After terrorists hijacked four airliners last Tuesday — destroying the World Trade Center and crashing another plane into the Pentagon — it was impossible to overstate the enormity of the story.
"How can you ever restore a sense of normalcy to the country? Will it ever be the same?" asked retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clarke, a Cable News Network analyst, on Tuesday morning.
"This day, you'll remember forever," said NBC's Tom Brokaw, who placed the story alongside historic events of the last century, from Pearl Harbor to the landing of a man on the moon to the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Americans were glued to television, as all of the cable and broadcast networks ran wall-to-wall, commercial-free coverage of the catastrophes. Some reporters and crews risked their lives, reporting outside the World Trade Center after it was attacked, and running for cover as the buildings fell to the ground.
Among the television-industry personalities killed in the attack were Barbara Olson, a frequent news-network commentator who was aboard the flight hijacked from Dulles International Airport; and David Angell, co-creator of the NBC sitcom Frasier.
Several broadcast engineers from New York television stations — who worked on the 110th floor of the north tower — are also missing. A WCBS-TV spokesperson said 30-year station veteran Isaias Rivera is missing along with Bob Pattison, another engineer who joined the station last year.
The New York Post
named several other missing engineers: William Steckman from WNBC-TV, WPIX-TV engineer Steve Jacobson, WABC-TV engineer Donald DiFranco and WNET-TV engineer Rod Coppola.
In addition to keeping viewers posted as to the latest news, and running repeated graphic footage of the airliners slamming into the twin towers, families of the victims looked to the networks for help, plastering news watchers with photos of missing loved ones.
FNC reporter Rick Leventhal was at the network's 46th Street office in Manhattan when he was paged with the news. After taking a subway to Canal Street, Leventhal ran to the outside of the Trade Center, where he met FNC satellite truck engineer Patrick Butler.
Without waiting for a cameraman or a producer, Butler grabbed the camera, and the duo captured some of the first video from outside of the World Trade Center, as people in the area — some covered in blood — ran for their lives.
"This guy needs help," Leventhal told an Emergency Medical Technician, before the EMT took the victim from the scene — a scene FNC telecast live.
Then the south tower of the World Trade Center fell, and Leventhal and other reporters fled along with police and commuters.
"We started retreating," he said. "We got as far as our satellite truck. We looked out the front window and saw things turn to darkness.
"I went to Pat and said, 'Are we going to die in here?' That's when it hit me that I was no longer in control, and I had no idea what would happen next — if the building was going to fall on top of us, or if the street was going to collapse," Leventhal, who wasn't injured, said in an interview on Wednesday.
On MSNBC, a soot-covered Ashleigh Banfield told viewers how she and an MSNBC crew broke the glass door of an apartment building as they sought shelter from an overwhelming dust cloud near the Trade Center after the collapse.
"We always give people the choice in a risky situation," MSNBC president Erik Sorenson said. "I guess some people knew that a tower might collapse, but it caught most of us by surprise."
FNC executive producer Bill Shine said the network has no set guidelines for how close its reporters should get to a disaster scene. "We tell them to go out there, get the story, and don't get yourself killed. We don't want them to get hurt," Shine said.
CNN newsgathering president Eason Jordan was at the network's regular 8:30 a.m. editorial meeting in Atlanta when producers got a call from a staffer in New York, who screamed, " 'Unconfirmed reports of plane hitting World Trade Center'— and our meeting abruptly ended," he said.
CNN had a live video feed of the north tower two minutes after it was hit, at 8:56 a.m., and the network, along with many other outlets, captured live images of the south tower exploding after it was hit by the second plane. The networks have reported that authorities believe the terrorists wanted the horrid image of the second airliner crashing into the south tower to be caught on live television.
Since authorities banned all air traffic after the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon, CNN production teams drove to New York from Atlanta and cities in the Midwest to support the network's New York bureau, Jordan said. By Wednesday, CNN had 40 crews in New York.
Most major cable networks simulcast their coverage Tuesday on sister networks. Turner Network Television, TBS Superstation, CNN Headline News and other Turner nets picked up the CNN feed; MTV: Music Television, VH1 and other Viacom Inc.-owned cable networks ran the CBS feed; Fox Sports Net and Speedvision simulcast FNC's feed; and ESPN carried ABC News coverage.
And none of the Big Four networks or the all-news channels had run any commercials as of press time on Friday.
"Clearly a lot of revenue is being lost, and a lot of money is being spent, but this is not about money," said Jordan, adding he didn't know when CNN would resume running ads. "This is about the most horrific story of our time."
Sorenson and FNC's Shine also said they didn't know when they would begin running ads, and Sorenson pointed out that advertisers may not be interested at this point.
CBS spokeswoman Sandy Genelius said the network planned to remain commercial-free through at least the end of Friday's broadcast of the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather.
All news networks agreed to share their video feeds until midnight on Tuesday — an idea proposed by 60 Minutes
executive producer Don Hewitt.
That allowed competing outlets to pick up on CNN's exclusive feed of cruise missile attacks in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, at about 6 p.m. Tuesday. Initial reports suggested the attack may have been a U.S. retaliation on Osama bin Laden — the lead suspect behind the attack — but the White House later said the U.S. wasn't involved.Networks were forced to make many tough calls regarding the graphic video they captured at the Trade Center and the Pentagon. CBS, CNN, FNC and NBC took some heat for showing video of victims jumping from the top floors of the twin towers shortly before they collapsed.
At about 10 p.m. on Tuesday, CNN ran one shot of someone falling from the tower, from tape shot earlier that day. Jordan defended its limited use.
"We didn't dwell on the image. We didn't show an impact, but it did depict the horror and the reality of the situation without using video in a gratuitous, sensational way," Jordan said.
Shine said FNC ran one or two shots of people jumping from the building, but called it an accident that wouldn't be repeated.
From interviews with witnesses, victims and families of the missing to graphic shots of commuters fleeing after the attacks, much of the video the networks carried was gut wrenching.
FNC repeatedly ran a shot of a stunned woman, who was covered head to toe in soot, except for her face, where blood was pouring from her nose. MSNBC ran a clip of a man wearing a double-breasted suit, still carrying his briefcase, as he walked from the scene after the Trade Center collapse, covered in soot.
As many viewers surely wept at some of the images, some of the anchors were visibly disturbed. "I am just mad as hell and outraged," Fox & Friends
anchor E.D. Donahey said Thursday morning.
Said CNBC's Geraldo Rivera Wednesday night: "I have no answers for my children when they worry that a plane will fall from the sky. I have no answers for my children when they tell me that over a dozen of the daddies of their kids who worked down in the World Trade Center are missing and presumed lost. I have no answers for them."
Anchors on CNBC — which replaced its stock ticker with phone numbers callers could use to donate blood or inquire about loved ones — were also rattled.
"Many of us know people on Wall Street, and we don't know whether they're safe or not," Mark Haines said Thursday morning on Squawk Box.
CNBC focused much of its coverage on the impact the attacks had on the financial community, but avoided coming off as morbid by not discussing money-making opportunities. Anchors discouraged stock speculators and called for Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan to motivate financial institutions to place large buy orders on Monday, when stock exchanges will reopen.
Some of the most moving images came from NBC, which deployed several staffers across the city with digital camcorders, interviewing witnesses and family members of people still trapped in the Trade Center.
Mistakes were also made. Several news outlets reported Thursday afternoon that five New York firefighters had been found in a sport-utility vehicle buried at the World Trade Center. The news brought hope to families of the missing for a short while, before they reported that the people found were actually rescue workers who had fallen into a hole in the wreckage.
CNN retracted a story Thursday night, after it ran a report on Wednesday about two Arab brothers that authorities suspected were involved with the hijackings. "We are sorry for the misinformation," anchor Aaron Brown said on Thursday, noting that one of the brothers still lives in Florida, and that his brother died last year.
There was much confusion soon after the attacks. Bloomberg reporter Mike McKee reported Tuesday morning that he saw the first plane and the explosion from a taxicab headed toward the trade center, and then got out of the cab before the first tower collapsed.
"I think there was a third plane" that hit the tower before the collapse, he said. "I heard a noise like a jet engine."
In addition to beefing up resources in New York and Washington, the networks are also sending more reporters overseas, in anticipation of a U.S. retaliatory strike in Afghanistan or the Middle East.
CNN's Nic Robertson and two other network correspondents — who used a video phone to capture the images of the cruise missile strikes on Tuesday — are the only U.S. network reporters in Afghanistan. Shine said FNC was sending crews to London and the Middle East.
On CNN, former ABC reporter Brown and former FNC anchor Paula Zahn were thrown into action months before their scheduled debuts, leading the network's coverage from New York. On Thursday, Brown and Zahn reported for a short time from the street outside of CNN's New York bureau after the building was evacuated over security concerns.
MILLIONS TUNED IN
The all-news networks drew huge ratings on Tuesday, the day of the attacks.
Cable News Network averaged a 4.4 Nielsen Media Research rating and 3.7 million households from 6 a.m. Tuesday to 3 a.m. Wednesday. Fox News Channel generated a 2.4 rating and 1.7 million households during the period, and MSNBC averaged a 1.7 rating and 1.1 million households.
In primetime, CNN posted a 5.9 rating and 4.9 million households, followed by FNC (3.7 rating, 4.9 million) and MSNBC (2.6 rating, 1.8 million). All of the news networks combined drew more than 10 million viewers for President Bush's speech at 8:30 p.m.
Kent Gibbons contributed to this report.