I first told the story about what I was doing on the morning of September 11, 2001, on the same date in 2004, the first year in which this blog existed.
Looking back on that post, I wanted to add a few thoughts now that it has been a full decade since that terrible day.
When some people recall that morning, they like to point out that they knew immediately that it was terrorism. As soon as they saw the image of the smoking World Trade Center tower, there was no doubt. Some of them, I’m quite certain, make this claim because they think it makes them seem a lot smarter than the rest of us.
Take from this what you will, but I wasn’t one of those who “instantly” knew. Maybe that’s hard to believe, in a society that seems to hate the media so much because it believes the media does nothing better than jumping to conclusions without first researching things.
But I didn’t jump to what, at that point, would have been a conclusion.
Before I saw the image, I recalled a newsreel I had seen years earlier covering a 1945 accident in which a B-25 had crashed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building on a foggy morning. My first thought was that there must have been some kind of similar accident.
When I turned on the news and found myself watching the screen showing that building with the black smoke pouring out, the thing that struck me most was the clear blue of that Tuesday morning over the Manhattan skyline. It was eerily peaceful looking. There was no cloud in the picture.
Other than the plume of thick smoke coming from the smoldering building.
There’s no way a pilot couldn’t have seen the World Trade Center. Unless something had happened to the pilot or some strange computer malfunction had steered the plane in despite a flight crew that should have been able to recover control before such a disaster could happen at all.
Several minutes later, while I was watching the Today show on NBC, I saw the second plane hit the other tower. Like many other Americans, that’s when I was sure.
As a promotion producer, what I am usually doing is promoting events before they air. Whether it’s a special report our news team is doing, or a half-hour show we’re working on that is focusing on a particular topic, or even an episode of a syndicated or network show, I’m writing about what is coming on at some point in the future so that you will (hopefully) make note of it and watch.
When catastrophes happen, a promo producer’s role changes drastically. We’re no longer promoting what’s coming up; we’re focused on what’s happening right that minute, trying to save as much footage of our coverage as we can, so that we can then do a promo demonstrating that we lived up to our responsibility and our brand. In other words, if my station called itself the “breaking news station,” I’d be gathering as much footage of us covering a big breaking story as I could so that I could then put a promo on the air showing that we do, indeed, cover breaking news when it happens.
In the business, we call that kind of promo a “Proof of Performance.” More informally, we call it a “POP.”
I gathered footage of the events of that day. But there wasn’t really a POP to be produced: the network — at the time, I worked for a CBS station — was in charge. Dan Rather was anchoring and he wasn’t the kind of guy to give up the mic while there was still news happening.
I knew at 9:00am that morning that we weren’t going on the air any time soon. I suspected that we might not even have a local newscast by 6:00pm that night.
As I recall, and forgive me if I’m wrong, but it has been 10 years, we did a 30-minute newscast at about 7:30pm. I don’t know why we bothered, because most of the story was about people in the Midlands of South Carolina reacting to the terror attack.
I hate reaction pieces, because the majority of people are reacting exactly as you’d expect them to react. They’re shocked. They’re outraged. They’re sad. They’re mourning.
Just like everyone else we’ve already heard from all day in the national coverage.
I tell my producers that they should never tease reaction unless it’s an unexpected one. For example, a person is murdered in their own home and the unimaginative reporter does a story about what the neighbors are saying about it. The neighbors, nine times out of ten, are going to say one of two things: either “I’m shocked! This sort of thing never happens in this neighborhood!” or “It was only a matter of time! Crime around here is out of control.”
It’s when they give a reaction other that one of those that you know you have an interesting story.
There were a few useful pieces of information in that local newscast: they focused on local airports being shut down, what to do if you were expecting loved ones to fly in or if you had a flight out in the next day or so. There were stories about schools and local organizations that were either closing or staying open later than normal because of the unusual situation. There were reminders about the appropriate numbers to call for help in case of emergency.
But my focus wasn’t so much on that, but rather on tribute pieces to what must be thousands of victims. One of my biggest surprises about 9/11 was how few died. Considering the size of the two towers alone, I expected the death toll to top 10,000.
We learned right away that most sponsors were immediately pulling their commercials for a couple of days. They didn’t want to appear insensitive by running the same old commercials in the wake of such a tragedy. But the news department let my department know that they needed the option of running a short break during their coverage to move guests in and out of the studio or to set up live shots from segment to segment.
So I produced a few spots that were patriotic in nature, combining shots of the tragedy with shots of first responders and volunteers helping the injured. I added, as I got them, shots of local people hanging flags on their doors or mailboxes or wearing ribbons, uniting in patriotism. And I did my best to produce spots that had different messages and different feels so that more than one could potentially run in the same commercial break.
If you can imagine being immersed in a tragedy without being anywhere near it, sitting just a couple of feet away from big monitors playing hour after hour of footage from three different ground zeroes, with no foreseeable end in sight, then you have a good idea of how I spent September 11th and the days immediately after it.
I was so fortunate compared to those who lived it in person.