Amidst panic and confusion, the biggest story of the new millennium made it on the air
September 11th
Credit: Times Square: Shannon Stapleton/REUTERS/TimePix

More than 75 million viewers tuned in to the four major networks during Tuesday night’s 8-to-11 prime-time window in what would become the longest continuous broadcast news coverage of one event since the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. And they were rewarded with commercial-free coverage for the first 72 hours, a decision that cost the broadcast networks roughly $100 million per day collectively. ”They have not given way to the almighty dollar,” notes Matthew Felling, media director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Perhaps reflecting the fact that this was the first true crisis of the 21st century, Tuesday morning’s earliest reports from the field relied on eyewitness accounts over cell phones — even though the World Trade Center’s collapse soon crippled wireless communications and the broadcast towers for most of New York’s local stations. ”There were no cell phones, so everybody was told to just begin reporting,” says Shepard Smith of Fox News. ”They’d just wave their hands and start talking. It was one-way communication. Everybody in the field could talk to the studio, but the studio couldn’t talk to anyone in the field.”

By 10 a.m., just over an hour after the first crash, each TV outlet had its marquee anchors in the chair. On the networks, the Three Horsemen — Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, and Dan Rather — were called in, stat. (The trio would clock 12-hour shifts that first night, with Jennings reporting in shirtsleeves, blazer-less.) Brian Williams sat in at MSNBC, and John Gibson held down the fort at the Fox News Channel. Meanwhile, over at CNN, Aaron Brown and Paula Zahn — two new hires who hadn’t even begun regular work yet — were baptized by fire. Driving in to work as the news first broke, Brown recalls, ”I got behind a police car and just followed that guy…. He ran lights, I ran lights.” The anchor wasn’t scheduled to appear on air until mid-October, so he says another thought crossed his mind: ”Do I have a shirt in my office? Do I have a tie?” (He did.)

CNN wasn’t the only one struggling to get all hands on deck. When she first learned of the crash, ”GMA” exec producer Shelley Ross was interviewing a job candidate, a young journalist who asked what he could do. ”He actually jumped in the subway and got down there [to report],” Ross says. ”It certainly was the most impressive job interview I’ve ever seen.”

Some other unlikely people also popped in to lend a hand. At CNN in Atlanta, Ted Turner arrived early the first day to rally the troops. At one point he looked up at monitors carrying the regular programming of sister networks TBS and TNT and wondered aloud why they weren’t carrying the CNN feed instead. They soon did. Other cable outlets did likewise. Disney-owned ESPN carried ABC coverage. Viacom’s MTV and VH1 (but not Nickelodeon) picked up CBS’ reporting. Fox News aired on Fox Sports, FX, and Fox Family Channel. And NBC spread to MSNBC and CNBC. In an age of multichannel media behemoths, such saturation was unavoidable.