Journalists Honored By RTDNF Reflect On Sept. 11

As the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 approaches, the Radio-Television Digital News Foundation Thursday night honored journalists for their coverage of the attacks, and by extension all of the journalists who bore witness to the tragedy.
Leading off the awards portion of the Washington First Amendment awards banquet, the journalists reflected on what they had seen and done, and what it had meant to them, and still does.

Melissa Block of NPR, referring to the Sept. 11 montage that introduced their remarks, called it a "sucker punch" to the gut. She talked about the irony of how a cobalt blue sky and perfect September weather reminds her of the horror of that day, and of how she watched bucket brigades excavating debris, how tiny the pieces were, and how that spoke of lives essentially "vaporized."

Ann Compton of ABC, one of a handful of journalists on Air Force One with President Bush, said her fear had been that, for national security reasons, journalists would be left behind. And while she conceded some people were left on the tarmca after a refueling stop, she, as well as an AP reporter, a CBS camera crew, and a reporter from The New York Times were allowed back on the plane to chronicle the decisions the president was having to make.

NBC News's Rehema Ellis said she was "afraid but determined" and that she filed her report from a pay phone because cell phones weren't working.

Charlie Kaye of CBS Radio echoed that point. He said that due to the breakdown in communications, they were forced to use the "third world" technology of satellite phones. Among his memories were 16 hours of overseeing coverage without a bathroom break and, afterwards, the American flags that seemed to blossom like flowers in a desert rainstorm.

Fox News's Rick Leventhal said it ws an honor to be included in the company of the other honorees, but it felt strange to be honored for one of the worst days in his life, one in which the fabric of the nation had been torn. Echoing block, he said he could not watch the videos of the attacks with out choking up. He talked about the renewed patriotism, and gave a shout out to Pat Butler, a Fox engineer who had parked his truck within four blocks of the towers and hacked into a pay phone to help get the story out.

AP's Warren Levinson said journalists had done some of the best work of their lives on that awful day. One of the things the events press on him was that life is short and that 2,752 lives were gone in the blink of an eye. He remebers the photos plastered everywhere from relatives asking "have you seen them?" and said the country was still suffering a kind of national post traumatic stress syndrome.

CNN's Jeanne Meserve what had struck her most was listening to the audiotape from Flight 93 and hearing the terrorists as they murdered the flight crew, the passengers as they rushed the cockpit, and the hijackers' praising Allah as they took the plane to the ground. She dedicated her award to what she called that first act of homeland security.

CBS's Byron Pitts said he remembered looking up at one of the towers and seeing a man and woman standing in an open window about 80 floors up. He said he was hoping they were colleagues comforting each other until he watched them join hands and jump. "People rely on us to speak the truth," he said. Pitts dedicated his award to CBS journalists who had been killed or been injured covering the aftermath of the attacks, including in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

ABC's Martha Raddatz said one of the things that has affected her most was talking to a soldier currently in Iraq and asking him where he was on 9/11. The answer: I was in my fifth grade class. Raddatz asked the audience, no matter what they thought of the war, to remember these young soldiers and "the path they have been put on because of that day. "

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.