Jet Threat Scrambles Crews

Aug 14, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The first message that hit NBC News President Steve Capus’ pager at 1:13 a.m. last Thursday “was vague enough that it didn’t set off the alarms,” he said. “‘U.K. police arrest several in plot to blow up U.K.-to-U.S. flights.'”

Two hours later, the message on Mr. Capus’ pager was “homeland security raises security levels.”

By then, all the network news organizations in the U.S. were in full scramble with their London crews to assemble reports on the arrests of 24 people who had planned to blow up to 10 U.S.-bound planes out of the sky.

In a matter of a few hours, morning shows had to be re-booked with terrorism experts substituting for chefs, movie stars and mystery authors as the three network news divisions raced to bring their morning viewers complete, polished reports that would distinguish their programs. ABC, CBS and NBC news staffs rushed to establish satellite uplinks and feeds, and set up special reports to break the news to waking viewers whose local programming was interrupted.

Once the news broke Thursday of an exposed terrorism plot to blow up planes with liquid explosives, passengers by the thousands, from London to Los Angeles and beyond, were discarding their carry-on liquids and gels in hope of getting through the masses of humanity queuing up in airport terminals and onto their planes.

A number of those stacked up in the airports were frequent-flying television correspondents with, of course, their cellphones. The cells got audio out of some airports more reliably than they transmitted video.

“Sometimes you’re better off being lucky than good,” said Steve Friedman, VP for morning broadcasts at CBS News. He meant no disrespect whatever to CBS News troops, including Sheila MacVicar, the veteran of international hotspots, who was at Heathrow Airport in London because she was scheduled to fly into Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday morning.

In Los Angeles, terrorism expert Christopher Whitcomb had been lined up just Wednesday night to talk on “The Early Show” Thursday about the Egyptian students who had gone off the grid after flying into New York. Presto, change-o, and “The Early Show’s” Julie Chen, on the West Coast to host Thursday night’s live “Big Brother: All-Stars,” interviewed Mr. Whitcomb Thursday morning about the unnerving plot to set off bombs on London-to-U.S. airplanes.

Tom Cibrowski, the new day-to-day executive producer of “Good Morning America” (Jim Murphy is the new big-picture senior executive producer), said it was a challenge to report in and around Heathrow with the chaos there.

“We were able to get a reporter inside and outside Heathrow,” he said. “Some of our more interesting reports came from Mike Lee, who made his way into Heathrow and interviewed people live on the phone who were trying to get on a plane. There were really interesting little anecdotal stories about what it was like to be there waiting with so many of the flights being canceled.”

ABC News’ Cynthia McFadden, scheduled to fly out of New York’s LaGuardia; Steve Osunsami, scheduled to fly out of Atlanta; and Jim Avila, scheduled to fly out of Los Angeles filed audio and text reports via cellphones about the ripple effects they were witnessing. Mr. Osunsami said on “GMA” that the Atlanta lines were the longest he’s ever seen them.

“GMA” was live right up to the very end of its West Coast edition.

Jim Bell, who left NBC Sports to become executive producer of “Today” in April 2005, said a day like Thursday “is definitely a lot more gymnastics” than producing Olympics out of a time zone that complicates the packaging of the games in this country.

“The stories develop and you want to protect yourself, so you keep the show intact. And then around 3 in the morning, you realize the first half-hour is now entirely changed, OK, then it looks like the second half-hour is changed,” he said. “Certainly, the secondary consideration is ‘Can those things that were slotted there live another day?’ Fortunately, in nearly every case, everything is living another day, so the work was not for nothing.”

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff held a 35-minute press conference starting at 8 a.m.

“When that happens, the madness of that moment is now we’re live at 7 o’clock in Chicago, so Chicago, when they come on the air at 7, are getting our 8 o’clock. Now they need an 8 o’clock. So at our 9 o’clock they get that as their 8 o’clock. So now they need a 9 o’clock, so I guess we’re doing a 10 o’clock.”

“Today” co-anchor Matt Lauer was in the anchor chair seven hours. He also anchored a special report at 6 a.m. ET. “He loves every minute of it, but that was a long day,” Mr. Bell said.

NBC News Chief Financial Officer Adam Jones was headed to Heathrow to fly back to the U.S. as the news about the apparently foiled plot was breaking in Britain. When the traffic stacked up badly, he ditched his taxi and got on the Heathrow train.

“He sent me an e-mail in the middle of the night saying, ‘I don’t think I’m going to be able to get home,’ and I sent him an e-mail saying, ‘Hey, I need you to get on television.’ So he became a multi-tasker,” reporting via phone for MSNBC, Mr. Capus said.

Also reporting in by phone Thursday morning was “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams, who had just the night before begun a vacation with his family. Mr. Williams likes to keep the location of family trips private, so there was a request to describe Mr. Williams only as having been in the U.K. when the story broke.

However, hours before, two cellphone reports from Mr. Williams, who was already making his way toward Heathrow, were datelined “Edinburgh, Scotland.” By that night, everyone knew he was anchoring “Nightly” out of Heathrow.