#AskNewser: How Did 9/11 Change the Course of Your Career in TV News?

By A.J. Katz 

The 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is tomorrow, and television news, as one might expect, is delivering wall-to-wall coverage of the landmark event throughout the day, beginning in the early-morning hours.

Not only did Sept. 11, 2001 change America forever, but it also altered how television news covers current events.

For our latest #AskNewser installment, we caught up with some of the business’s most experienced journalists, and asked them the following question: “How did 9/11 change the course of your career in TV news?”

Some of the responses might surprise you.

The participants in this edition of #AskNewser are: CNN The Situation Room anchor Wolf Blitzer, CBS News national security correspondent David Martin, NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent and chief Washington correspondent (and MSNBC host) Andrea Mitchell, PBS NewsHour chief correspondent and primary substitute anchor Amna Nawaz, Univision News anchor Jorge Ramos, CBS’ 60 Minutes correspondent Jon Wertheim, Fox Report anchor Jon Scott, Fox News chief Washington correspondent Mike Emanuel, CNN international diplomatic editor Nic Robertson, MSNBC senior national correspondent and anchor Chris Jansing, MSNBC anchor Alex Witt,CNBC senior markets correspondent Bob Pisani, NBC News White House correspondent Kelly O’Donnell, Bloomberg News anchor (and former ABC News president) David Westin as well as Bloomberg Television and Radio anchor Carol Massar.

Blitzer: Given my background as a former CNN Pentagon and White House correspondent who specialized in national security, it was not long after 9/11 that I was asked to begin anchoring CNN’s special coverage of the war in Afghanistan in 2001 and then in Iraq in 2003. The time I spent anchoring our special coverage of Afghanistan and Iraq certainly contributed to the creation of The Situation Room in 2005, which I am still anchoring today.

Emanuel: The Sept. 11 attacks forced a lot of us to go from being correspondents focused on domestic issues to war correspondents. A month after the attacks I was sent to Islamabad, Pakistan to cover the build-up to the invasion of Afghanistan. Since then, there have been multiple assignments in Afghanistan, a military embed in Iraq and extensive time spent covering the Pentagon. Reporting in those places has brought me a much better understanding of the complexity of our world. 9/11 taught us those who hate America across the globe could bring death and destruction to innocent people here at home, and we need to pay close attention to those threats.

Jansing (seen anchoring on 9/11/01 from the roof of MSNBC’s former headquarters in Secaucus, NJ, with lower Manhattan in the distance): The months following 9/11 became intense, [with] round-the-clock breaking news coverage. Our country was under attack, our emotions under assault and with no sophisticated news websites or social media—cable television became, in a very visceral way, a human lifeline—providing viewers with information they desperately wanted as it was happening, but also allowing survivors to tell their stories and honor those we had lost. It was a conduit for our shared experience as Americans, and I was very aware of the privilege and the gravity of being able to chronicle these unfolding events.

Martin: I was the Pentagon correspondent for CBS News on 9/11 and I am still in that same job. That day, however, changed everything about my job. After 9/11, the Pentagon was at war and that was all I covered. Every single story had something to do with the war—either what was happening on the battlefield or its consequences here at home. Covering the consequences—the fallen, the amputations, the suicides as well as the Medals of Honor—changed me, exposing me to levels of grief and courage that I’d never experienced before. And in case my memory fails me, I’m reminded every day when I walk past the place where the nose wheel of American Airlines Flight 77 came to rest, 240 feet inside the Pentagon.

Massar: I like so many, remember 9/11 like it was yesterday. Being in lockdown at the NYSE, watching monitors of the towers falling and realizing that we too were a logical target. A known symbol of America. There was a thinking that we might die. There was limited or no communication at times. And then emerging a couple of hours after the towers had fallen. All was gray. A shower of debris blocking our visibility and the sun for several blocks.

As for how I thought about my career, my job … security and terrorism would now be components of just about every future story. It made me aware of how the world is very small now and how interconnected everything is.

And something that has stayed with me, our daily read on-air of the number and often names of people at financial firms working at the towers who died, people we knew, interviewed and talked to regularly. It was (still is) a stark reminder to me that for every big, broad story we do, there are always individuals impacted. Every story. I remember that, as I do that day, 20 years ago.

Mitchell: 9/11—the first foreign attack on America’s continental homeland in two centuries left the nation traumatized and transformed, depending ever more on a constant flow of information from the news media. In those years before social media, we were thrust into a challenging new role, especially on my intelligence and national security beat.

I had been doing stories on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda because of the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, followed by his attacks on our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 and the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. As a result, a half hour after the second plane hit the World Trade Center on 9/11, I was the first to report on NBC News that sources were telling me al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was likely the only terrorist capable of such a highly coordinated series of attacks.

Beyond the tragedy for the immediate victims and first responders, America lost its sense of invulnerability, no longer protected from the evil of terrorism by the distance provided by our oceans. We were immediately thrust into a war on terror that continues to this day, with enormous sacrifices by thousands who died in service to our country. This created new demands on the 24/7 news cycle. 9/11 gave me a new sense of mission and purpose as I covered these events, at home and in conflict zones overseas.

Nawaz: I wouldn’t be a journalist today if it weren’t for 9/11. I began what was supposed to be a year-long journalism fellowship in August of 2001. The plan after that was law school. Then the attacks happened, and the whole world changed. 9/11 was the first big story I covered. For the two decades that followed, some of the biggest stories of my career—the war in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the end of America’s longest war—stemmed directly from that day. Along the way, I saw how rare, and how necessary, a voice like mine was in a newsroom. My family roots, my skin color, my faith all made me targets of suspicion and scrutiny in the country I, as an American, call home. But they also gave me fluency and frontline familiarity with some of the most important stories we, as journalists, would cover. I was blessed to learn very early in my career that in our darkest days, in our most chaotic times, facts and truth will lead the way. They’ll carry you to the next day. And the next. And that’s why I’ve remained a journalist since then.

O’Donnell: Covering 9/11 provided proof in those early days and a powerful memory now that I can never again disregard the unthinkable.

As much as life since paved for us layers of new normal, I remain quietly wary that a beautiful day can be disrupted with danger and utter disaster. That knowledge is often carefully packed away but when there are new threats or warnings today during my assignments on the White House beat, I take a deep breath knowing the unimaginable can become real.

My memories from covering 9/11 for NBC News most often settle on sensory recollections of the scale of destruction at Ground Zero with its acrid air, the stretch of charred field at Shanksville and the neighborhood street corners covered with candles and posters of the missing.

Had that day not happened, I would not have been sent to cover military operations in the Middle East and war in Iraq. But 9/11 influences how I think about all kinds of news assignments because it’s scarred the country and changed many parts of everyday life. That influence makes me ask questions and view events with a pained perspective that 9/11 showed us unthinkable things do happen and can become the stories we tell.

Pisani: I was stocks correspondent for CNBC, based at the NYSE, on 9/11. I was outside and saw the second plane hit. The 9/11 disaster helped push the U.S. economy into a recession. The stock market went into a slow tailspin and did not bottom until October 2002.

There were deep psychological scars on all of us who worked downtown that only gradually emerged. Everyone had a friend or family member who had died. There was also the grim reality of working downtown. The Financial District had morphed into a partly-closed armed camp. It was almost impossible to cross Canal Street, the dividing line between Soho/Chinatown and the Financial District, unless you were a resident or worked at the NYSE or on Wall Street. Police were everywhere, on every corner. No one knew if another attack was coming.

There was, above all, the smoldering pit of the World Trade Center. The smoke would not disappear for a year, and it could be seen for miles around. The worst was the smell: the acrid odor of still-burning paper, office furniture, and building materials.

Some on Wall Street decided to leave the business, but many stayed. Some firms relocated.

I joined a Buddhist meditation center and learned to meditate. It taught me that the world was ever-changing and to stop fighting the things I didn’t like that had happened and concentrate on what I could control—my own thoughts. It calmed me down. It taught me to be more in the moment and stop trying to be a perpetual day-planner, always thinking of nothing but where I am going and have to be. Because of meditation, I decided to stay downtown at the NYSE and continue to report for CNBC. And I am still here, still reporting, still meditating.

Ramos: The year 2019 will never come back, just like the year 2000 never came back. And just as we became accustomed to living with terrorism, we will have to do it with the pandemic.

We forget that the tight security at airports—identification, no metal objects, no water, shoes off, no-flight lists, good-byes outside the airport—are the product of 9/11. And surely the uncomfortable daily use of masks, health alerts, booster shots and filling a lot of forms for travel will stay with us. Terrorism and pandemic are already parts of our lives.

One of the songs popular before the terror attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania was “Beautiful Day” by U2. It was like an anthem to optimism. As though humanity had reached the end of history, like one intellectual suggested, and the future would bring us democracy, justice, equality and respect for human rights. We were so wrong. We could not see beyond the false walls of our borders and our prejudices.

It has taken me two decades to digest what I saw and lived in those days of terror, and I still can’t say that I overcame it. After 9/11, I launched into a crazy journalistic adventure in Afghanistan that could have ended very badly. I suspect I was protected by all the saints I don’t believe in.

 

Robertson: By 9/11 I’d been covering wars for more than a decade: CNN’s engineer in Baghdad as the opening salvos of America cruise missiles crashed into the capital; producer spending best part of three years in Sarajevo, the besieged crucible of the bloody Balkans Bosnia conflict; my first TV report was filed from the front lines of the Afghan war in 1997. 9/11 catapulted me to national and international attention.

I was in Kabul that day by coincidence, but my career to that moment had prepared me for it. Technical savvy to run the ground breaking live broadcast technology “talking head unit” we used, an understanding of conflict generally, the Afghan conflict specifically and a strong knowledge of Bin Laden and al Qaeda.

When the world wanted to hear about al Qaeda and Afghanistan I felt like I had a lot I could contribute and I think that gave me the energy and drive to deliver useful insights for the audience. That I was on air a lot didn’t sink in for many years. It wasn’t until late 2007 when the pace of work backed off a fraction that I could begin to put the experience in perspective.

I think even today I am still coming to terms with the impact it had on my career. It was a natural extension of everything I had done until that moment, but it supercharged my experiences, made them more useful, put me in the limelight more and as a result allowed me to grow stronger as a reporter, more knowledgeable with more contacts and hopefully more worthwhile for the audience.

When all is said and done what really matters in the business of journalism is delivering interesting, insightful and challenging information for the audience. I think 9/11 has helped me do that and have a deeply fulfilling career at the same time.

Scott: Fox News was still young, growing and not yet No. 1 on 9/11/2001 when I anchored the first seven hours of our coverage, from just after the attack on the north tower until 4 p.m. EDT. Looking back, I think I did some of my best work on the worst day any of us had ever seen. Did it alter the course of my career? Not really. My responsibilities at Fox remained fairly constant afterwards. It did alter the arc of my family; my oldest son, Josh, was 12 that day and deeply offended by what happened. It moved him to join the military; he graduated West Point and did a tour in Afghanistan, where of course, 9/11 was planned. Watching him become a soldier and praying for his safety became primary. Family is more important than a career.

Wertheim: A cub reporter at Sports Illustrated, living in lower Manhattan, I was pressed into a completely different kind of reporting duty. One day, you’re in the press room of the U.S. Open; 48 hours later, you’re using your same notepads to conduct interviews in firehouses and hospitals. Cynically, games and trades and sports feuds never felt more trivial—I’m not sure I’ve ever recovered that. Less cynically, the role sports played in unifying , healing and restoring normal was undeniable—I’ve tried not to forget that either.  

Westin: 9/11 forced a lifetime of news into a few short days. For me, it started in my office at ABC News, stunned to see traffic chopper video of smoke pouring out of the North Tower; taking the network to special report out of a GMA break on the east coast; watching live on air as the second plane hit, with Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer taking us through it; getting Peter Jennings into the anchor chair right away; and then continuing ABC News coverage without interruption for four straight days and nights, drawing on every resource we had. It was not about us; it was about the thousands of lives lost, the tens of thousands profoundly affected and about the Nation itself. But I got to see first-hand the dedication and sacrifice of news men and women who were called upon to give their all and more. And did so knowing that this was why they came to news in the first place.

Witt: Covering 9/11 from Ground Zero reinforced the importance of covering a story from all angles and offering big picture context. The events of the day permanently changed society. Reporting How and Why is always as important as the basic facts of the story.

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