TV presenters guided US through 9/11 horror

Before social media and with online news in its infancy, the story of the day terrorists killed 2,996 people in New York City on September 11, 2001, played mostly on television.

Most Americans have been guided through the unimaginable by one of three men: Tom Brokaw of NBC News, Peter Jennings of ABC, and Dan Rather of CBS.

“They were America’s closest national leaders on September 11,” says Garrett Graff, author of The Only Plane In The Sky, an oral history of the attack.

“They were the moral authority for the country on that first day, fulfilling a very historic role of essentially advising the country through this tragedy at a time when its political leaders were largely silent and largely absent from the conversation.”

FILE – A helicopter flies over the Pentagon in Washington as smoke rises above the building on September 11, 2001 (AP Photo / Heesoon Yim, File)

That day, as America faced the worst of humanity, it had three journalists at the height of their power.

Mr. Brokaw, Mr. Rather, and Mr. Jennings were broadcast news kings on September 11, 2001. Each had by then anchored their network’s evening news broadcasts for about two decades. Each had extensive reporting experience prior to that.

“The three of us were famous because we had taken the country through other disasters and great events,” Brokaw recalled this summer. “The country didn’t have to dial in to see who knew what, if you will. “

Each man was in New York City that morning and rushed to their respective studios less than an hour after the first plane struck the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. (1:46 p.m. BST).

Smoke rises from New York on September 11
Smoke rises through New York City skyline after two hijacked planes crash into the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 (AP)

“It was clear that this was an attack on America,” said Marcy McGinnis, who was in charge of breaking news at CBS that day. “You want the most experienced person in this chair because it brings so much. “

David Westin, president of ABC News at the time, said of the confusion and disbelief at the time: “The country needed some kind of stability, some kind of ground.

“Where are we? What’s going on? How bad can it be? It took a certain sense of, ‘There are things we know and things we don’t know. But it is. is how we move forward from here.

These are usually tasks taken on by politicians who take to the air at the first sign of a forest fire, hurricane, pandemic or other disaster. Yet government leaders, including then-President George W Bush, were kept out of sight for much of the day until it was clear the attack was over.

Each anchor exhibited particular strengths that day.

World Trade Center
Fire and smoke rise from the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001 (AP)

Mr. Brokaw, author of the just-released The Greatest Generation on Those Who Fought in WWII, was instantly able to put the event in context: We were witnessing history, he said. explained, and not just news.

He called it a declaration of war on the United States and said everyday life has changed forever. Looking back, Mr Brokaw says it was his main job to give viewers more than they could see for themselves on screen.

“Throughout my career, I was constantly trying to think, ‘What’s the big picture?’ He said. “I think that was especially true that day.”

Mr. Rather tapped his foot on the brakes, reminding those watching to distinguish between fact and speculation. He told viewers that “the word of the day is stable, stable”.

He told The Associated Press: “Emotions and tensions were high that day.

“In order to cut through the noise, to help calm the panic, you have to be clear, concise and transparent. People will know exactly where they stand and can assess for themselves.

Smoke from the attack
US newscasters helped build a sense of leadership after the Twin Towers (AP) attack

Surprisingly, few false reports crept in during those early hours, including that a car bomb had been detonated at the Washington State Department. One group falsely claimed responsibility for the attack.

Mr. Jennings was the accomplished presenter. He skillfully weaved all the elements – eyewitness accounts, expert analysis, breaking news reports and what viewers saw with their own eyes – into a gripping tale.

“That’s what he was born for,” says Kayce Freed Jennings, widow of the ABC presenter, who died of lung cancer in August 2005. “He was in a zone. He was a great communicator and, perhaps, great communication was the most important thing he could offer that day.

Each of the anchors, formed in the old fashioned way, controlled the emotions. The exception was Mr. Jennings, whose eyes were wet when the camera returned to him following a report by ABC’s Lisa Stark.

He revealed that he had just checked in with his children, who were deeply stressed. “So if you’re a parent and have a kid in another part of the country, call them,” he advised.

At first, rumors of losses were kept to a minimum. Nobody knew.

That changed when the second tower imploded, the most breathtaking moment of the morning. The presenters prepared viewers for the worst. The loss of life is going to be high, Mr said earlier.

It’s going to be horrible, Mr Brokaw told viewers. The damage is beyond what can be said.

“We are all human,” Brokaw said this summer, “even those of us who are journalists who spend our lives trying to put things in context and add to the understanding of viewers. both empathetic and helping the viewer through what they see.

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