The terrorist attacks that brought down the World Trade Center towers and pierced the Pentagon affected all Americans, including journalists who were there and those handling the early coverage. Because of the attacks, SPJ 2001 National Convention planners quickly substituted, expanded or added several panel discussions about the Sept. 11 events and their impact on journalism. Alicia Shepard, a senior writer for American Journalism Review moderated one of those panels. It included a journalist who was in the first tower as it was hit and a West Coast editor who flew from Los Angeles to New York in a chartered jet – one of the country’s first post-attack flights. Marty Wolk, MSNBC business reporter, was covering a business meeting at the World Trade Center’s north tower, the first tower to be hit. He spoke quietly of the confusion, shock and disbelief during the attack and in the days afterward. Wolk said that, during the first few hours, he was “part survivor, part journalist,” operating on automatic pilot and using family “connections” to get his story back to MSNBC headquarters in Redmond, Wash. Steve Yoder, San Francisco bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, flew into New York as soon as air travel was permitted to supplement and relieve Journal reporters who lost office space the World Financial Center. “(New York) editors who should be here to tell you this story not only saw and covered the news, they became part of it,” he said. “Many were interviewing people who flooded the street after the first plane hit, then joined the crowd fleeing after the second hit. They were running for their lives while trying to report the news and call their families.” Dan Drummond, of The Washington Times, was on 395 heading to Reagan National Airport when the Pentagon was struck. “I saw an explosion and a plume of smoke, then the traffic stopped,” he said. After calling a radio station and his editor to update them, Drummond “did what a journalist does – I started to interview people stopped on 395.” Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman at the Freedom Forum, was driving to his Pentagon-area office when he heard of the New York attacks on the radio. He was on a Pentagon parking lot ramp facing the east side of the building and level with the third floor when American Flight 77 hit the building’s southwest face and exploded. “All of a sudden, I saw a huge fireball over the building,” he said. “It was angry red and yellow, then turned into a sickeningly oily black cloud. I felt the intense heat through my windshield, but I never heard a sound.” Drex Heikes, executive editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine, told of reporters far from ground zero. In addition to putting out an extra edition that day, the Los Angeles Times had some “1,100 people develop a worldwide coverage game plan in six hours. We had 20 open pages for the next day, covering four major story elements: on-site, regional, international and the investigation.” Another panel member, Federal Emergency Management Agency Region 10 Public Affairs Officer Mike Howard, described the agency’s role in disaster relief and told how the agency relies on the media to provide critical public information. Most of the reporters faced technical problems in reporting the story, and some had to find creative solutions to get information to their editors. “I wanted to file a story,” Wolk said, “but I had left my laptop, my PDA and my cell phone [in WTC 1] as I ran from the building.” Most of the public phones Wolk saw in the Wall Street area were being used or didn’t work. When he finally did find a phone to use, he couldn’t get the MSNBC news desk in Redmond, Wash. After trying several other numbers without success, he reached his mother in Cleveland “because she has a personal 800 number.” When his mother couldn’t dial up a conference call between Wolk and his editor, “she finally called MSNBC on another phone and held the two handsets together so my editor and I could shout at one another,” in what Wolk called an example of “hands-on connectivity.” Wolk called his wife to let her know he was OK only after filing his story. Yoder said the Wall Street Journal was able to put out a paper only a half-day later because of dogged reporting and a lot of luck. The Journal set up a duplicate computer system in New Brunswick, N.J., after the 1993 WTC car bombing. The remote computer installation was tested the previous weekend, and one editor with a DSL line at home luckily had a full list of work in progress on his home computer “They put out a paper and witnessed carnage that is unspeakable,” said Yoder. “Many are still in recovery mode.”
PENTAGON CHAOS, REPORTING CARE
Only an hour after seeing the explosion from the highway, Drummond arrived at the Pentagon. “It was chaos. People were walking around in a daze. I saw Marines crying and watched a Navy man fall down and have convulsions,” he said. Although he “couldn’t know what to do or what really happened,” he again called his editor to dictate a report – only one of 20 news, feature and Web stories he reported over the next seven days. Drummond cautioned reporters in similar disasters to do careful reporting. Saying, “first, do no harm,” he chastised late-arriving, out-of-town reporters who irritated local reporters and victims with insensitive questions. He added that good reporting could be done with care. He told of a Washington Post reporter – an ex-Emergency Medical Technician – who took off his press badge and worked on the Pentagon rescue efforts. “He told everyone he was a reporter but was there to help, and they put him to work,” Drummond said. “He later wrote a great story about some guy just standing around, waiting for his wife’s body to be recovered.”
Los Angeles Times bureaus in New York and D.C. carried the brunt of the early on-scene coverage, Heikes said. The paper also tapped its 22 foreign bureaus to cover the story, assigned Los Angeles, D.C. and overseas reporters to track the investigation, and blanketed the Los Angeles region with reporters to cover local angles. The Times also sent eight more reporters and two more photographers to key overseas sites, including Tajikistan and the Middle East. It flew additional editors and photographers to the attack sites in a Gulfstream jet chartered for $45,888.81 – “complete with stewardess and meals,” said Heikes. Staffers on that flight arrived in New York at 11:30 p.m. and “chased down reports until 2 a.m. that first day,” he said.
None of the panelists could say whether anyone is formally monitoring what foreign media say about U.S. policies abroad. Heikes said reporters should judge how well we’ve reported on U.S. policies overseas. He said “most U.S. media have cut back on foreign coverage, and now they’re trying to parachute people in to get the other side of the story. They’re finding that a lot of people out there don’t like us. Before we leap into how we’re going to cover this war, we ought to ask how well we’ve done (international coverage) so far.” Yoder said the “why do they hate us” lament shows that the media haven’t done a great job in international coverage, and that is one reason why so many explanatory and educational stories have run since the Sept. 11 attacks.
George Bukota provides public relations and industrial journalism services for clients in aviation, biotechnology, chemicals, food processing, processing and sensing instruments, plastics and refining. He has more than 25 years experience in PR and journalism, including work with The Associated Press and CBS Radio News.