9/11 has played many roles over the last decade. It has been a generation-defining event, a catalyst for two wars, a political football, fodder for country songs, and a plot element in scores of novels and movies. But before any of that, Sept. 11, 2001, was simply a day of terror and confusion. And as the images of the burning Pentagon and the falling twin towers were beamed worldwide, journalists provided some semblance of order to the chaos, whether it was in reports from the rubble-strewn streets of New York, dispatches from a smoking Pentagon, or simply narration over video of the World Trade Center buildings collapsing into massive piles of rubble.
Reporting this story was a tall order, to say the least. Reporters were taken by surprise just as much as the rest of the country, then were tasked with immediately explaining what was happening. To watch TV news reports from the morning of 9/11 now is to understand the challenge of to giving shape to a story that has not yet been fully realized. Clips from that day's network morning news programs show the unsettling progression from the first breathless reports about a plane smashing into the north tower to the anchors' horrified gasps as another plane, moving almost too quickly to detect, rushed into the frame, creating a massive explosion in the second tower.
For many Americans, the voice on the radio, the face on the TV, and the headlines on page A1 are inextricable parts of memories of that unforgettable day.
"See you in six weeks."
Reporters who covered the events that day say that the need for action left little room for reaction.
Upon hearing the news of an airplane striking one of the World Trade Center towers, Dan Rather, then the anchor of the CBS Evening News, assumed that there had simply been an accident—a small private plane, perhaps, that had veered off course. But he also knew that he would be needed at work. "An airplane hitting the World Trade Center, no matter what size, is a potential big breaking news story," says Rather. "As the main anchor for CBS News it's my job to be ready to go on the air at any time. So I immediately sprung into action, as they say, to get my clothes and get dressed. ... I literally dressed in the elevator going down, putting myself together."
From the moment the story broke, Rather says, he knew he had to maintain "laser-beam focus" on the job at hand, rather than allowing himself to be shaken. "I was reasonably successful in staying steady. But there was a time early on, when the first tower collapsed, that my legs began to shake underneath the anchor chair. I remember saying to myself, 'I cannot let that show, that has to stop.'"
That sense of duty pervades other reporters' recollections of 9/11. NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten says that both he and his wife, ABC reporter Martha Raddatz, immediately understood not only the import of what had happened but also that this event would require days, weeks, even months of explanation. "She was working at the State Department at that point. I dropped her off, and I remember she got out of the car, and she said, 'See you in six weeks,'" says Gjelten. "We both held the stance that something had happened that was going to dramatically bear on our lives as journalists."
Serge Schmemann, then the United Nations correspondent for the New York Times, says that his instincts as a reporter immediately kicked in. With the New York subways shut down, he rushed to work, hitchhiking on an emergency truck for part of the journey. But the entire time, he says, he was mentally organizing the logistics of the day's coverage. "I just started thinking, what we should do to organize coverage right away... It was all sort of thoughts rolling through [about] what do we need to do, how we need to do it, where do we need people." His preparations were so complete that, when the metro editor told him that he would be writing that day's lead story, Schmemann took it as a matter of course: "I sort of felt, 'Well, obviously; I've been preparing for it all morning.'"
It was only once he was off the clock, on his way home, that the reality of what had happened first hit him. He saw it in his fellow New Yorkers, too, later that day. Schmemann describes it as "the first time you sort of sit back and say, 'Oh, my God.'"