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On TV, mayhem unfolded in waves

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 12, 2001

It looked eerily like a made-for-TV massacre.

The first airplane crashed into the World Trade Center at about 8:45 a.m., just as the nation's network morning news shows were wrapping their broadcasts.

The second plane hit 18 minutes later -- when news cameras and journalists were massed and ready. An hour later, images of smoke pouring from the Pentagon were plastered all over TV networks already in crisis coverage mode.

This is the utility and horror of 24-hour TV coverage -- delivering technicolor footage of destruction directly to viewers' living rooms in a dizzying array of carnage.

By the time the center's towers came tumbling down, name journalists such as CNBC's Ron Insana, CBS' Carol Marin and MSNBC's Ashleigh Banfield were close enough to report harrowing first-person stories of getting caught in the tumbling debris.

"There's been a declaration of war by terrorists," noted NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, who had been trying to restrain speculation until the towers' collapse. "More than 100 stories of steel, concrete (and) electrical. . ."

"There are no words to describe this," CBS anchor Dan Rather added, seconds later. "The loss of life will be high."

The headlines said it all. On CNN: "America Under Attack." On MSNBC and CBS: "Attack on America." On local ABC affiliate WFTS-Ch. 28: "Terrorism Hits Home."

Across the TV dial, coverage was ubiquitous. TNT, TBS and other Time Warner cable outlets carried CNN; ESPN and ESPN2 carried ABC News; VH1, CMT and other CBS/Viacom TV outlets carried CBS News. C-SPAN and C-SPAN2 took calls from viewers.

Even Univision's WVEA-Ch. 62 offered coverage by the Spanish-language network. (Curiously, BET, now developing its own news department with new owner Viacom's help, kept playing rap videos and regular programming).

Home Shopping Network and QVC closed down, continuously airing messages of condolence, while ShopNBC presented a MSNBC simulcast.

Pax station WXPX-Ch. 66 carried NBC reports, breaking at 7 p.m. for an hour of news from NBC affiliate WFLA-Ch. 8, which pre-empted its own 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. newscasts for network news. Soap operas and primetime entertainment both disappeared Tuesday as TV networks presented a day filled with somber news coverage.

The perpetrators "have staged this for as much (media imagery) as possible," said terrorism expert K.C. Poulin, speaking to WTVT-Ch. 13 during the Fox affiliate's coverage. "This was a sophisticated operation."

Network and cable newschannel journalists, most stationed in New York City, struggled to stay calm and even-handed. The networks agreed to share footage without regard to competitive concerns; reportedly suggested by 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt.

Early on, only Fox News Channel would offer a casualty estimate: 10,000 people.

ABC's Peter Jennings and Rather quickly took over as the morning's events unfolded. NBC fielded a team of three faces: Today anchors Matt Lauer and Katie Couric, joined by Brokaw, the sole anchor by midday.

Insana sat across from Lauer, Couric and Brokaw, his suit blanketed with gray powder and a thick layer of dust covering his balding pate. MSNBC's Banfield and CBS's Marin also offered tales of surviving the towers' collapse, caught up in a cloud of debris so thick, it briefly blotted out the sun.

"We were so sure we were going to die," said a shaky Marin, her voice choking up briefly while telling Rather how a firefighter shielded her body with his.

Local broadcasters mostly ceded morning and midday coverage to the national outlets, save for brief news breaks, with WTVT, WFTS and WTSP-Ch. 10 offering local news reports at 5 p.m. Pinellas Park-based newschannel Bay News 9 offered a daylong mix of local reports and CNN simulcasts.

All ran text messages listing area closings, prayer services and numbers for telephone information lines -- making space in local broadcasts for response from viewers and advice from experts.

"My father's generation went to war, I went to an office building," said Forrest Carr, news director at WFLA. "Now they've done this to an office building. I'm getting the sense life in this country will never again be the same."

Despite efforts by some anchors to hold back finger pointing, on air talk mounted against Saudi terrorist millionaire Osama Bin Laden, now sheltered by Afghanistan's oppressive Taleban government. By 5:30 p.m., NBC's Andrea Mitchell reported "top U.S. officials" had seen evidence of Bin Laden's involvement.

CNN scored two scoops courtesy of its videophone -- a laptop-sized device allowing journalists to send jerky, digital video by satellite -- airing footage of bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan hours after covering a hastily called news conference by a Taleban spokesman saying Bin Laden could not have been involved.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld later said during a televised news conference that the U.S. was not involved with the explosions in Afghanistan. Thanks to the footage sharing agreement, rivals MSNBC and Fox News Channel also aired the images (marked as "CNN exclusive") within minutes.

- Information from Times staff writer Sharon Ginn and Times wires was used in this report.

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