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Tuned In: This was reality TV at its most horrific

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Horrific video of a plane headed toward the World Trade Center. Scenes of people leaping to their deaths from the fire- and smoke-engulfed towers. Images of shocked rescue workers covered in soot. An icon of the nation's military in shambles.

They all marked the unforgettable television coverage of yesterday's terrorist attacks on the United States.

What began on morning news programs as a day of concern over the state of the U.S. economy quickly morphed into something far more serious. Chatty morning shows had already switched into breaking news mode when a second plane crashed into the second World Trade Center tower. This time there was video.

The events unfolding before our eyes were terrifying -- not just because of the sight of the plane headed straight toward the building, but because of the feeling of helplessness it instilled in viewers at home.

And yet, the footage was eerily familiar.

"It's reminiscent of the worst kind of effects in movies, but this was not an effect," said an ABC producer who witnessed the second plane's impact.

It's a truism that when the news is at its worst, networks and local stations are at their best. Television coverage of national tragedies, whether the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger or yesterday's terrorist attack, is visceral and sobering. It's a moment when television fulfills its promise as a uniting force, a place for Americans to gather in shared sorrow.

Unlike the bombing in Oklahoma City, this wasn't a single incident. The bad news kept coming, including the first early reports of the United Airlines jetliner -- presumably hijacked -- that crashed in Somerset County, just 80 miles from Pittsburgh.

At the outset, network anchors scrambled to get on the air, with ABC's Peter Jennings making it into the studio first. NBC's Tom Brokaw followed, and CBS's Dan Rather took over for Bryant Gumbel by 10 a.m.

Most anchors tried to instill a sense of calm. After the first plane hit, speculation was limited. After the second plane hit, when it became obvious this was no accident, anchors were more willing to consider the possibilities.

"We must say now, we are a nation under siege," said an anchor on Fox News Channel.

One might have hoped it would prove to be an inflammatory overstatement, but once the Pentagon was attacked the acknowledgment of unimagined terrorism was all too real.

When Rather got on the air, he took a measured approach. "There is much that is not known about what's happening," he said. "The word of the day is steady."

But as the situation worsened, it was impossible for viewers or news anchors to heed that advice.

"A catastrophe on the tip of Manhattan," Rather said 30 minutes later, after a silent replay of video of the second tower's collapse. "There are no words that can describe this. It is a time to watch, absorb and think ... New York's World Trade Center, in effect, has been destroyed. The loss of life will be high."

Brokaw, who's written several books about the heroes of World War II, suggested Sept. 11 will be a day that will live in infamy, something that became more prescient as the day wore on.

"This is war," he said. "This is a declaration and execution of an attack on the United States ... The damage is beyond our ability to tell you in great detail."

"This is a 21st century Pearl Harbor," said an anchor on Fox News Channel.

Fox put Fox News Channel coverage on the FX entertainment network, and Pittsburgh's WPGH also picked up that feed and later put its own anchors on the air. CNN Headline News simulcast its coverage from the CNN mother network.

Throughout the morning, networks did their best to manage the chaos, but there were bits of speculation that got onto the air. Reports of a plane circling the White House proved inaccurate. Later, some Pittsburgh stations suggested a plane from Pittsburgh had been hijacked and was circling Dulles airport in northern Virginia. That was untrue as well.

The news of the day was horrific enough, but it hit home at 10:40 a.m. when WPXI's David Johnson broke into NBC's coverage with news of the airline crash in Somerset County. WTAE's Sally Wiggin had the same report a few minutes later, and KDKA's Don Cannon and Susan Barnett followed seconds after that with news of the plane crash and word that the USX Tower was being evacuated as a safety precaution.

As so often happens with breaking news, the physical location of each station aided its coverage. Early on, KDKA had the most comprehensive coverage from Downtown. WPXI had the first pictures of the Somerset crash site thanks to sister station WJAC in Johnstown (though the reporter mistakenly noted "a plane actually landed in that," when the charred field made clear there was no "landing" at all). Channel 11 also was first with the news of a cell phone distress call to 911 from a passenger on the doomed plane.

WTAE quickly got an expert into the studio, and anchor Scott Baker did a good job at noon putting into context the events of the morning, particularly relating to questions of where the second downed United Airlines plane had crashed.

Even in times of terror, television stations have no difficulty creating headlines and graphics to accompany news. All three local stations headlined their newscasts "Attack on America."

Stations brought in their own reporters to talk about those they knew who survived the attacks in New York. KDKA's Andy Sheehan spoke of his brother, who escaped from the World Trade Center before the second plane hit. WPXI traffic reporter Katina Forte reported that her sister had survived, and Dr. Mike Rosen gave his impressions as a native New Yorker.

WPXI anchors David Johnson and Peggy Finnegan eventually took phone calls from viewers.

Callers were prominent on radio, too. The dialogue on local talk shows quickly turned from shock and disbelief to finger-pointing and speculation on how anti-terrorism intelligence and airport security systems may have failed the nation.

KDKA-AM veered from its talk format to a combination of news updates, interviews with experts and reactions from listeners. The station dovetailed its breaking news coverage with host Fred Honsberger's morning show on PCNC and pre-empted syndicated Rush Limbaugh to stay with local talk and coverage.

WPTT-AM pooled its talk hosts into a team -- Lynn Cullen and Jerry Bowyer, joined later by Doug Hoerth. The station ran for hours without commercials.

As with all national stories, local TV and radio stations played an important role. But the national networks owned the day, given their resources, noted guests and ability to put the events into a broader perspective.

That perspective, of course, is rooted in reality. Televised violence is nothing new, but mostly the result of entertainment programming that is imagined. The chilling images of tragedy that danced across our screens yesterday were all too horrific, all too disheartening and all too real.

Post-Gazette staff writer Adrian McCoy contributed to this report.

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