Dark victory

With 30 Rock's building alarm sounding in the background and working off an emergency generator, MSNBC's Brian Williams took to the air from a blacked-out New York Thursday to report that the Northeast had suffered a massive blackout.

Backup generators and shoe-leather reporting were the order of the day as broadcast and cable journalists worked to ensure that the power void didn't become an information void.

CBS' Dan Rather anchored that network’s coverage from New York, while ABC, also equipped with a backup generator, decided to throw the anchoring to Ted Koppel from the Washington bureau in a still-powered-up D.C.

ABC's Peter Jennings phoned in radio reports from his home outside the also-darkened Ottawa, where he was on vacation.
Cable News Network was on the story from soon after the power went out at about 4:15 EST.

Fox News Channel said it had remained up throughout the crisis via backup power.

There was a report from ABC's Diane Sawyer that suggested that radio was living up to its much-touted localism.

Sawyer -- clad in her husband's shirt and having just walked through the city to get to the studio -- sat in the half-darkened newsroom and related the story of passing groups of people gathered in the park, huddled around a tiny battery-powered radio as though it were a campfire, then passing it on to the next group.

Cable and broadcast newscasts were generally careful in their reporting, avoiding speculation about possible terrorism until they could reassure an anxious public -- at least those who could see or hear them -- that government officials did not suspect terrorism. They also emphasized the need to turn off appliances so the system would not be overloaded as power was restored.

Early speculation that there was a fire at a Consolidated Edison Inc. plant turned out not to be accurate. However, it was later explained to be black smoke that was the natural byproduct of a power-down.

Detroit power company DTE Energy Co. CEO Tony Early told Dan Rather as CBS broke into regular programming that Detroit was the western edge of the blackout, and he speculated that overloading might have contributed to the problem.

At least among the Washington TV stations, Brian Williams, via NBC's WRC-TV, was first on, cutting into the station's regularly scheduled newscast while syndicated shows like Montel and Judge Judy continued to hold court on the competition.

In Los Angeles, it was the opposite, with NBC the last to cut in with coverage.

When all of the D.C. stations began weighing in, the crisis made for complicated alliances, as broadcasters and cablecasters piggybacked on one another to give their audience a better view.

Over on Fox-owned WTTG-TV, WCBS-TV New York's logo occupied the upper-left-hand corner as that station's video of clogged streets filled the screen. Meanwhile, the audio of an MSNBC producer's observations played underneath.

On WUSA-TV Washington, the station's anchor talked to NBC's WKYC-TV Cleveland about that city's blackout, as video from Fox's WJW-TV there rolled.

WCBS-TV's footage -- supplied through NNS, the network's cooperative news feed -- was the most ubiquitous of the early coverage.

ABC's coverage continued into prime time, while the other networks at least initially returned to football, Friends and orchestrated reality.

"It's the biggest blackout in American history,” ABC News vice president Jeffrey Schneider said. Some 50 million people were affected. "Our plan is to stay on through Nightline and then some," he added.

Fox anchor Shepard Smith, who was at New York's JFK Airport on his way to a vacation, was stranded there and reported by phone from the airport.

ABC correspondent Robert Kulich phoned in from a sliver of Long Island to point out that one of the notable effects on a small town there was that a scannerless convenience-store clerk had to add everything up in her head, which turned the run on candles and flashlights into a crawl.

CNN reported that Maria Hinojosa was describing the blackout scene on Manhattan streets when she was forced off a pay phone, reportedly by people waiting in line to use it.

Elsewhere on the streets, John Stossel covered Times Square for ABC, while a shirt-sleeved Wolf Blitzer talked to vehicleless commuters about the long walk home.

Thom Bird, executive producer for news specials and events at Fox News Channel, said people were gathered around the Fox News building at 48th Street, where its generator had kept the ticker and loudspeaker working.

While almost all outlets were reporting regularly that the blackout was due to "natural causes," ABC News counterterrorism expert Richard Clark wasn't so sure. He said during the nightly newscast that it was too early to tell whether or not it could have been a cyberterrorism attack, pointing out that the power companies remain vulnerable and all that the government officials were really saying was that nothing had blown up.

Some TV and radio outlets' Web sites in affected cities were able to preserve a snapshot in time, providing the news as it was just before the blackout and hours after the power had gone out. Others were able to keep the news flowing.

While ABC was broadcasting nationally out of D.C. and New York, it was also doing some in-house broadcasting in New York, as well.

The network formed a crisis committee after Sept. 11, which convened immediately. Speaking from a "too dark to dial" office, committee member Julie Hoover said that without interoffice electronic mail, ABC broadcast messages via loudspeaker, installed in case of fire, to keep New York staffers informed about the latest news.

Those included top stories, like the fact that terrorism wasn't suspected, and "news you can use," such as the fact that cafeteria hours had been extended.