Television anchors guided US through horror of September 11

Tom Brokaw of NBC News, Peter Jennings of ABC and Dan Rather of CBS provided a sense of national leadership on that day 20 years ago.

Dan Rather from CBS, Peter Jennings from ABC's World News Tonight and NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw
Dan Rather from CBS, Peter Jennings from ABC's World News Tonight and NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw

Before social media and with online news in its infancy, the story of the day when terrorists killed 2,996 people in New York City on September 11 2001 unfolded primarily on television.

Most Americans were guided through the unimaginable by one of three men: Tom Brokaw of NBC News, Peter Jennings of ABC and Dan Rather of CBS.

“They were the closest thing that America had to national leaders on 9/11,” says Garrett Graff, author of The Only Plane In The Sky, an oral history of the attack.

“They were the moral authority for the country on that first day, fulfilling a very historical role of basically counselling the country through this tragedy at a moment its political leadership was largely silent and largely absent from the conversation.”

The Pentagon on 9/11
FILE – A helicopter flies over the Pentagon in Washington as smoke billows over the building on September 11 2001 (AP Photo/Heesoon Yim, File)

On that day, when America faced the worst of humanity, it had three newsmen at the peak of their powers.

Mr Brokaw, Mr Rather and Mr Jennings were the kings of broadcast news on September 11 2001. Each had anchored his network’s evening newscasts for roughly two decades at that point. Each had extensive reporting experience before that.

“The three of us were known because we had taken the country through other catastrophes and big events,” Mr Brokaw recalled this summer. “The country didn’t have to, if you will, dial around to see who knew what.”

Each man was in New York that morning and rushed to their respective studios within an hour of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center at 8.46am (1.46pm BST).

Smoke billows across New York City on 9/11
Smoke billows across the New York City skyline after two hijacked planes crashed into the twin towers on September 11 2001 (AP)

“It was clear that it was an attack on America,” says Marcy McGinnis, who was in charge of breaking news at CBS that day. “You want the most experienced person in that chair because they bring so much.”

David Westin, ABC News president at the time, said of the confusion and disbelief at the time: “The country needed some sort of stability, some sort of ground.

“Where are we? What’s going on? How bad can this get? It needed some sense of: ‘There’s some things we do know and some things we don’t know. But this is how we go forward from here.'”

Those are usually duties handled by politicians who take to the airwaves at the first sign of a wildfire, hurricane, pandemic or some other disaster. Yet government leaders, including then-president George W Bush, were kept out of sight for much of the day until it was clear the attack was over.

Each anchor exhibited particular strengths that day.

World Trade Centre
Fire and smoke billows from the north tower of New York’s World Trade Centre on September 11 2001 (AP)

Mr Brokaw, author of the just-published The Greatest Generation, about those who fought the Second World War, was instantly able to put the event into context: We were witnessing history, he explained, and not just news.

He called it a declaration of war on the United States and said day-to-day life had changed forever. Looking back, Mr Brokaw says it was his primary job to give viewers more than they could see for themselves onscreen.

“Throughout my career, I was constantly trying to think, ‘What’s the big picture here?’” he says. “I think that was especially true that day.”

Mr Rather would tap his foot on the brakes, reminding those watching to distinguish between fact and speculation. He told viewers that “the word of the day is steady, steady.”

He told the Associated Press: “Emotions and tensions were high that day.

“In order to cut through the noise, to help calm the panic, you have to be clear, concise and transparent. People will know exactly where they stand and can assess for themselves.”

Smoke from the attack
US news anchors helped provide a sense of leadership after the twin towers were attacked (AP)

Surprisingly few false reports slipped through in those early hours, most prominently that a car bomb had exploded at the State Department in Washington. One group falsely claimed responsibility for the attack.

Mr Jennings was the consummate anchorman. He skilfully weaved all of the elements — eyewitness accounts, expert analysis, fast-breaking bulletins and what viewers saw with their own eyes — into a compelling narrative.

“That’s what he was born to do,” says Kayce Freed Jennings, widow of the ABC anchorman, who died of lung cancer in August 2005. “He was in a zone. He was a great communicator and, perhaps, great communication was the most important thing he could offer that day.”

Each of the anchors, trained in the old school, kept emotions in check. The exception was Mr Jennings, whose eyes were moist when the camera returned to him following a report by ABC’s Lisa Stark.

He revealed that he had just checked in with his children, who were deeply stressed. “So if you’re a parent and you’ve got a kid in some other part of the country, call ’em up,” he advised.

At first, talk of casualties was kept at a minimum. No-one knew.

That changed when the second tower imploded, still the morning’s most breathtaking moment. The anchors prepared viewers for the worst. The loss of life is going to be high, Mr Rather said.

It is going to be horrendous, Mr Brokaw told viewers. The damage is beyond what we can say.

“We’re all human,” Brokaw said this summer, “even those of us who are journalists who spend our lives trying to put things into context and add to the viewers’ understanding. We have to be both empathetic and help the viewer through what they are seeing.”

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