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Sept. 11 and Local TV: What They Saw, What They Learned

I was, and I suppose I remain, ambivalent about writing something about Sept. 11. Of course the media loves anniversaries, especially ones with nice even numbers like 10. But that didn’t strike me as a very good reason to report on and write something on Sept. 11. I mean, is the impact of that fateful day different, or more significant, on September 11, 2011 than it was a week before, or a year before, or a year later? Of course not.

Then there’s the matter of, what can I add to the Sept 11. media onslaught that truly offers something different, or adds to the discussion. I thought for a bit that the reporters who reported on the Shanksville, Pennsylvania crash might make an interesting story, as a plane hurtling into an open field in rural Pennsylvania doesn’t get nearly the coverage of a plane striking iconic and symbolic buildings in our nation’s capital, and financial/cultural capital. It was a giant global story for little Johnstown-Altoona.

Alas, a few calls to the Johnstown stations revealed that my old colleague PJ Bednarski had already ventured there, and quite adeptly.

On the other hand, it’s the biggest news story of my lifetime thus far, and I was here in Manhattan when it happened (my own Sept. 11 story is, blessedly, uneventful), so I felt remiss in not doing something on it. So I made some calls, to reporters who covered the story in the regions struck by the terrorist acts, because those calls always turn up something.

I was interested in their eyewitness testimony from Sept. 11, but more intrigued by how the event has affected them as TV reporters, if at all, a decade later.

The eyewitness testimony was, of course, gripping. Reporters in Shanksville spoke of how Flight 93, and, tragically, its passengers, simply disappeared. KDKA Pittsburgh morning anchor Jennifer Antkowiak mentions seeing no piece of debris larger than a phone book. “It was just a huge field of nothing,” she says.

WTAJ Altoona anchor Patrick Schurr too couldn’t believe he was staring at a plane crash. “You expect to see the tail, the wings, the fuselage,” says Schurr. “The only real debris ended up in trees-clothing, paper. There was nothing on the ground. It was hard to believe this was a passenger airline.”

WCBS New York Don Dahler, then of ABC News, detailed his observations of the World Trade Center that clear morning from his apartment in lower Manhattan in an essay on the WCBS site. “It was like a giant ripping of fabric, a shriek and deep roar all at once, followed by a huge explosion,” he wrote. “It was a sound I’d heard before, but only in countries at war. Never in the U.S., and certainly not in lower Manhattan. ‘That’s a missile,’ I said to my girlfriend.’”

The reporters promptly snapped out of their fugue and set out to do their jobs. “Part of you wants to sit and cry about the whole thing,” says Antkowiak. “But the reporter in you wants to tell people what’s going on. Your heart and head tells you people are looking for information and a switch clicks in you.”

WNYW New York anchor Dari Alexander (above), who was with Fox News Channel at the time, noted that Sept. 11 came on the heels of what she termed a summer of “garbage news”: shark attacks, Lizzie Grubman slamming her SUV into a crowd in the Hamptons, whether Rep. Gary Condit had anything to do with the disappearance of Chandra Levy. Sept. 11, was, in a flash, a wakeup call for reporters to set aside the inconsequential, if ratings friendly, reporting.

“9/11 really silenced everybody and made everyone realize the sanctity of life,” says Alexander, a Manhattan native. “You realized you have to be very careful with the things you say-how much you put out there, how much of it is speculation. It made the relationships with journalists much closer to their viewers, users, readers, etc. People really depended on you to tell them what happened and not sensationalize it, not sell the story for the sake of ratings.”

The reporters I spoke with all mentioned truly digesting and processing the tragedy many hours after it happened-when the camera was off, the pen and pad were set down, and the gravity of the terrifying events finally sunk in. For Antkowiak, it was after she returned home that night, and stood in the threshold of her young children’s bedrooms, watching them sleep and contemplating the new way of the world they’d wake up to in the morning. “Parents want the world to be a perfect place for children,” she says. “This proved that things are not always perfect.”

For Alexander, it occurred in the ladies room at the Pierre Hotel, which the World Trade Center-based firm Cantor Fitzgerald was using as a staging area, in the early evening of Sept. 11. “Women were just bawling, losing it,” says Alexander. “That’s when it absolutely hit me-all these people are really, really gone. All these women are widows. All these children are fatherless.”

With so many rumors flying around a frenzied country that day, the bulk of them apocryphal, the reporters mention a more careful, measured and sensitive approach to delivering news in the days and weeks after Sept. 11. But it’s hard to say whether that sense of responsibility has carried over to 2011. In the last few weeks, the media was loudly criticized, perhaps unfairly, for overhyping Hurricane Irene to their own benefit. Last night, and again this morning, I’ve seen some pretty breathless reporting on possible terror attacks in New York this weekend, the word “unconfirmed” taking a back seat to sexier terms like “car bomb”. Are they dutifully informing the public, or trying to scare the heck out of people?

Did Sept. 11 change us-the media, the citizens–for the long haul? Strangers were kind to each other on the subways for a few months after Sept. 11, but then went back to ignoring each other, or shooting dirty looks to the kid with the loud headphones. Are local TV reporters more focused on reporting solid facts than eyeball-grabbing speculation today?

Antkowiak said Sept. 11, unlike the numerous house fires and car crashes and other day to day local news stories, penetrated the protective bubble TV reporters put up around themselves-perhaps permanently. “We’re more sensitive to situations,” says she says. “I think-I hope-there’s an element of that today when we report the news.”

As awful as it may have been to be a first informer, in NAB parlance, for such a vile story, reporters who were in New York, or Washington, or Shanksville, mention how the incident helped them grow as news-gatherers-and individuals. “I think I grew in leaps and bounds as a reporter-and a person-due to the magnitude of that event,” says WTAJ’s Schurr. “Heaven forbid something like this ever happens again, I know how to cover it.”

The reporters suggest it is unlikely they will ever report on something as large, as historical, as heartbreaking or as personally impactful as Sept. 11. “Thank God I’ve never had to cover anything of that magnitude since,” says Schurr. “I hope I never will.”