“Turn on your television.”
Those words were repeated in millions of homes on Sept. 11, 2001. Friends and relatives took to the telephone: Something awful was happening. You have to see.
Before social media and with online news in its infancy, the story of the day when suicide terrorists killed 2,996 people unfolded primarily on television. Even some people inside New York’s World Trade Center made the phone call. They felt a shudder, could smell smoke. Could someone watch the news and find out what was happening?
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 counseling the country through this tragedy at a moment its political leadership was largely silent and largely absent from the conversation.”
On that day, when America faced the worst of humanity, it had three newsmen at the peak of their powers.
They were far from the only journalists on the air — CNN’s Aaron Brown memorably narrated the scene from a New York rooftop, Univision’s Jorge Ramos brought the story to Spanish-speaking viewers, an array of anchors sat at the desks of other outlets.
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But Brokaw, Rather and Jennings were the kings of broadcast news on Sept. 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,” 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 8:46 a.m.
“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.”
It’s hard to convey the confusion and anxiety they stepped into. The unbelievable was happening.
“The country needed some sort of stability, some sort of ground,” says David Westin, ABC News president at the time. “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 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.
Brokaw, author of the just-published “The Greatest Generation,” about those who fought World War II, 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, 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.”
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.”
“Emotions and tensions were high that day,” Rather told The Associated Press recently. “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.”
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.
Jennings was the consummate anchorman. He skillfully 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 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, Rather said.
It’s going to be horrendous, 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.”
That night, after more than a dozen hours on the air, Brokaw returned to an empty apartment, his wife and family out of town and unable to get back. He poured himself a drink and took a phone call with the news that a family friend had died, unrelated to the attacks.
For 40 minutes, he sat on the edge of his bed and cried.
Brokaw stepped down from “NBC Nightly News” after the 2004 election. Now 81 and ailing, he keeps busy writing books but seldom appears on television. Rather left CBS News after the fallout from a 2004 story about Bush’s National Guard service. Now 89, he’s an energetic tweeter about politics and the media.
There’s one other thing the men appeared to have in common.
Freed Jennings says she doesn’t believe Jennings ever went back to look at tapes of his performance that day. “That wasn’t his way,” she says. Brokaw says he hasn’t, mostly because he’s afraid he’d spot a mistake that would eat at him. Rather hasn’t either, and his reason is simplest.
Living through the day once was enough.
David Bauder covers media for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/dbauder