19 Years Later: America is Under Attack
“This is worse than Pearl Harbor,” — eyewitness to World Trade Center Attacks on September 11, 2001
19 YEARS: REMEMBERING 9/11
In years past my post about the September 11 Terror Attacks has always been about my memories of the day. This year I am taking a different approach. Taking that journey through my thoughts and feelings of the day does not seem to have the appeal this year. My focus this year will be on the coverage of the day by the major and local news outlets.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, the focus for the New York City news organizations was the primary. The local coverage focused on that and other events happening in the area. On a national level it was a mixture of things including news that former Chicago Bulls player Michael Jordan was possibly coming out of retirement.
By 9 a.m. all the major networks (cable and broadcast) had moved to the events of Lower Manhattan. No one had information outside of what they were seeing on their monitors in the studio, in the newsroom, in the control booths, and what eyewitnesses were telling them.
It was a bag of incomplete and, in some cases, unreliable accounts of what was transpiring. Some witnesses said it was a 737, others said it was a small commuter plane, or maybe even a Cessna-type plane. Others only saw the explosion after American Airlines Flight 11 struck 1 WTC.
(CNN Coverage of the North Tower 1 WTC—the first tower hit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VveRmJpFW6o&t=203s)
CNN broke in at 8:49 a.m. with the anchor saying there were unconfirmed reports that a plane had flown into one of the buildings. At no point where the anchors brought on camera. They stuck with the live image of the tower burning and talking with eyewitnesses and dipping into the local NYC TV stations.
Now, it was the first few minutes of the first plane hitting one of the twin towers. Information would be limited to eyewitnesses. But it was the eyewitnesses that would help anchors and correspondents on the ground piece together what was happening.
The Today Show was live when the second plane, United Airlines Flight 175 would crash into 2 WTC, the south tower.
(The Today Show of the second tower being hit—go to the 15:28 mark: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0uiSq0jfVpM)
Katie and Matt were talking to an eyewitness when in the top right part of the screen, you can see Flight 175 flying toward 2 WTC. They had gone to a close-up of 1 WTC when the second tower exploded.
It is only when the tape is recued and played back that the enormity of what was happening became clear.
In watching the various coverage from across different networks who were talking to witnesses most would say the second plane appeared to have been deliberately flown into the building.
Coverage of the next thirty minutes would ping-pong from eyewitness accounts, the anchors describing what they are seeing, bringing in network correspondents, and on-call experts to discuss what could have happened to the planes.
Good Morning America was in commercial and came back with Jane Sawyer and Charles Gibson on camera relying what they knew. There is no time bug, but it is probably 8:50 a.m. at this the point.
(Good Morning America coverage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_K5rSpuXTgg&t=230s)
Diane said there were unconfirmed reports of a plane. Charles Gibson is aware that there is a national audience and gave a quick history on the towers.
Both Good Morning America anchors drove the coverage until Peter Jennings can get to the studio to drive the coverage from the World News Tonight desk. One of things that stuck out a me is that he is not wearing a suit coat. His hair is not perfect. It is not that no one cared about his appearance or that he is breaking network dress code—but an understanding of the gravity of the situation. His appearance was not important. It was him delivering the news to bring calm to viewers who understandably in many cases, shaken to the core.
All the major broadcast and cable networks had wall-to-wall coverage that day. They would break away for their local affiliates to pick up coverage—the world was still moving despite what was happening on the East Coast.
In my town, the local stations focused on local reaction, how our governments were responding, and what precautions they were taking. I remember all the stations talking about the run on gas. Cars were lined up to fill up. Stores were also busy with people essentially “panic” buying. There were a lot of unknowns. And a lot the reaction was driven by rumors.
There is a Smithsonian Channel special called 9/11: The Heartland Tapes. It covers how local TV and radio stations reported and how they localized a national story. One of the questions asked in newsrooms across the country when an event like this happens: how can make this story impactful to our viewers at home. How do the events in another part of the country effect our viewers, readers, and listeners? Everyone in the United States and in nations across the globe would be impacted in some ways by the events of September 11.
Here’s a look at how the NBC station in New York City handled the initial events.
NBC 4 in NYC broke into the Today Show with the breaking news about the World Trade Center.
(Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9CsLEPkH37Y)
It was straight to the live shot with the breaking news stinger music. It was nearly 30 minutes before the anchors were seen on camera. About 13 minutes later it is the first live report from near the WTC.
There are multiple interviews with eyewitnesses, including those who saw the second plane it the South Tower.
With little official information coming in, the news that day relied on eyewitness reports. As you watch the clips from the various networks/stations, it was those people that helped tell the story. Yes, some of them were inaccurate—after all, could you tell a 737 from a 757 when it is going several hundred miles per hour? If you say “yes” you are probably lying. Even people familiar with aircraft, especially passenger jets, could be 100 percent sure, other than it was a large passenger plane.
Eyewitnesses provide an emotional and human element to a story. This event is often told through those perspectives. And it is one of the rare instances when the officials themselves go from their professional duty to eyewitness.
In all the coverage that day the anchors and reporters did their best to keep their emotions in check. But as the unconfirmed facts turned to confirmed and as the realization that America was under attack, the emotions begin to come out. It is reserved in most cases, but you can hear the sadness in their voices.
As day turned night and the focus was on searching for those who may have survived the collapse of the Twin Towers, local news focused on recapping the days events, pushing forward the story, and the reaction from those impacted.
ABC7 New York’s 11 p.m. newscast from September 11, 2001 gives a look inside how their team of reporters picked up the story from the initial moments to air time.
(Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=edSnbpCzWu4&t=31s)
It was team coverage to the max. It starts with a recap of the day and reaction from the president. The next story focuses on the FDNY and other emergency responders working the site to rescue those trapped and to recover those that were killed. There is also some witness reaction. The next story is about the scope of the disaster from a reporter who was reporting near the base of the WTC when the South Tower collapsed. The fourth story focuses on what is happening near the site and the loss of what would become hundreds of first responders.
The fifth story focuses on a timeline starting with the first plane to the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The reporter then brings in amateur video—the citizen eyewitness becomes journalist. They let the man taking the video do the narration rather than have the reporter read over and describing the images.
The next group of stories focus on the injuries, fatalities, how hospitals responded, and how people lined up for blood donations.
Towards the end of the newscast, a reporter and is photographer became part of the story that day. They, like other coworkers, were down at the World Trade Center when the South Tower collapsed. He recapped his and his photographer’s escape from the collasping
One of the clearest signs of the emotional toll comes from veteran ABC News anchor Peter Jennings. As he wrapped up the coverage on the night of September 11, 2001, he took a moment to talk about two things.
One of them is the role of television in the midst of a tragedy.
(Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3YKBVnQP7S8)
He talks about a quick ABC News poll. The results are telling—watch the clip above to get the full details on it. But most people, based on limited respondents, were willing to give up some of their liberties if it meant cracking down on terrorism.
The other clip is the raw emotion of the day. As journalists we are told not show emotion. Not to let stories get to you. But September 11, 2001 was not an ordinary day. He talked about his kids. It is the only time I can remember a network news anchor visibly moved by the events.
One of the biggest reactions from people on September 11, 2001 if you watch enough local coverage is the “why.”
The reason why people study history is to find out the “why” so we can find a better way or prevent something similar from happening again.
Historically speaking the answer is complicated. Maybe I will write about that someday. The preview is that like a lot of our world today, the events of September 11, 2001 were shaped by in the burning aftermath of World War I. That war owes its roots to the events of the preceding centuries of British and French dominance in Europe. Like I said the answer is complicated.
September 11, 2001 was a well-documented day. Not only do we have video and photos from news organizations, ordinary citizens turned on their cameras to record what was unfolding around them.
There is one documentary that captures what ordinary citizens saw and felt that day. It is called 102 Minutes that Changed America. The special is not available on YouTube. You can search it, but you’ll find a lot clones and not the real documentary. The first one premiered in 2008 and then they did a 15th anniversary edition that caught up with some of the people who filmed the events that day. It is a powerful take on the attacks in Lower Manhattan.
As I close out this year’s article, I want to take a moment to talk about something that bothers me. And that this phrase “never forget.” America has not forgotten. What America has forgotten is the history of the 9/11 attacks that is rarely talked about. And that is how some Americans were treated when it became clear who was behind the attacks. Americans who loved this country, were patriotic, and suffered loss on that day were scorned because of their names, the color of their skin, and their names. I witnessed this hatred firsthand on 9/11. That incident is firmly planted in my mind.
It is something to think about.
Historians study history to understand why things happen and learn from the mistakes of others.
We, as a nation, have a lot to learn. A lot to learn.