by Jason Gay
Early on the evening of Monday, Sept. 17, during a taping of
The Late Show with David Letterman in the frigid Ed Sullivan
Theater, an overcome Dan Rather gripped Mr. Letterman’s hand at his
desk and wept openly as he recalled the events in New York City
since the morning of Sept. 11.
The moment was startling, unsettling: Mr. Rather, the cocky,
broad-shouldered, temperamental Texan–the Cronkite heir who locked
horns with Nixon in Houston, infuriated George H.W. Bush and marched
into Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq–reduced to emotional rubble after
one of the most tragic news days in American history.
But in his very public breakdown, the swaggering CBS News anchor
didn’t simply show he was a "human being," as Mr. Letterman put it.
Mr. Rather also made clear what had been increasingly apparent in
the days after hijacked jetliners had torn into the World Trade
Center and the Pentagon: The television news business–so recently a
fading, marginal sideshow of personalities, cheese and manufactured
hype–had been suddenly, gravely transformed. Mr. Rather–as well as
his counterparts on the other broadcast and cable networks–had
renewed weight, gravitas. At least for now.
"What we have observed over the last [week] has totally changed
the way we think about the role of news and, in many ways, the
future of how news is going to operate," said Robert J. Thompson,
the director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at
Just think about it. Doesn’t it feel like a million years ago
that the networks–struggling for relevancy and market share in a
multi-channel, news-ambivalent world–were hounding after delicious
bit players like Gary Condit, Lizzie Grubman and rogue shark fins
off the coast of Florida? Remember how Fox News freaked out about
Paula Zahn’s maneuver to CNN to start a morning show?
Perfectly sane news executives were talking about the need for
"personalities" and "edginess" (make no mistake, that’s code for
"shows where people yell a lot"), to save beleaguered news
operations. There were loud whispers about cutbacks, mergers and
consolidations. What broadcast network, people asked openly, would
be the first to sack its evening news?
And that was a week and a half ago.
But because of Sept. 11, TV news’ once self-absorbed universe has
been dramatically altered. Ms. Zahn isn’t frying omelettes and
pitching softballs to Jennifer Love Hewitt; she’s standing on a
rooftop near Penn Station in front of an ominous, still-billowing
cloud of smoke. Mr. Rather, thought to be a stubborn relic of
newsmen long gone, finds himself a vital player in the story of
everyone’s lives. Recent superstars like Bill O’Reilly–once
considered the ultimate 21st-century newsman–look like role players,
sixth men. Mr. O’Reilly may again get his day, but in many
newsrooms, the story that began at 8:48 a.m. on Sept. 11 triggered a
180-degree shift in planning and priorities.
"What we have been struggling with up until this point is how to
remain as vital as we can be when there aren’t giant events that
cause the audience to come look for us," said David Doss, the
executive producer of ABC’s PrimeTime Thursday and the former
producer of the NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw.
With this story, Mr. Doss notes, that is not a problem. The
current terrorism crisis in the United States is serious and
wide-ranging issue–important to all. And to news staffers and
viewers numbed by Chandra and O.J. and Princess Diana, it was a
grave reminder of the broader obligations of network news
"I certainly think that news executives and people in the United
States and around the world have a new appreciation for the world,
and they will be following it much more closely than they have in
recent times," said Eason Jordan, the chief news executive and
news-gathering president at CNN News Group.
Of course, prior to Sept. 11, CNN, too, was trying to aerobicize
itself into a sexier, personality-driven ship, importing players
like Ms. Zahn and flirting with ideas like celebrity documentaries
and late-night comedy. CNN’s turnabout was so conspicuous that it
rankled Fox News, which had found enormous success with its
"one-stop shopping" blend of news, analysis and identity politics.
Fox News jefe Roger Ailes, in fact, was seen as a prescient
genius for assembling a scrappy, sharp-edged (and relatively
inexpensive) lineup of reporters and pundits that could deliver
ratings even during the flattest news cycles.
Amid the current clamor, however, it’s tempting to think of Fox
News as Bridget Jones at the canceled Tarts & Vicars party,
dressed in a Playboy Bunny costume while everyone’s looking serious
in suits and spring dresses. But Fox News officials insist they are
well-positioned. Not only do they think they have the people to
cover the story on the ground both here and abroad, they also feel
that the complexities created by the threat of terrorism call for
the type of interpretation and discussion offered by its prime-time
showcase, headlined by Mr. O’Reilly.
"I think at first our audience and all the television news were
like moths to the flame–we were addicted to the video of the
horrific event," said John Stack, Fox News’ vice president for news
gathering. By Sunday, Sept. 16, however, Mr. Stack felt that the
pendulum had begun to swing away from on-site reportage to analysis,
evidenced by the interest in Sunday-morning news programs. "I think
we had reached a point which I think happens in every story: O.K.,
let’s speak and cross-examine the experts," he said. "Let’s get
opinions, let’s get interpretation. There is a time and a place for
everything, but I think more and more people are able to get that
from cable and the 24-hour component."
CNN’s Eason Jordan also believes that there is room for analytic,
chat-driven shows, especially if the breaking news begins to
curtail. "We think personalities are important," Mr. Jordan said.
"And we also think that being where the action is is important."
Still, almost everyone agrees that the news landscape was
significantly altered in one terrifying day. "Last Tuesday changed
everything everywhere," said MSNBC spokesman Mark O’Connor. "Looking
back, we lived in a very peaceful time back then."
What everyone agrees upon is that this unfolding story will be an
extraordinary test. For Fox, it will be a test of its capacity as a
news-delivery operation, especially abroad. (MSNBC will be relying
on NBC News for the vast majority of its international coverage,
said a spokesperson for the cable network.) Conversely, CNN will be
looking to reassert its past dominance in international news in the
wake of numerous programming and personnel changes and cutbacks
after the AOL—Time Warner merger.
For the broadcast networks, the upheaval wrought by terrorism is
not only a great story, but also a significant, badly needed
opportunity to attract eyeballs. As a whole, network news viewership
has declined precipitously over the past decade; faced with smaller
audiences and shrinking revenues, network news divisions have
increasingly turned to titillating or flat, service-oriented stories
to cling to their remaining viewers. It’s an open secret that most
network news-magazine programs are junk, aiming low, programmed as
if run by focus groups in Las Vegas. As for the evening network news
itself, it had begun to feel about as relevant as Blind Date
and reruns of Seinfeld.
Now, of course, those same operations will be the primary vessel
for the public’s seeing and understanding of this unprecedented
story. And network news players–who have felt a little kicked around
in the past few years–are feeling confident once more.
"I was never in doubt about the future of news or needed to be
convinced it had an important role in society," said CBS News
president Andrew Heyward, who acknowledged: "I guess that might
sound self-serving because I’m a network news president."
But, said Mr. Heyward, "this story, with all of its tragic
dimensions, does illustrate the important role that network
journalism still plays in the lives of Americans in times of crisis,
and there is nothing like the networks for knitting the country
In this heightened, uncertain climate, Mr. Heyward and his
competitors feel confident that they will have ample backing from
their corporate chieftains. Mr. Heyward said that in the wake of the
Sept. 11 crisis, he has received "nothing but support" from bosses
like CBS president Leslie Moonves, as well as parent Viacom. Mr.
Doss noted that on Sept. 18, Disney president and chief operating
officer Robert Iger and ABC Television Networks president Alex
Wallau, among others, had visited the ABC News crew to offer
congratulations on the previous week’s work.
Will that translate into added corporate expenditure on network
news? Short term, probably, as networks will have to beef up for the
wartime haul, if there is one. Long term? Uncertain. No matter what
the circumstances, it’s unlikely that network news outfits will
return to the good old days, when they could proudly burn through
cash in the spirit of civic duty. And most people who watched
big-media stock plunge on Monday, Sept. 17, will attest that
corporate parents are unlikely to start splurging on their news
But pressed to cover this remarkable story, networks will try to
do more with less. The good news is that they are already
experienced at this, said Mr. Doss.
"All the network news divisions have spent the past couple of
years trying to redefine their mission and how they achieve their
mission in the world of rapidly decreasing budgets–that has been a
giant, giant part of our thinking," Mr. Doss said. "How do you do
good journalism and how do you do it on a smaller budget? That has
been a preoccupation among managers at all the networks for a couple
of years, and now, all of a sudden, we are looking at, do we have
what we need to respond to this?"
In terms of immediate plans, every network will dispatch
correspondents overseas to supplement those already in hot spots
like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. Most plan to do scattered
hiring, particularly of local crews and guides, since the logistical
issues are immense in such treacherous and uncharted territories.
"In Pakistan, the whole world is attempting visa applications [to
get] into Afghanistan," said Mr. Stack of Fox News.
Under these circumstances, safety of personnel is also a major
concern. Many network reps declined to discuss exact locations for
correspondents, citing security precautions.
Once correspondents arrive in their overseas locations, however,
it is unclear how central or peripheral they will be to the story.
While the Gulf War provided something of a template for network
preparation, Mr. Heyward said there is unlikely to be such a lengthy
and targeted buildup before this kind of conflict. "Here, we don’t
know exactly what is going to happen," he acknowledged. No one
thinks it will be quick and dirty, either. "We are fully preparing
our staff for a long, protracted exercise," said Mr. Stack.
As with the Gulf War, however, it is probable that this conflict
will prove to be more of an a boon to the cable networks, which can
offer round-the-clock coverage. And yet, it is likely to be an
unforgettable time for all television news personnel, who woke up
Sept. 11 as members of a dying, troubled business, but went to bed
on the front lines of a brewing war.
"This will rivet the nation’s attention and the attention of the
networks for the foreseeable future, and that’s a good thing for
both," said Mr. Heyward. "Nobody would wish a tragedy like this on
anybody, but it’s good in that it’s a benefit to the nation to be
seeing important stories of vital national interest on the networks.
And it’s good that the networks will be focusing on what they should
Sreenath Sreenivasan, an associate professor at the Columbia
University Graduate School of Journalism, said that Sept. 11 was
also a fateful day for a number of the school’s young reporters. And
while some students left the downtown chaos energized and inspired,
he said, it also provoked a surprising number of career doubts.
"School has just started," Mr. Sreenivasan said. "Our kids
haven’t covered a cat up a tree, let alone a fire, and they have
been thrown right into the biggest story in the world. So we are
offering counseling. We also have students who are saying, ‘Well, I
don’t want to be a journalist anymore.’"
Mr. Sreenivasan continued: "We have a lot of people questioning
their careers, saying, ‘Is this what I want to do?’ … We had this
town-hall kind of meeting and the students are saying, ‘Everybody
else is up there picking bodies up and saving lives, and I am there
asking, "What is your age? What do you feel?"’
"Some of them, all they did was sit and watch TV for two straight
days. They couldn’t deal with it. I had adult journalists–professionals–doing
the same thing. They just couldn’t react. Didn’t know what to do,
in the biggest story ever."
NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell was attending a Rosh Hashanah service
at Beth-El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle on Sept. 18 when Rabbi
Melvin Sirner asked her to say a few words. The network’s chief
foreign-affairs correspondent, who worships in the same Conservative
synagogue in which her father was once an active leader, had been
given an aliyah, the honor of opening the ark. Rabbi Sirner
stopped her before she returned to her seat and asked her to comment
on the terrorist attacks.
Ms. Mitchell used the opportunity to celebrate the "outpouring of
humanity" since the attacks–and to make clear to the congregation
that Osama bin Laden, the chief suspect, did not represent either
Muslims or the Muslim faith. According to one worshipper, Ms.
Mitchell pointed out that it is "inconceivable" the amount of evil
Mr. bin Laden represents–and told the congregation it shouldn’t be
misunderstood that this is Islam.
Citing her visits to Afghanistan years ago, she pointed out the
use and abuse of women by the Taliban forces. And she urged
Americans to have hope.
Her talk was brief but "eloquent," according to a fellow
worshipper. Ms. Mitchell’s husband, Federal Reserve chairman Alan
Greenspan, was not with her.
—Mary Ann Giordano