BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in Lower Manhattan this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Obviously we're back after skipping a week, one of the reasons being that WNYC where we produce our show is located 6 blocks from the World Trade Center and we were evacuated. In fact, this show has been produced partly in the good offices of Public TV Station WNET which is not set up for radio! So if the sound is not quite up to par, that's why.
Still we were on the air last week, working on NPR's Special Coverage, and one of OTM's contributions was this chronology of the first 48 hours of coverage by our producer at large Mike Pesca. There's a lot of new ground to cover this week, but we'd like to begin with this recapitulation of how it started.
MIKE PESCA:We didn't know it then, but early Tuesday morning America was a normal place. The American media were operating as normal. The front page of the New York Times featured a primary that few New Yorkers had been paying attention to. Fergie was discussing weight loss on Good Morning America. Mr. Peanut had shown up on the set of The Today Show.
And then the first plane hit.
WOMAN: We just got a report in that there's been some sort of explosion--
MIKE PESCA: The terrorists had already succeeded on one count, gaining media attention, and with the cameras trained, the second hit.
MAN: We just saw on live television as a second plane flew into the second tower of the World Trade Center.
MIKE PESCA: Within half an hour a New York landmark was toppled.
MAN: The entire building has just collapsed--
MAN: The whole side is collapsing?
MAN: The whole building has collapsed.
MAN: The whole building has collapsed?
MAN: The building has collapsed.
MIKE PESCA: The nation's confidence was shattered.
MAN: Another update Cindy--
WOMAN:Ah-- wait a second - this is - is this a live picture? This is a live picture. We are seeing the second World Trade Tower Center [sic] - World Trade Center Tower Number One has just collapsed, ladies and gentlemen - you see it live in our picture.
MIKE PESCA:Two hours prior, the biggest news story of the year was Chandra Levy. But here now was disaster layered on disaster, multiplied by the prospect of war. A U.S. airliner has not been hijacked for over a decade. Four were hijacked on that day. Buildings were falling. The symbols of American power were burning, and the tape was rolling.
MAN:This is taped just a short time ago - this is the best look we've had at the damage at the Pentagon where another plane apparently made a suicide plunge....
MIKE PESCA:For the first few hours the television infrastructure of 21st Century America paid off. Having 30 cable channels was actually a good thing. Every channel offered a different news feed while news consumers edited with their remotes.
But with all those options, viewers had the responsibility for distinguishing fact from fiction. [DRAMATIC MUSIC]
ANNOUNCER: Breaking news! On WCBS 880 -- Right here -Right now!
MAN:We don't know if this is simply rumor and the way people talk when something like this happens. It is certainly not fact at this point - something has happened to the State Department. We don't know what yet. We hear that it might have been a plane. Stay with us for the very latest on that angle. There are fresh developments. Moment by moment....
MIKE PESCA: Confusion in the streets and in the newsrooms. That story wasn't true. These sources weren't reliable.
MAN:According to reports, and I want to stress this is coming from the affiliate there who got this from the scanner, so let's put this in perspective--
MIKE PESCA: News outlets were putting it all out there, correcting things as they went along.
MAN:We've since disproved, by the way, with apologies to our viewers that there was ever a car bomb at the State Department. We have knocked down that there was ever a plane crash at the presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains, Camp David. Those stories not true. Associated....
MIKE PESCA:While Brian Williams on MS-NBC and most of the other networks concentrated on the effects of the terrorism, CNN was the only one to take viewers to the home of suspected perpetrator Osama bin Laden.
MAN: This is a Taliban spokesman talking now. This is coming to us by videophone from Afghanistan.
MIKE PESCA:The videophone didn't offer as clear as picture as a camera, but none of the other supposedly "global" news-gathering organizations had been willing to pay for a reporter and equipment in this remote region.
By day's end, no network had gone away from the story or even aired a commercial. They even shared each other's tape and gave each other credit. The rules of broadcasting had begun to fade.
On Wednesday TV was still attempting to provide a public service. Web sites and local news stations allowed people to air their grief and publicize pictures of the missing.
MAN:Well, if we get that picture from you on our list-- website, we will certainly put it up, and we will do everything here to-- to what we can to-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
WOMAN: Can I leave you my number?
MAN: Absolutely! Absolutely. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
WOMAN:Okay. If anybody has any information, Joseph was wearing a - black pants and a black short-sleeved shirt. My number is 7 1 8-- 2 2 7--
MIKE PESCA:Still things were beginning to revert to form. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Theme music had been assigned. Individual networks were attempting to "brand" the events of the past day. When the story broke the graphic on the Fox Newschannel read Day of Terror with the word "terror" presented in a font that seemed to be dripping blood.
Soon thereafter the graphic changed to Terrorism Hits America with "terrorism" in more restrained block letters.
MTV was back to playing videos, interspersed with public service messages of special import to the MTV audience.
ANNOUNCER:You must be 17 years old to donate blood. You must be 110 pounds. And you cannot have been tattooed or have had any ear or body piercings in the past 12 months.
The Gulf War was CNN's finest hour. Now the Fox Newschannel was attempting to make this their loudest. A national crisis would not divert Fox from the formula of opinionated primetime hosts.
Here, host John Gibson berates a terrorism expert for urging caution.
MAN:There's a good deal of anger right now, and the country is behind a response. Why wait while we have a bunch of Sherlock Holmes' going around and nailing down exact connections everywhere when we know what happened!? We know it's bin Laden! You know it's bin Laden-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
WOMAN: But we, we-- but we--
MIKE PESCA:By Thursday things had calmed down a bit. America was busy, in the words of Dan Rather, "re-defining normal." For television, normal was sustained shots of a pile of rubble where the World Trade Center once stood. There were so many stories to tell. Stories of the missing, the displaced, the suspected. Stories told in the familiar vernacular of the modern media.
WOMAN: Lying in that rubble, a simple rag doll. A sad reminder of all the lives that were forever changed.
MIKE PESCA:Once again television used theme music and bold faced titles to package a tragedy. That durable device, the simple rag doll, is in fact mostly a reminder of the limitations of those who resort to drama because they can't convey the reality.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That was On the Media's producer at large Mike Pesca.