Dan Rather Gwen Ifill, Robert Siegel and Andrew Heyward speak on how 9/11 changed media
Ten years later, what Dan Rather still remembers with vivid clarity is how it all began: spotting a wisp of smoke wafting from the upper floors of the World Trade Center while getting ready for work.
Soon after, Rather was dressed and climbing the stairs of the anchor desk at the center of CBS's newsroom on Sept. 11, 2001, about to start a 14-hour marathon of reporting that opened five days of continuous coverage. His mission: tell people what you know, what you don't know and that what you think you know at first usually isn't the whole story.
He only had a vague sense of it then, but Rather knew the country's world had suddenly, violently changed. And the media were along for the ride.
"We Americans before 9/11 had this feeling of invulnerability and insularity," he said. "It was fueled by our complacency and not being as engaged with the world as a whole. My country had been attacked on its own soil. I had great compassion, great grief … but I also was just mad as hell."
It was a singular moment in American journalism; covering what felt like the first made-for-TV terrorist attack, in which planes crashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon as network and cable TV morning news covered events in real time.
But 10 years later, what surprises most is how little lasting structural change 9/11 may have brought to modern media, which these days seems more transformed by expanding technology and collapsing economic models.
I wrote a story for Sunday's Perspective section on this issue, quoting everyone from Rather's old boss former CBS News president Andrew Heyward to PBS host Gwen Ifill. See the rest of that story -- along with notes of how Fox News got a leg up on MSNBC in the cable news wars thanks to 9/11 war fever -- by clicking here.
What follows is some quotes from my sources which couldn't make in into the piece I wrote, particularly great moments from Rather recalling what may have been his biggest story covered since the Vietnam War.
Rather, comparing handling emotions on 9/11 to handling emotions while covering the assassination of John F. Kennedy: "“My country had been attacked – on its own soil. I’ve been through a number of things, but the emotional impact (of the Kennedy assassination), the sledgehammer to the heart of realizing the president had not only been shot but killed – I had to push that so far down, seal out everything and focus on the story. Same thing happened on 9/11 – I was struggling with my emotions, (telling myself) don’t start thinking emotionally, because once you start thinking that way, you won’t be able to stop it. It's what tennis players call getting zoned. There was a struggle the first hour and half, two hours saying 'Emotions go away; get zoned.' Once I got that laser beam focus and got it locked into place, it wasn’t so difficult to keep my own emotions in check. I remembered, it wasn’t until the following (week) that my emotions hit me like a concrete truck – as people were coming out of their emotions I was going into mine."
Ifill and her staff at Washington Week have created a web page full of video clips featuring journalists recalling 9/11 coverage. You can see that by clicking here. She remembered the panic in Washington after the plane hit the Pentagon and rumors flew that another attack was imminent.
Ifill said: "David Broder came on (Washington Week) to say we’re at war – that was the first I had heard anybody say that...I spent a lot of time working on a segment about how the military has changed. I talked to a guy who lost both legs and has PTSD – a lot of Americans don’t have the reality of the story. There are a lot of people who were born after 9/11 and don’t know another reality. If you’re human, you feel it. I find myself tearing up when a woman talks about the lost soldiers. This is an actual sacrifice issue. That’s why so many reporters comes back to the story of sacrifice. It changes the way you process things.”
NPR anchor Robert Siegel was one of the reporters who headed to a hospital in the immediate aftermath of the planes flying into the World Trade Center, only to realize there would be no causalities there because most people caught in the Twin Towers were killed. Later, he put together pieces about all the stories behind the documents which covered Ground Zero like a carpet after the attack and remarked on the dust cloud which hung over the city for days like a shroud.
Siegel said: "People said the summer before (9/11) we were obsessed with shark attacks and (adulterous Congressman) Gary Condit. To the extent that I recall it, it was sort of - we’d been through the election campaign... and I noted how little Osama bin Laden and terrorism was mentioned during the presidential election. Al Quaeda attacked our embassies (in 1998) destroyed a naval vessel (The U.S.S. Cole) and it didn’t get any response. One of the reasoning is that whatever they did (pre-9/11), it would get no response from America. They attacked our embassies and destroyed a naval vessel – finally they did something that made us take notice.”
Former CBS News chief Heyward remains disappointed that media outlets have continued downsizing resources for covering international stories, despite the continuing threat of international terrorism and two wars underway on foreign soil. He recalled the aftermath of 9/11 as a moment where Americans expected media outlets to show patriotism and support the government.
Heyward said: "We were aware that the public was in a patriotic fervor. I remember when reporters asked their normal questions to (then Defense Secretary ) Donald Rumsfeld at the outset of the Iraq war, and you would get emails saying it was unpatriotic to question the government in the prosecution of the war. Your own country was attacked. No matter how seasoned you are as (a journalist), it was hard to separate the emotion of that from the coverage. The most dramatic result of that was the overly credulous and ultimately very flawed reporting on the (allegations of) weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I think journalists, the entire journalistic establishment, has a lot to answer for in the run up to the Iraq war and weapons of mass destruction coverage. I think that was to some extent a visceral reaction to the fact that the country was attacked. There were not enough tough, skeptical questions asked about the excuse or reason given for invading Iraq.”