told correspondent Carol Marin. Marin answered, "I work for CBS News. This is what we do."

With streets and tunnels blocked, reporters flagged down ferries, buses, and even ambulances. WWOR's Joe Collum paid a yacht owner $1,000 to speed him across the Hudson River. MSNBC anchor Brian Williams found himself driving 100 miles per hour toward his studio--and getting passed by other cars.

Dan Rather's newshound instincts kicked in and he felt "a brief but serious thought that maybe I should rush to the scene...and report." But he knew his role and climbed into the anchor chair, thinking, "This is all so unbelievable. Can all of it be true?"

Preparing for his own marathon on camera, CNN's Aaron Brown remembered his first thought: "Do I have a clean shirt in my office? Did I shave?"

At all three scenes--the Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania field where United Flight 93 crashed--journalists found surreal, harrowing, often perilous conditions.

Horrified reporters saw objects falling from the burning towers, and it took a few minutes to realize they were people. "One, then another, then another," recalled WABC reporter Joe Torres. "My cameraman and I yelled, pleaded, to ourselves as much as the helpless victims: 'Don't jump! Stop jumping!' "

"I saw what looked like a couple, a man and a woman, jump out of the building holding hands," said CBS correspondent Byron Pitts. "I turned back to the detective standing next to me, and he was crying."

NBC producer Buba Adschiew came across a fire official and asked, "Have you lost any firefighters?" "About 340," the man answered.

At the Pentagon, ABC's John McWethy encountered a stunned lieutenant colonel who had been in a meeting when his boss sent him for coffee. Then the airplane hit, killing everyone in the room he had just left.

Many journalists were witnesses as well as reporters. "My heart sank as I realized that at that moment thousands of people were dying, and it was all happening in my lens," WNBC cameraman Jeff Scarborough said.

At the Pennsylvania crash site, WJAC's Sherry Stalley wanted to call her mom. "Thirty-five years old with two children and all I could think of was talking to my mom," she said. "For whatever reason, my call made it through to Idaho. She answered, and I started to cry."

The reporting wasn't all glorious, and some of it made even the journalists cringe. Mark Nootbaar of WDUQ-FM in Pittsburgh was watching as camera crews surrounded a school bus. "Reporters, thinking it was a bus to the scene of the crash, began pushing on the door. It was a regular school bus filled with young children.... I was ashamed to call myself a reporter at that moment."

For others the work itself was cathartic. "Reporting became my salvation," said WABC's Jim Hoffer, "allowing me to keep my emotions at bay."

"Covering Catastrophe" overflows with heartfelt eloquence. "I had to fight to contain myself," WWOR reporter Joe Collum said. "I was drained physically and mentally. I hated what had happened.... But, at the same time, I felt, in a strange way, privileged to have been there.... I felt honored to have been one of those there to document it and to make a record of the tragedy, the valor, and the inspirational response of the city and the nation."

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