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On Air on Sept. 11
September 12, 2011
Charles Gibson, Dan Rather, Brit Hume and Frank Sesno shared stories of 9/11 coverage at the season premiere of the Kalb Report.
A week after Sept. 11, 2001, Dan Rather was on the Late Show with David Letterman trying to repeat a line from “America the Beautiful” when he began to cry.
“Everything that I had suppressed before, just with a rush, it surprised me—there wasn’t any cue for it. It just surprised me and enveloped me,” said the former anchor of the CBS Evening News. “I don’t apologize for it because one does not apologize for grief. But...once I left the [CBS] Broadcast Center, once I was on another turf, somehow it just all came out.”
On Sept. 9, Mr. Rather joined fellow former news anchors Charles Gibson (ABC), Brit Hume (Fox News) and Frank Sesno (CNN) at the National Press Club to talk about covering Sept. 11 on the season premiere of the Kalb Report.
On Anchoring 9/11: The Day and the Decade, the news anchors spoke with moderator and GW Presidential Fellow Marvin Kalb— in front of a standing-room-only audience of more than 500 —about where they were when they heard the news and the difficulty of covering such a series of events.
Mr. Gibson, former host of Good Morning America, said he and ABC World News anchor Diane Sawyer were on a commercial break during Good Morning America when they first heard the news. On the air, they watched as the second plane hit the World Trade Center.
“I will forever think to myself of my reaction on the air,” said Mr. Gibson. “Diane was the first to react. And she said, ‘Oh, my God’ And I said, ‘Now we know what’s going on. We’re under attack.’”
After he heard the news, Mr. Rather jumped in a cab to head to the CBS Broadcast Center. He spent 53 hours and 35 minutes on the air over less than four days beginning the morning of the attacks, which included crashed planes into the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa.
“There was within me a certain disbelief….This can’t be happening. There is something wrong with this story as it’s developing,” said Mr. Rather. “But unfortunately, it was the reality.”
Also tasked with the immense responsibility of reporting the attacks as information trickled in, Mr. Gibson told Mr. Kalb that he focused on having a “reassuring” tone.
“I went in and I said to Diane that this was my thought. And she agreed,” said Mr. Gibson. “And I said, ‘If one of us starts to cry, the other one has to pick it up, because we can’t do that. It’s not going to be right. We need to be strong.’”
Mr. Hume, former host of Special Report, spoke about covering the attack on the Pentagon and the rumors that a plane was headed for the Capitol. Like Mr. Gibson, Mr. Hume said he tried to be “calm and reassuring” and leveled with his audience “about things we knew and things we didn’t know.”
“The story was enormous, in the proper meaning of that word. How do we measure up in our coverage to that,” said Mr. Hume. “You think about whether you’ve got the right picture on the air, whether you’re showing the thing that is really happening, whether you are on the right piece of the story.”
Broadcasting from CNN at the time, Mr. Sesno, former CNN Washington bureau chief and current director of GW’s School of Media and Public Affairs, said the biggest challenge the CNN staff faced was managing their emotions while performing their “journalist duty.”
“We had people crying because we had many people in our newsroom who were from New York or who knew people in the Pentagon,” he said.
“We were broadcasting internationally. We were broadcasting globally. So we were speaking to the planet. It is a remarkable, very humbling and scary thing.”
Although the pressure was enormous, Mr. Gibson said he was glad he was able to report on the attacks.
“Essentially my entire professional life has been preparation for this moment,” he said. “And I felt honored. It’s a strange thing to say, but I felt honored to be there and I wanted to be there.”
The panelists also discussed the issue of balancing feelings of patriotism while reporting on Sept. 11.
Mr. Hume said there is a difference between being fair and being neutral.
“[Sept. 11] was a hideous thing. It is often called a tragedy. I don’t think it was a tragedy,” he said. “It was a monstrous act of evil. And I thought it on that day, and I think most people think that to this day. I still feel that way about it.”
Mr. Sesno said there were displays of patriotism all over the country after Sept. 11 and “all of that spoke for where the country was.”
“In the case of CNN we truly were reporting to the world,” he said. “Were we Martians looking down on the earth and completely objective? Were we Americans grieving for our country? Or were we trying to talk to the whole audience? It led to some very, very difficult questions about who the ‘we’ were in all of this.”
Stating he “takes a back seat to no one” in his patriotism, Mr. Rather said he did not feel the need to wear an American flag lapel pin while he reported, as many anchors did after Sept. 11, because he was “an American reporting to an American audience.”
“This is my role. This is my duty,” he said. “It was compared to first responders, firemen, policemen and others that day, miniscule, but it had a role. And my role was to be as candid with the audience as possible about what we know, what we didn’t know. But…there was no argument within myself about what my country is. I had no doubt that we would rebound from this.”
Michael Freedman, GW professor of media and public affairs and executive producer of The Kalb Report series, noted that the comments of Dan Rather and Charles Gibson in particular about the role of an anchor in a crisis “offered a wonderful tutorial on the highest standards of journalism.”
"This program served as an important reminder that in a world of tweets and texts, we still need journalists we can trust to help us understand the big picture and offer perspective,” said Mr. Freedman. “The fact that someone has the capability of sending video around the world does not necessarily make that an act of journalism or the sender a reporter. Journalism is a process of gathering, sorting and reporting in a manner that is accurate and fair.”
The Kalb Report series is produced by the GW Global Media Institute, The National Press Club and Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. It is underwritten by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
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