Journalists Remember 9/11

For many journalists, no war or crisis will ever compare to that day.


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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.'"

For Schmemann, Rather, and certainly for countless other reporters, emotions seemed to be a barrier to presenting the facts. But some journalists point out that emotional reactions are inextricably bound up in the story of 9/11.

PBS NewsHour senior correspondent Ray Suarez spent two weeks in New York City covering the attacks and their aftermath. Like his colleagues, Suarez says he maintained a bright line between "work mode" and personal reactions. But he adds, "At the same time, part of your business is trying to communicate the way New York felt in that time." One feeling that pervaded New York in those days was grief—not just for the victims, but for the towers themselves. Suarez, a native New Yorker, felt the void of the missing towers. "I used to go through the Trade Center all the time. I used to take the subway there. My buddy had a business down the block from it. ... I watched it being built when I was in junior high and high school."

It was this complex emotion—the distressing void where the towers once were—that Suarez tried to convey in his reporting after the attacks. "The way [the World Trade Center] became part of the New York City skyline, part of your operating image of what New York looks like in your head, all of that stuff I tried hard to communicate to people, because New York is a place that lives in image as much as in reality to people all over the country."

Arthur Santana, a staff writer at the Washington Post at the time of the attacks, explains that he understood on 9/11 that sometimes the barrier between emotion and reporting can be detrimental. "A dispassionate approach is valid and important, but I've come to realize, not always," he tells U.S. News in an e-mail. "I think an empathetic and personal approach to news gathering, when the case allows, actually makes reporters better at what they're supposed to do."

Extraordinary measures

For anyone reporting on 9/11, setting aside that day's initial shock was just one of many hurdles. In the cities of New York and Washington, D.C., there were also logistical barriers to telling the stories of the attacks, as communication and transportation in these cities were greatly limited, if not nonexistent. Many reporters found themselves having to walk or bike the length of Manhattan, for example, where they would normally take a subway or cab. "You'd get these guys and girls covered with ashes, coming in, talking to us, getting us some quotes, some images, and going back down," says the Times's Schmemann.

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Of course, different mediums presented different difficulties. As the lead anchor for CBS News, Rather pulled grueling shifts in front of the camera. On the day of the attacks, says Rather, "I think I was on for 17 hours straight." Those hours were tiring and unpleasant at times. "I didn't leave the anchor chair to eat," he says, saying that he only drank energy shakes to get through the day. "And this is an unpleasant subject, but to relieve myself, I used what used to be called a motorman's friend," he says, referring to a rubber urinal apparatus that streetcar drivers once wore to relieve themselves on the job. "I may have left the anchor chair when we were going to go to some other remote, Washington or Pennsylvania [location] or something, [and] I'd go quickly to the men's room." says Rather. According to CBS, Rather was in the anchor chair for 53 hours over the next four days.

Gjelten was in the Pentagon when American Airlines Flight 77 smashed into the building. However, due to the structure's enormous size, Gjelten was unaware of the attack until host Bob Edwards told him mid-interview of a report that there was a fire at the Pentagon.