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Sept. 11 was a scramble for local broadcast news, too.
At most times, local broadcast news in Washington settles into a predictable groovea steady stream of District mayhem, fires in the suburbs, traffic reports, lengthy weathercasts tricked out with gadgets, and obsessive coverage of the appropriate seasonal sporting diversion.
And then a plane crashes into the World Trade Center as the three major networks are wrapping up their morning shows. Another strikes the center just after 9 a.m. It’s already going to be an unusually strenuous and emotional day.
Then, at 9:38 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 strikes the Pentagonand an international news story becomes uncomfortably local. Adjustments are made on the fly. News judgment becomes more than a simple matter of how much fire footage to show or whether to do that soft feature on a new fad.
WTTG-TV (Channel 5) News Director Katherine Green says she’d already dispatched news teams to New York City when the terrorist attacks unfolding on the monitors in her newsroom suddenly became her station’s biggest local story ever.
“We pulled the crews back from the road to New York and began dispatching them to the Pentagon,” says Green.
WRC-TV (Channel 4) Executive Producer Frank Caskin says his station got lucky. Reporter Megan McGrath was already over at National Airport when the Pentagon crash happened. “We were well-positioned,” Caskin says, “to get a live shot.”
Over at WUSA-TV (Channel 9), News Director Dave Roberts was calculating how he’d use his resources when the story
suddenly became a D.C. event. “After seeing what happened in New York,” Roberts says, “[we] instinctively moved toward the key monuments.”
WTOP (which operates at 1500 AM, 107.7 FM, and 820 AM) was already cranking up into full news-radio mode as the disaster in New York flashed on the screen.
“We have a bank of TV monitors,” says John Farley, WTOP’s vice president of news and programming. “The pictures were up instantly, and everyone was gathered in front of them, but the news people at the station were pushing right through them.”
Farley says that it wasn’t long after the Pentagon crash that listener calls started flooding the station. “We had reports of car bombs at the State Department,” he says. “The Capitol. We were busy tracking down rumors and dispatching reporters.”
WTOP News Director Mike McMearty adds that “the first instinct is to clear the newsroom. But everyone kept out of the way.” He notes that despite the “frenetic pace” of events, “there was a strange calm over the newsroom.”
Caskin noticed a similar atmosphere at Channel 4. “Everyone was shocked and stunned,” he observes. “But they had to put that aside.”
A plan for covering a catastrophic news event such as the one that unfolded on Sept. 11 is one thing. Whether it works is another thing altogether.
The local broadcast media that the Washington City Paper debriefed about their handling of the attacks all said that they had a plan that got them started on the road to organizing and shaping their coverage.
“Every newsroom has a disaster plan,” observes WUSA’s Roberts. He stresses that his own station’s plan is set up to ensure that Channel 9 can “position itself to cover a story responsibly,” but also contains provisions “to ensure the safety of [WUSA]’s people.”
WRC’s Caskin says that his station’s volume of news (six-and-a-half hours of locally based newscasts each weekday) meant that it was prepared to implement its plan quickly. “Our control room was already hot for our 10 a.m. newscast,” Caskin observes. “Everyone was already at their battle stations.”
WTOP’s Farley says that his station has “a couple of plans” drafted for such events, but he stresses the improvisatory nature of the experience as well. “We just operated on adrenaline,” says Farley. “We answered the fire bell. Some people who were on vacation called in. Some just showed up.”
Even the simplest things, says Farley, such as cell phones, became major headaches in the first few hours. He says that WTOP’s upgrade from beepers to Skytel pagers with text-messaging capabilities “became a vital backup.”
Caskin observes thatlike most news operations after a period of attritionWRC has “finite resources. But we have systems in place that give us a base of coverage. We can stay on the air until the reinforcements arrive.”
Perhaps the most difficult call for all local broadcast news stations was how much coverage to give to the indisputably local events of Sept. 11.
Many local TV insiders complained about Washington Post TV columnist Tom Shales’ barbed shot at local stations (in particular, WUSA) for staying too local at the expense of network coverage. (The City Paper’s call to WJLA-TV News Director Steve Hammel for comments on his station’s handling of Sept. 11 coverage was not returned.)
Shales’ complaints about viewers having to “go to cable” if they wanted a national network seem a bit overwrought, especially in light of statistics from Nielsen Media Research (provided on the National Cable and Telecommunications Association Web site) that place cable penetration in the United States at 68 percent.
Yet it is fair to say that local stations grappled with how to juggle the national feeds that they were receiving (which grew increasingly and justifiably slanted toward the horrific death toll and damage in New York) and their considerable responsibility to viewers who depend on local TV for information about their community.
WUSA’s Roberts says, “I don’t categorize this as a local or a national story. We tried to cover it in a comprehensive way.” Particularly in his station’s 11 p.m. wrap-up newscast, says Roberts, “we told the kinds of stories that develop in an event of this magnitude….Our focus was on the people.”
Green is unapologetic about WTTG’s local slant. “We covered New York,” she says, “but we gave a lot more information about Washington. For us, we had a very significant story in our own community.” Noting the “significant damage at the Pentagon,” Green concludes, “our first obligation is to the people in this market.”
WRC’s Caskin says that his station took a methodical approach to the dilemma. “We basically had a plan,” he says. “We had a quick crash team to do these on-the-hour cut-insa couple writers, a producer, and editing staff. If events predicated it, we’d break in.” Caskin acknowledges, however, that the “bigger story” was in New York, especially considering the loss of life there.
WTOP is a CBS Radio affiliate, and Farley says the station used CBS feeds to relay the World Trade Center events to listeners. “We concentrated on the Pentagon,” he says, and on the whereabouts of President George W. Bush and the impact of events on federal workers.
Farley also points out that because of the grounding of traffic choppers, his station and many others “lost their eyes and ears” on what was happening to traffic in the District. (Traffic cameras in Maryland and Virginia, he notes, helped to monitor the environs.)
“People needed accurate information,” Farley says, during the first crucial hours after the Pentagon attack. “‘How can you get out [of the District]?’”
Inevitable glitches occurred in both reporting and production on local broadcast news during the crisis. WTTG’s Green says that she wants to tweak how her station presents information graphically in such situations. WTOP’s Farley and McMearty regret a WTOP report that the USA Today building in Rosslyn was on fire. (It was smoke from the Pentagon crash.)
Yet all in all, local TV and radio journalists coped along with the rest of us, giving Washington’s residents information that left the city shocked, stricken, and saddened, but not panicked.
WTOP’s McMearty says, “It was amazing to see people huddled around cars, listening to the station, and the sound of it echoing.” It reminded him, he says, “that what we’re doing is a public service. Though we may be exhausted, tired, and stressed, we’re providing a public service.” CP