Journalists Remember 9/11

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

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As Edwards and Gjelten conversed, the story unfolded rapidly, with details changing by the second. After hearing of the fire report, Gjelten responded, "You know, I just walked in and there was absolutely no sign of anything. However just as we're talking now, Bob, I can hear a PA out in the corridor saying that all personnel should, I think they're saying, 'Leave.'"

"I have not yet been able to confirm what's happening at the Pentagon, but clearly something's happening here as well," Gjelten told Edwards.

[Read U.S. News archived material from Sept. 11, 2001]

Gjelten evacuated the Pentagon along with thousands of other people and immediately set about finding a way to report what he had seen and heard. Cell phones were not working so he set out in search of a working phone. He first encountered a Citgo station, "but there were like 20 people standing in line to use the pay phone." So he ran down the first residential street he could find and, in his words, "started pounding on doors."

"The first house that I came to where somebody answered the door, I introduced myself, showed my credentials, and said, 'Please, please, let me use your phone. I've got to call in," recalls Gjelten.

For the next hour, Gjelten commandeered the young man's phone for another on air interview, then went back to record more audio at the Pentagon. NPR later called Gjelten in to be on that afternoon's episode of All Things Considered. With no transportation available, he carried the tape he had recorded for over four miles to NPR's Washington studios.

Separating fact from fiction

All of these logistical difficulties make for compelling stories, but the most immediate challenge facing anyone trying to tell the story of 9/11 as it unfolded was separating fact from fiction. Early on, for example, Reuters reported that a Palestinian group was claiming responsibility for the attacks. As he was on air from the Pentagon with NPR host Bob Edwards, Gjelten noted that CNN was showing a shot of "billows of smoke" above the Old Executive Office Building, and he went on to suggest that there was a fire near the White House.

This concern was at the forefront of many journalists' minds, particularly those who were delivering the news live. "This of all days was a day when news was happening in real time," says Judy Woodruff, who recalls spending nearly eight hours in the CNN anchor chair on 9/11. "On that day of all days, it was about as hard as it is ever going to be to understand what's true and what isn't. Because there were so many sources of information: official, unofficial, eyewitnesses. Even official sources were wrong in some cases.

Deciding exactly how much to pass along, though, can be a split-second choice. "When you're in the anchor chair, among other things, you're kind of rumor central," Rather says. "All kinds of stuff is coming, people calling in, there's eyewitness reports. ... Decisions have to be made sometimes in a nanosecond. Do you pass this along, or not pass it along?"

Those decisions were particularly hard given the speed of that morning's events. At times like this, says Woodruff, a good anchor must simply be consistently candid with the audience about what is fact and what is speculation. "What you do in a situation like that is you remind yourself, you remind your audience, 'We're reporting what we know at this moment,'" she says.

Reporting in a Different Age

Reflecting on the day's events from a media culture dramatically altered by cameraphones, Twitter, and Facebook updates, it is almost unsettling to look back and see how slowly news traveled that day. The fourth and final plane went down at 10:03 a.m., but hours later, key questions were still unanswered.

"When I go back now and listen to what we reported that day, it just strikes me how little we understood and how incomplete our information was for a long time about what was going on," says Gjelten. "I remember an hour after stuff had happened, the amount of speculation that was still going on and how partial and incomplete the information was. If people had been tweeting what they saw, whether at Ground Zero or the Pentagon or on the airplanes, our picture of what was going on would have been so much more complete, so much more quickly."