9/11: The day that changed the news

We journalists love anniversaries. The big ones are the best: D-Day, the JFK assassination, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Editors and producers especially love anniversaries – because they can package a bunch of stories in advance and pretend they’re news.

Katrina got the full treatment last month because it was 10 years since the storm.

That’s the other thing. The number is important. Ninth? No big deal. Tenth – stop the presses.

So why am I marking the 14th anniversary of 9/11?

Because I have a story to tell and no expectation I’ll be writing in this space when number 20 or 25 rolls around.

On September 11, 2001, alone in my house in suburban Toronto, my wife phoned to say a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I turned on the TV just before the second plane hit the South Tower.

The following days and weeks would see journalism at its best – and worst – and forever change the way news is presented. Not for the better.

I was a bit player at CBC Newsworld at the time, and that Tuesday was a day off. So I sat at home, switching from CNN to CBS to NBC to ABC to CBC.

There was little doubt two commercial airliners had deliberately been flown into the towers.

But the anchors – and the rest of us – had no idea what else was going that morning.

When the picture switched to Washington, the story became even more confusing. “The State Department seems to be on fire,” one U.S. anchor said.

The problem was his camera in Washington was pointed toward Virginia, at an angle that the smoke rising from the Pentagon looked like it was coming from the State Department.

“We have a report that another plane has crashed in Colorado,” another anchor said. ”The target may have been the North American Air Defense Command, known as NORAD.”

Then: “We are just getting word that a plane has crashed in western Pennsylvania.”

In early afternoon, I called the CBC and talked to a friend and colleague, anchor Ben Chin.

By this time, Peter Mansbridge had taken over the anchor desk – as had all the network big guns – but Ben was standing by and trying to help out.

“What are we missing?” he asked.

“Hard to tell,” I said. “Just make sure you keep counting the dead. You have to keep telling the viewer how many are confirmed dead. And remind us that 50,000 people work in those towers every day.”

“Yeah,” he said, “I’ll pass that on.”

“What about that plane in Colorado?”

“What plane in Colorado?”

“I think Peter said a couple of hours ago that a plane went down in Colorado. Might be a good idea for someone to keep track of any mistakes and get them fixed fast. There are going to be a lot of bogus stories that need checking before putting them on.”

“Yeah,” he said, “it’s pretty crazy.”

No network was eager to correct mistakes that day. Or any day since.

As a part-timer, I wasn’t called in to work until two days later, to take over the CBC Newsworld desk.

There was obviously still a lot to report on the all-news channel, but I wound up spending much of my time fighting to keep half-baked stories off the air.

“There were eight people arrested at LaGuardia,” the supervising producer for CBC-TV News that day told me. “Don’t you think we should get that on the air?”

“Not until we know what it’s about,” I said. “It could have nothing to do with the attacks (it didn’t), like what happened in Boston yesterday.”

All the networks had spent hours the previous day focused on a Westin hotel in Boston, speculating that accomplices of the hijackers were cornered. They weren’t.

Later in my shift, there was a report that five firefighters had been found alive in an SUV under the rubble of the towers.

“We’ve got to get this on,” the same supervisor told me.

“You’re kidding?” I said.

“It’s on the wire,” he said.

“Yeah, I saw it. It’s a local ABC report quoting unnamed sources. When the cops confirm it, or the fire department, or Giuliani, I’ll put it on.”

But he wasn’t giving up. “Attribute it to AP.”

“I can’t,” I said, “because they’re not reporting it, only saying that ABC is reporting it.”

“Then attribute it to ABC,” he said.

“I can’t,” I said, “without saying that they’re attributing it to unidentified sources. Do you really want to go on the air with a script that says:

The Associated Press is distributing a story, attributed to the local ABC News station in New York, which is quoting unidentified sources as saying five firefighters have been found alive in the rubble of the World Trade Center?”

“Can’t we just say ‘there is a report that five firefighters have been found alive in the rubble of the World Trade Center”?”

“No,” I said.

“Why not?” he said.

“Because we know it’s probably bullshit.”

The argument ended when the wires moved a bulletin saying the story was a hoax.

But, from then on, at the CBC and everywhere else, the common practice was: Throw any shit on the wall – on the air, on the web, in the paper – and hope it sticks.

***

Literary agents and publishers, please note: Much of this story can be found in a memoir of my years in journalism.

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