- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 12, 2001

ON MEDIA

Smoke, ash, sirens, oaths, chaos: Yesterday's appalling terrorist attack presented both nightmare and opportunity to a news media initially faced with high drama and few facts.
The first and worst hour unfolded with relentless force, transfixing both press and public.
At 8:45 a.m., the airwaves flooded with unthinkable, live images of a smoking New York City skyscraper and scattered reports, followed by the surreal flight of an airliner into the second tower 18 minutes later. At 9:40, the Pentagon also was hit by a hijacked airliner, with news of another plane crash in Pennsylvania less than an hour later.
Even veteran news correspondents lapsed into stunned silence or emotionally charged repetition as they struggled to put events into context. "There are no words for this," said CNN's Judy Woodruff. "We are just beginning to grasp the magnitude of it. We must all reach out to each other, and to a higher being."
"I stopped taking pictures and started crying," said Michael Walters, a free-lance photographer who was in the street below the burning towers of the World Trade Center.
It took two hours to distill the real news from the miasma of eyewitness accounts, violent vignettes, heroic acts and analyses that continued nonstop through the afternoon. Reporters around the globe clung to the numbers: four hijacked airliners, three disaster sites, 266 souls aboard the doomed aircraft, 50,000 Manhattan workers, 10,000 rescuers.
Amateur video footage shown on CNN and taken by a doctor who walked the dim rubble of the tower aftermath was among the grimmest, punctuated by the squeal of respirators and the crunch of boots upon ash.
Some anchors indulged themselves, including CBS' Dan Rather, who predicted that "rumors will spread like mold through a damp basement," or MSNBC's Brian Williams, who observed, "The Empire State Building is once again the city's tallest structure." ABC's Peter Jennings criticized the White House for its lack of immediate comment.
By noon, both cable and broadcast networks were in standard disaster mode, cluttering screens with overwrought graphics, experts, simulations, viewer call-ins and inevitable speculation. Overwhelmed, many correspondents made the unfortunate comparison of yesterday's events to a Hollywood disaster movie.
Rumors and anonymous sources surfaced to the detriment of news credibility; false reports of a State Department bombing and potential bioterrorism lingered for hours.
Still, the gravity of the situation prevailed for the most part. Competition ceased among the networks, which shared disaster footage and other information. Normal programming was suspended on most cable and broadcast networks, including ESPN, VH1, TNT and TVB, which picked up various news feeds from ABC, CBS and CNN.
News radio stations hit their stride, supplying traffic and school closing reports and information on blood donor sites, church services and community emergency plans.
Newspapers across the country, meanwhile, issued extra afternoon editions with banner headlines often reduced to single words like "Attack," "Horror" and "Terror." Accounts were not shy. "Attacks rip Trade Center, Pentagon, America's Soul," stated the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Terrorism against our nation will not stand," said the Tampa Tribune.
"Who would do this?" asked the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette while the St. Louis Post-Dispatch articulated a succinct emotion felt around America: "We are living through another day of infamy: Sept. 11, 2001."


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