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.'"
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
Not having to do constant updates on multiple platforms made it easier for newspaper reporters to assemble a story from the day's chaos. "The buildings were hit in the morning. So we had all day. We had had more than 12 hours to gather the information." says Schmemann. "This was before we had a major Internet presence that we would have had to update all the time. And the material was really wonderfully organized. So it was just a question of putting it into a cohesive narrative."
To approach such a story in a 2011 news environment would have greatly changed the quality of coverage, he adds, and not necessarily for the better: "I am not sure that I would be satisfied listening to tweets about that day. It wouldn't tell me anything I need to know. In a way it's affirmed for me the need for serious journalism, and I'm proud of how we handled it."
On that day, reporters did their best to treat the horrific events with the respect and distance with which they would address any story. But 9/11 was, of course, not just any story, and even those who have covered wars, atrocities, and other crises are hard-pressed to think of another news event that matches that day's horror and chaos.
Rather says that in his lifetime, only the attack on Pearl Harbor, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the resignation of Richard Nixon were on par with 9/11 in terms of import and lasting impact. However, he stresses, "9/11 remains unique."
Woodruff can only name one story in her career on a similar level. "The only thing I can compare it to was in 1981 when I was covering Ronald Reagan, and I was there the day he was shot. It was that same level of chaos."
The surprise and the closeness of the attacks were an unparalleled experience for Schmemann, who has been reporting since 1972. During that time, he has covered crises and combat the world over, but he says that those experiences were no preparation for the events of 9/11. "In war you sort of expect there to be horrors, to be shooting. And you sort of know what you're looking for, you know what you're after. There's horror and fear and smoke and noise, but it's not sudden. It doesn't come out of the blue. You've gone there because of it. You've thought about it. You've read up about it. You're pretty much well-versed in why it's happening."
For Suarez, nothing can compare to the surreal images and experiences from the weeks following the attacks. "The smoke was awful. Everybody had a sore throat and a cough. It felt like your throat had been seared, burned." In its own sad, perverse way, the cough unified those who spent time near the towers' site, he says. "Everybody was doing it. People would sort of laugh and wink at each other, because everybody had the cough."
It wasn't just the people at the site—Suarez has vivid memories of the World Trade Center rubble itself, and how it continued to burn for weeks after the collapse. "It was really hellish—the ground was warm. Smoke percolated out of the soil. It's a weird thing to stand and look at soil with smoke pouring out of it."
Looking back on the attacks, many have noted that the weather in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, was nothing short of glorious. Schmemann is still struck by the juxtaposition of a clear autumn day and a deadly terrorist attack—"a horror of that magnitude coming out of a clear blue sky, which it did. Out of a totally clear blue sky," as he puts it.
In much the same vein, Schmemann proudly recalls the resolve of his colleagues on that terrifying day: "For me, it was one of the low points maybe in the annals of horror, but one of the high points in the action of journalism and response of journalism."