"We have a breaking story..."  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October 2001

"We have a breaking story..."   

The trauma of September 11 began unfolding for many Americans on the network morning shows.

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      


AS THE TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 11, broadcast of CBS' "The Early Show" approached 9 o'clock, the program was airing an update about the winners of its "week of wishes" contest last May. It was one of those morning news viewer-involvement-type contests, in which the show granted five lucky people their wishes. A new car for a hard-working mom. A widow's promise to scatter her husband's ashes in South Dakota fulfilled. Coanchor Jane Clayson narrated a taped segment on how the winners were faring.

When the piece wound down, viewers weren't faced with a smiling Clayson and Bryant Gumbel chatting it up on the set. Instead, they got a concerned Gumbel:

"It's 8:52 here in New York," he told viewers. "We understand that there has been a plane crash on the southern tip of Manhattan. You're looking at the World Trade Center. We understand that a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center. We don't know anything more than that."

A minute or two earlier, Senior Executive Producer Steve Friedman and others in the control room had looked up at monitors that showed views from "Early Show" cameras throughout the city. They saw smoke coming out of World Trade Center Tower One. "Smoke," he says, "not fire."

"We called WCBS," the local affiliate, Friedman says, and heard it might have been a plane that hit the tower. "Lucky for us, the tape was just ending, and we went on."

Those in the control room started calling offices in the trade center, people they knew. And people who had seen the crash called the network. Within seconds, the first of a string of witnesses was on the line.

"Could you tell us--could you give us your name?" Gumbel asked.

"Yeah, my name is Stuart."

From his job at a restaurant in New York's trendy SoHo section, Stuart explained what he had seen: a small plane ("it looked like it like bounced off the building"), then a ball of fire, then a lot of smoke.

Those first confusing, horrific events of September 11 unfolded for many Americans live on the network morning shows. As they neared an end, programs that were airing soft features abruptly became the launching point for days of continuous coverage. Normally criticized for carrying too much fluff--those rooftop cameras are for the "beauty shots," Central Park views, Backstreet Boys concerts--these shows were responsible for the initial haunting images of a very serious news story. "Probably the hardest news story of my lifetime," Friedman says.

In the waning moments of ABC's "Good Morning America," "we got a call in our control room, in our news desk, that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center," says Executive Producer Shelley Ross.

Charles Gibson had wrapped up an interview with Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, and the show had gone to a commercial break. It returned with a 30-second promo for Ted Koppel's Congo series. "I really thought it would just be a quirky picture," says Ross of her initial reaction. "I really thought when I first heard that a plane had crashed that it was a small plane...and I looked at the clock and I wondered...how many people would be in the World Trade Center." She asked someone to find out how many people worked there and when the tourist observation tower opened. Not until 9:30.

The control room alerted coanchors Diane Sawyer and Gibson that they were going to a live shot of the towers. At 8:51, Sawyer cautiously told viewers it might have been a plane, though that couldn't be confirmed, and Gibson was the first of the anchors to say anything about terrorists, referring to the 1993 bombing in the basement of the World Trade Center. "But this we don't know anything about," Gibson said. "We don't know about anything that has happened here other than the fact that there's obviously been a major incident there. And we're going to go to a special report now from ABC News."

A short "special report" announcement and Gibson and Sawyer were back. Don Dahler, an ABC News correspondent who lives four or five blocks north of the trade center, was soon on the phone, describing what he had heard before he looked outside. "There was a loud sound that I can only describe it--it sounded like a missile, not an airplane." A high-pitched sound, a "whooshing," maybe a jet, but not a prop plane, he repeated, "not like a prop plane."

NBC received word while Matt Lauer was interviewing author Richard Hack about his new book on Howard Hughes. "I have got to interrupt you right now," Lauer said, announcing that the show would go to a live picture of the World Trade Center, "where I understand--do we have it? We have a breaking story, though. We're going to come back with that in just a moment."

After the break, coanchor Katie Couric told viewers that "apparently" a plane had crashed into the tower. Jennifer Oberstein, a witness instantly on the phone, could only confirm that there was a loud boom, a ball of fire, falling debris and smoke. "What was unbelievable was the amount of fire," she said. "It was a big ball of fire that just went up. And-and I looked at--I looked around at people. We were all horrified. I-I-I'm stuttering because I'm-I'm in such shock. I've never seen anything like it. It's just horrible."

In the ABC control room, staffers scrambled to get people who were in the World Trade Center on the phone. "Most of our phones were out," says Ross. "Everybody was making a lot of calls.... Everybody pulled out their cell phones." Ross had invited someone she was interviewing for a job into the control room. "Very impressively, that person...just announced to me that he was going to jump on a subway and he was going to contact me from ground zero." (She didn't want to reveal his name.) "And that person actually put an eyewitness on the air for us."

On CBS, Gumbel's professionalism stumbled only slightly as he tried to make sense of the picture in front of him. "It comes before 9:00," he said. "Perhaps-perhaps, and-and-and we say that in hopeful fashion--perhaps not everybody was at work. Because if-if that building was, in fact, crowded with-with workers, we're looking at-at-at probably some-some casualties...."

Each subsequent witness CBS reached had more information or a better view. Wendell Klein, the doorman at the Marriott World Trade Center. He heard an explosion, saw paper and glass falling, a man on fire. Theresa Renault at Eighth Avenue and 16th Street, in the tallest building in the area, her window directly facing the World Trade Center.

At 9:03, each network had someone on the phone, talking and looking at the twin towers, those in the studios and viewers transfixed on a live shot, as the gray shape of a commercial jet glided across the screen. It sliced into Tower Two, fire and smoke bursting out of the building.

Theresa Renault: "Oh, there's another one. Another plane just hit. Right--oh, my God, another plane has just hit. It hit another building, flew right into the middle of it--explosion."

On ABC, Dahler: "It does not appear that there's any kind of an effort up there yet, now remember--Oh, my god!"

Sawyer: "Oh, my God! Oh, my God!"

Gibson: "That looks like a second plane has just hit..."

On NBC, Elliott Walker, a producer for "Today" who lives near the trade center: "Oh, another one just hit. Something else just hit, a very large plane just flew directly over my building..."

Al Roker: "Oh, my..."

Friedman emphasizes that he's covered a lot in his career--the shooting of Anwar Sadat, the Cold War, the shooting of a pope. "I've done a lot of this stuff; there was nothing that I've ever done that hit me as hard as the second plane live on our show smashing into the World Trade Center," he says. "I couldn't believe it. I just couldn't believe it. I almost thought this can't be real, that I'm actually having a nightmare. And it's a surreal experience. Here we are two miles away, three miles away, and that's like that's Beirut, and here we are in New York."

The hit knocked the wind out of ABC's control room. "The first person who uttered anything out loud...said, Maybe air traffic control has gone haywire? What has happened?' " Ross says. "The second [plane] came in, and I knew...that was no accident.... It was pretty stunning."

Reports tumbled in to the networks: President Bush would make a statement, the planes may have been hijacked, American Airlines was one of the carriers, then United Airlines, the White House was being evacuated. But what was now clearly a terrorist strike wasn't over.

Says Ross, "Then, as it unfolded, we're gathering information, and what you're really doing is bringing people live pictures. But the real stunner came" when they learned that something had happened at the Pentagon. "And then it felt like Pearl Harbor."

At about 9:40, Friedman says, "I get a call from [CBS News President] Andrew Heyward--'You better look up, because we think something may have hit the Pentagon.' "

Gumbel was talking with former FBI official James Kallstrom and didn't seem prepared for anything more. "Oh, my goodness. Oh, my goodness. We're looking at a live picture from Washington, and there is smoke pouring out of the Pentagon," Gumbel said.

By 10 o'clock, ABC turned to Peter Jennings. "He walked right into the building and sat right down in the anchor chair," says ABC spokesman Todd Polkes. "The Early Show" passed the coverage off to Dan Rather, while NBC's "Today" staff stayed on a while longer. Charles Gibson was sent out with a crew, though he couldn't get close enough to the catastrophe. CBS' Friedman started planning six hours of coverage for Wednesday.

Each network would air hours upon days of continuous reports, without commercials.

In those early moments, as the morning programs pieced together news as they could find it, there was no contingency plan, says Friedman. "We are trained when something happens to know what to do," he says. "But nothing could train you for this."

He and the other network staffers reacted to each piece of information as journalists and human beings--desperately digging for answers and struggling to process the magnitude and sadness of what had happened before their eyes.

"There wasn't a person in that control room who hadn't been in the World Trade Center" or who didn't know people who worked there, Friedman says. When "The Early Show" crew got off the air that Tuesday and Wednesday, "people were emotionally spent.... While you're on the air, while you're doing it, you can play this macho" role of the journalist. "But once it's over and you catch the enormity of these pictures," he says, "eventually you go into your office and you put your head down."

Many journalists have known the anguish of covering a tragedy, such as a plane crash, Ross says. But, in this case, there were four plane crashes, plus the overwhelming image of the World Trade Center, disintegrating into smoke and rubble. "There isn't a living journalist who had the experience to process this," she says.

Ross' staff did it with emotion. "We've shed a lot of tears in our control room, but it doesn't mean that any tears get in the way," she says. "We're still thinking clearly, we're thinking like journalists. But we're not robots. We work and we cry. I think our reflexes are still sharp. We just keep a box of Kleenex nearby."

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