Guest Commentary: A different infamy than Pearl Harbor

Sep 17, 2001  •  Post A Comment

No, it was not Pearl Harbor. All those people, officials, TV anchors and reporters who said it was like Pearl Harbor were not alive 60 years ago. Those who were remember mostly anger. I remember Sunday lunch with my parents and sister, the radio on, and before the New York Philharmonic there was a bulletin.
I wasn’t sure where Pearl Harbor was, but my reaction was anger. Those bastards! When the World Trade Center was attacked, anger had to wait. The people running north in panic were not angry; the rescue teams rushing into ground zero trying to save some lives were not angry; the reporters choking on the unbelievable dust were not angry.
They felt sick. We all felt sick. This was not a military adversary ambushing men in uniform. This attack targeted people working at their desks, in coffee shops, men and women without known enemies. That is what kept everybody at the TV set, the feeling of disbelief, of personal vulnerability. But as The New York Times said Sept. 12, “Imagine how much worse the nightmare would have been if broadcasting had been destroyed.”
Once you started to watch, you could not stop. I was proud of television news. It’s why TV was invented, why 24/7 news channels were born, not for all the silliness about Gary Condit or to help Anne Heche peddle her book. I remember how it felt when the news guys had to take over the whole schedule.
You have your own feelings, but you mustn’t. An exhilaration takes hold. You will not be tired again until it’s over. Our control rooms at such times were always very quiet; we used to hear about the others being noisy and scrappy. But everywhere, the same tension: “What’s new?” vs. “Are you sure?”
God bless the technicians. They anticipate everything you ask. They know before you have decided that you are going to switch to Los Angeles or Washington or downtown. They warn you of pitfalls: “Give me another minute.” They smile when things work.
The intensity of concentration shields you from the horror. You are operating on a high, keeping things current, deciding priorities among all the stuff coming at you, trying to keep it coherent. When it is all over, the fatigue comes in a rush. So does the personal sense of what happened. For hours you have been telling the world. Now you must tell yourself.
It was that way, I remember, the weekend of John Kennedy’s murder, and again almost five years later when his brother Robert, the New York senator, was shot down in the kitchen of a Los Angeles hotel. What happened at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was different from those tragedies in every imaginable way, but I am sure that the news teams who stepped into place and began programming around the clock, kept going on black coffee and internal resources, felt as we felt back then. Another thing was the same.
You have to be my age to remember that television news was not always taken seriously. In a way, it can be said to have come of age during the weekend after President Kennedy’s assassination. As august a personage as the late James Reston of The New York Times said so after it was over. He said that television, with its continuous coverage, had kept the country together. That was true again after what happened Sept. 11-and how it was covered.
Things are different now, of course, physically different. Cameras are so much easier to move around, and it is so simple getting a signal from anywhere to anywhere else. And the story was so much different. Also, how it leaves us feeling is so much different.
When all is said and done, when we have decided how we feel when the helplessness subsides and only the anger is left, there will still be the haunting memories. We will have seen over and over-because tape can do what film couldn’t-the second plane plunging through the towers and that huge fireball, the towers collapsing, the billowing smoke.
But the searing memories will be of individual people, of the young man whose elderly mother had chest pains and he went from hospital to hospital looking for her; of the men with pictures of wives or daughters, asking everybody what they knew; of people covered in a thick layer of soot and dust, including MSNBC’s Ashleigh Banfield as she interviewed a woman who had come with her baby searching for her husband. Behind them you could see a cloud of black dust, perhaps eight stories high, rolling toward them.
They had to move. Fast. “Mind the baby,” Banfield kept saying. “Mind the baby.”

Reuven Frank joined NBC News in 1950. Before leaving the network, he served twice as president of NBC News, 1968-1973 and 1982-1984.