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Transmitting a tragedy

Sep 17, 2001  •  Post A Comment

There was only one story last week, the never-ending, ever-changing story that could never have been imagined and will never be forgotten.
It started with bulletins about a plane crashing into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center that had long defined the skyline of the world’s largest financial district, the nation’s biggest city, the heart of the American media.
Within moments, TV screens were filled with a rush of images–some from local news helicopters–and there were phoned-in eyewitness accounts.
New York 1, Time Warner Cable’s local all-news channel, had a camera focused downtown from atop the Empire State Building. One of three New York 1 producers racing downtown in a car looked up as the second jetliner hit the second tower.
At WCBS-TV, it was only the second day of work at the station for Managing Editor Richard Bamberger and Executive Producer Kristin Quillinan when “the scanners went nuts.” Another new employee, Whitney Casey, who had just left Miami’s WTVJ-TV, was to have spent Sept. 11 following another reporter around to learn the WCBS system. Instead she was dispatched to St. Vincent’s Hospital and was among the first to report from the main trauma center.
Throughout the boroughs and suburbs of New York, producers and correspondents, many of them scheduled to work late to cover the mayoral primary, raced from homes and offices to the southern tip of Manhattan.
Allison Gilbert, a producer assigned to Tim Minton’s investigative team at WNBC-TV, lives in Hoboken, N.J., across the Hudson River, and could see the smoke and flames mushrooming out of the not-so-distant towers as she made her way to the subway. She left the train at its first stop in
Greenwich Village and made her way downtown on foot and was about 10 blocks away when the first tower collapsed. She was even closer when the second tower caved.
“I ran out of my shoes. I ran barefoot over rocks and debris and I don’t know what else,” Ms. Gilbert said. Like many other journalists near ground zero on Sept. 11, she was pelted with debris and blinded by lightning-fast clouds of dust and smoke. She inhaled lungfuls of ash and survived with the help of strangers, the shelter of whatever structure could be accessed, the roll of the dice.
Not many survivors
Unlike most other journalists, she would get a first-person view of how the triage procedure worked. Bleeding, bruised, gasping for air and in shock, she was evacuated, along with three injured firefighters first to a hotel lobby and later Bellevue Hospital’s ICU unit, where, she said, “Doctors had time to be very attentive and caring and warm,” because there were not many casualties coming in–an indication that there were not going to be many survivors.
By 3 p.m. she was able to call the WNBC newsroom, do a phone interview with anchor Chuck Scarborough and funnel information she’d collected from others at the hospital to the newsroom.
“Let’s make this mean something,” she said.
Every network and local news operation in New York City, rose to the occasion. Especially as the buildings, where as many as 50,000 had worked, continued to burn, then sway and collapse. The most ordinary act of journalism required heroic effort in what had been reduced to a war zone, where the casualties would inevitably include people known to almost everyone covering the story.
“I honestly think that affected the coverage,” said Fox News executive Bill Shine.
Every local broadcast station except WCBS had its primary transmitters at the World Trade Center. At least seven engineers and technicians–Isaias Rivera and Bob Pattison of WCBS; William Steckman of WNBC-TV; Steve Jacobson of WPIX-TV; Donald DiFranco of WABC-TV; and Rod Coppola of WNET–who were tending transmitters atop the north tower of the World Trade Center were presumed dead because they worked on floor above the levels that were hit by the first hijacked plane.
Last words
Mr. Steckman was reported to have phoned WNBC that he was shutting down the transmitter before trying to get out.
Mr. DiFranco also had phoned in that something was wrong after the first hit. “He said, `Just a minute,’ and he put the phone down and the signal went dead,” said WABC Program Director Art Moore.
Only WCBS’s over-the-air signal was uninterrupted because the station’s main transmitter is at the Empire State Building. The other stations were knocked off the air, though not off cable, which is the way some 76 percent of the New York market receives its TV.
Chief engineers scrambled to hook up secondary transmitters, while general managers arranged carriage on other stations in the market.
WPIX had a backup transmitter operating by late in the afternoon Sept. 11. WNBC got picked up by Long Island public station WLIW-TV, New Jersey’s WMNB-TV and low-power station WXNY-TV. WABC was picked up by two low-power stations and New Jersey Public Television.
Temporary solutions
Satellite coordinates were disseminated so cable operators and satellite providers could pickup up the stations’ signals.
By Thursday, WNBC had erected a temporary low-power transmitter at the Alpine Towers in New Jersey. WNYW had purchased transmitters it hoped to have in place at Alpine within five to 10 days. WABC hoped to have a transmitter operating there by some time over the weekend.
On Tuesday morning, the network and cable news operations had called in all hands and tossed out all commercials.
Also canceled: the Radio-Television News Directors Association’s annual convention, scheduled to start the next day in Nashville, and the Latin Grammys, scheduled to air Sept. 11.
Synergy on display
Entertainment programming was displaced and synergy was on full display as Disney-owned ESPN picked up ABC’s network coverage; CBS news programming aired on sister cable networks MTV and VH1; TNT, TBS and The WB aired CNN’s coverage. Both QVC and ShopNBC suspended their customary broadcasts.
Court TV cherry-picked various news feeds, splicing in interviews conducted in the channel’s studios with terrorism experts and the like.
Oxygen, whose intimate studios and high-tech headquarters are close to the financial district, quickly picked up New York 1 News, which also was shown around the country on Time Warner Cable systems. All around the country, said New York 1 General Manager Steve Paulus, “Transplanted New Yorkers stumbled on us” via their cable systems and e-mailed the network.
“It was heartwarming to read the feedback,” Mr. Paulus said.
It was spellbinding to watch the fast-unfolding events play out minute by minute and hour by hour. Piece by piece, correspondents who had scrambled into position described to an audience that was growing exponentially the latest developments as hijacked airliners plowed into the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, and kept people informed about where the president was, or, to be precise, wasn’t.
The biggest local story ever
In New York, where it was, for all its national and global implications, the biggest local story ever, the local stations’ coverage took precedence–especially at WCBS, which has spent the last few years sinking lower and lower in the ratings and which now had the chance to shine. WCBS also had the full support of Viacom executives.
On Thursday, WCBS News Director Joel Cheatwood said, “[Viacom Chief Operating Officer] Mel Karmazin was here twice yesterday, asking `What do you need?”’
Meanwhile, CBS’s Dan Rather, NBC’s Tom Brokaw and ABC’s Peter Jennings took over from their respective morning shows’ anchors and, setting the pattern for the rest of the week, presided over coverage that would extend until the wee hours of each morning.
At CNN, Aaron Brown made his crisis debut, slipping smoothly into the role of CNN’s flagship anchor. He had the best perspective and the most dramatic backdrop of any anchor–the rooftop of CNN’s Midtown Manhattan bureau–from which he, and CNN’s viewers, could see the WTC towers as they toppled and the smoke as it swirled throughout the next two days.
Paula Zahn also stepped into the spotlight at CNN. It w
as only days after she had been fired by Fox News Channel in retaliation for having entertained an offer to anchor a new morning show next fall on CNN. Only days after a time when that media war was fun to cover.
Hours after the first hit at the World Trade Center, the networks and cable news operations had struck an unprecedented agreement to share video coverage.
That truce would get rattled on Wednesday, when CNN’s awkward release of ratings triggered an outraged reaction from Fox News and some members of the print media.
“This is not the time to be out there promoting,” said a Fox News spokesman. “It’s up to the PR people to be the public conscience of the networks.”
On Thursday, Turner Broadcasting executive Garth Ancier was quoted as crowing about how CNN was the first network to work an American flag into its graphics.
On Thursday night, Vince Dementri, an aggressive WCBS reporter who inexplicably wore an ATF hat, tried to go where the press did not have access. He was detained and given a misdemeanor summons, and he issued an apology through a station spokeswoman.
For the most part, however, infighting and blatant promotion and bad manners took a back seat to the hard work and the heart-rending stories almost every journalist in the field could tell and justifiably star in.
Sometimes the journalists were amateurs who flocked to satellite trucks and the stations themselves, offering to sell their videotape.
“We were handing out IOUs, taking business cards and pieces of paper,” said Mr. Cheatwood, who said the prices demanded were typically between $250 and $1,000.”
Sometimes the journalists were professional free-lancers. “Nightline” on Sept. 12 took viewers deep inside what remained of a lower floor at the World Trade Center by virtue of stunning video shot by Tim Couthren, who had worked with the ABC News show off and on for years. At the end of the video, a quiet rumble sent relief workers and Mr. Couthren streaking for an exit, the camera capturing another bone-chilling moment.
Most journalists couldn’t get that close. But the very act of reporting from parameters that got pushed farther and farther back with each new collapse or tremor that might portend collapse, was hazardous duty. Reporters and producers, like the relief workers, cops and firefighters, wore masks that were no match for the dust that swirled and choked and irritated lungs and eyes until torrential rains Thursday night washed it out of the air.
Early on Sept. 12, WNYW’s Mike Sheehan, a cop turned street reporter, and many other reporters stationed at ground zero, were so coated with silt that they had the look of zombies in a movie about nuclear winter.
“We lost a crew car,” said WPIX news director Karen Scott. “It was just a piece of equipment.”
One of the many poignant moments for the WPIX crew occurred when it was learned that a firefighter whose story the station’s Mary Murphy had followed extensively after he had been severely burned on the job in 1998 was now one of the many rescuers missing.
“Our people become part of the story at some point,” said Erik Sorenson, the head of MSNBC.
“CBS Evening News” producer Tom Flynn, who lived near the World Trade Center and hopped on his bicycle and got there just after the second hit, conscripted a brokerage house employee who was wandering around taking pictures with a “very nice” digital camera.
Mr. Flynn said to him, “I’m with CBS News and we’re gonna work together.” And so they did, until the south tower exploded and Mr. Flynn took refuge in a parking garage. “I lost my cameraman.” After Mr. Flynn, bicycle intact, made his way up to CBS News on West 57th Street, he heard from the broker, who had made his way to Hoboken, N.J. “It wasn’t easy, but we did manage to get some of the tape fed.”
Not until Thursday did “48 Hours” producer Joe Halderman report his first “almost-positive story,” about a family who had hunkered down in their apartment only blocks away from the World Trade Center.
“I have a rule when you’re working on this kind of story: You’re not allowed to feel sorry for yourself,” Mr. Halderman said.
As the week wore on, it was, however, hard for some reporters not to get emotional while interviewing the endless stream of people pleading for word of loved ones.
An alternate reality
By Sept. 12, as buildings were still collapsing in Manhattan and the death toll was mounting in Washington, on television it was once again easy to click over to an alternate reality, one interrupted only by commercial breaks.
Call it a celebration of American diversity. The only emergency on E! Entertainment Television in the early afternoon was a “Fashion Emergency.” On ESPN there was an interview with a football coach, and on ESPN2 the scheduled program about cheerleaders was replaced by a golf tournament. Sports ruled at CNNSI and Fox Sports New York. The only war concerning the History Channel had ended decades ago. TV Land kept it retro, too. Animal Planet was devoted to stories about man’s best friend. Comedy Central was playing it for raucous laughs with “Kids in the Hall.”
Back to regular programming
Cartoons were, of course, on at the Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. It was gooey goodies on the Food Network and sewing tips on HGTV. TNT, which knows drama, was going with “Ghosts of Mississippi,” a theatrical feature about an earlier terrorist attack. Lifetime, too, had movie programming. At VH1, it was still ’90s Week on “Behind the Music.” FX, A&E, USA, Sci-Fi Channel, TNN, Hallmark, SoapNet, Speedvision and others were back with their regular schedules.
But in the real world, local stations had begun devoting significant amounts of broadcast time to the individual tales of the missing.
By Friday, when the all-news channels had taken up the same cause on Web sites and on-air, everyone was trying to look ahead and plan for the unknown.
In the TV sports and cable world, there was a sense that unfolding events would dictate program offerings and schedules this week and for the immediate future.
The launch of one network, Telemundo’s Spanish-language Mun2, was postponed.
Advertising-supported all-news cable networks are losing as much as $40 million per day in ad revenues, according to one estimate. At HBO, the multimillion-dollar promotional campaign for the “Band of Brothers” World War II miniseries was curtailed, with promos continuing only on HBO itself, according to a report.
Fox Sports released a statement expressing full support for the postponement of Major League Baseball and National Football League games over the just-concluded weekend, giving sports fans time to reflect and grieve.
ESPN was expected to resume broadcasting baseball Monday if Major League Baseball went ahead with its planned resumption of games.
Events all across the sports spectrum have been postponed, “and some of those we planned to televise,” an ESPN spokesman said. “Our studio programs and news programs and whatever taped programs we had scheduled I’m sure would run pretty much as scheduled.”
“SportsCenter” coverage has and will continue to look at the impact of the tragedy on the sports world, the spokesman said, “still recognizing very consistently throughout that sports is a very minor and trivial element right now. I expect that we would continue to take that same tone.”
At the local and network level in New York, the hope was that people could squeeze in at least a day off, but the plan was to be on the air-or at least capable of it-throughout the weekend.
“We’re going to continue our coverage indefinitely,” said Ms. Quillinan at WCBS, which continued to earn double-digit ratings and shares in the 20s through Thursday.
Stations and networks that had, without complaint or public comment, run up a deficit of millions of dollars through the first days of sponsor-free coverage began to contemplate the possibility of easing back into commercial breaks.
Mixing in specials
ABC had mapped out a plan that included live news programming, including a Peter Jennings specia
l for kids, encore airings of all six hours of “The Century” and hour-long news specials at 10 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and every night for the next week.
NBC, which experienced its first nationwide loss of signal during Friday’s “Nightly News,” planned to go in and out of news programming throughout the weekend, as did CBS.
Mr. Shine said the weekend would find Fox News Channel “basically up and running 24-7, commercial-free,” though some weekend programming would repeat.
At MSNBC, Mr. Sorenson said, “I can’t get my brain around going off the air for anything, for a commercial, for a taped program or for anything else.”