Magazine article American Journalism Review

"We Have a Breaking Story ..."

Magazine article American Journalism Review

"We Have a Breaking Story ..."

Article excerpt

The trauma of September 11 began unfolding for many Americans on the network morning shows.

AS THE TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 11, BROADCAST of CBS' "The Early Show" approached 9 o'clock, the program was airing an update about the winners of its "week of wishes" contest last May. It was one of those morning news viewer-involvement-type contests, in which the show granted five lucky people their wishes. A new car for a hard-working mom. A widow's promise to scatter her husband's ashes in South Dakota fulfilled. Coanchor Jane Clayson narrated a taped segment on how the winners were faring.

When the piece wound down, viewers weren't faced with a smiling Clayson and Bryant Gumbel chatting it up on the set. Instead, they got a concerned Gumbel:

"It's 8:52 here in New York," he told viewers. "We understand that there has been a plane crash on the southern tip of Manhattan. You're looking at the World Trade Center. We understand that a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center. We don't know anything more than that."

A minute or two earlier, Senior Executive Producer Steve Friedman and others in the control room had looked up at monitors that showed views from "Early Show" cameras throughout the city. They saw smoke coming out of World Trade Center Tower One. "Smoke," he says, "not fire."

"We called WCBS," the local affiliate, Friedman says, and heard it might have been a plane that hit the tower. "Lucky for us, the tape was just ending, and we went on."

Those in the control room started calling offices in the trade center, people they knew. And people who had seen the crash called the network. Within seconds, the first of a string of witnesses was on the line.

"Could you tell us-could you give us your name?" Gumbel asked.

"Yeah, my name is Stuart,"

From his job at a restaurant in New York's trendy SoHo section, Stuart explained what he had seen: a small plane ("it looked like it like bounced off the building"), then a ball of fire, then a lot of smoke.

Those first confusing, horrific events of September 11 unfolded for many Americans live on the network morning shows. As they neared an end, programs that were airing soft features abruptly became the launching point for days of continuous coverage. Normally criticized for carrying too much fluff-those rooftop cameras are for the "beauty shots," Central Park views, Backstreet Boys concerts-these shows were responsible for the initial haunting images of a very serious news story. "Probably the hardest news story of my lifetime," Friedman says.

In the waning moments of ABC's "Good Morning America," "we got a call in our control room, in our news desk, that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center," says Executive Producer Shelley Ross.

Charles Gibson had wrapped up an interview with Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, and the show had gone to a commercial break It returned with a 30-second promo for Ted Koppel's Congo series. "I really thought it would just be a quirky picture," says Ross of her initial reaction. "I really thought when I first heard that a plane had crashed that it was a small plane...and I looked at the clock and I wondered...how many people would be in the World Trade Center." She asked someone to find out how many people worked there and when the tourist observation tower opened. Not until 9:30.

The control room alerted coanchors Diane Sawyer and Gibson that they were going to a live shot of the towers. At 8:51, Sawyer cautiously told viewers it might have been a plane, though that couldn't be confirmed, and Gibson was the first of the anchors to say anything about terrorists, referring to the 1993 bombing in the basement of the World Trade Center. "But this we don't know anything about," Gibson said. "We don't know about anything that has happened here other than the fact that there's obviously been a major incident there. And we're going to go to a special report now from ABC News. …

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