Sunday, September 11, 2016
By Dennis Hartley
I don’t get out much. In 60 years, I’ve yet to travel anywhere more exotic than Canada. That’s me…born to be mild. Oddly enough, however, I was “out of the country” on September 11, 2001.
OK, it was Canada. I was enjoying a weekend getaway at Harrison Hot Springs, a beautiful Alpine setting in British Columbia. I was booked to check out of the hotel on Tuesday, September 11th.
I woke up around 9am that morning, figuring I had enough time to grab breakfast and one more refreshing soak in one of the resort’s natural springs-fed outdoor pools before hitting the road for the 3-hour drive back to Seattle. I was feeling relaxed and rejuvenated.
Then I switched on CNN.
Holy fuck. Was this really happening? I actually did not understand what I was watching for several minutes. It was surreal. It was especially discombobulating to be out-of-country at the very moment the United States of America appeared to be under attack.
My first impulse was just to get back to the U.S.A. I was overcome with a sense of urgency that I had to “do” something (realistically, of course…what could I do to help those poor souls in the towers?).
I went to the front desk to check out, and was advised by the clerk that there were reports that the U.S./Canada border checkpoints were closed (to this day, I’m not sure if that was just a rumor-I can’t track down any historical annotations). I was also hearing from fellow guests that lines of vehicles were miles long at the checkpoints. At any rate, they were offering American guests with a September 11 checkout a reduced rate if they wanted to try their luck on Wednesday.
With all the uncertainty and fear in the air, I decided to take them up on the offer and leave Wednesday morning instead (for all I knew, I could be returning to some kind of post-apocalyptic hellscape anyway). I was less than 200 miles from home geographically, but spiritually I might as well have been Matt Damon’s character in The Martian.
As I didn’t own a cell phone or a laptop (yes, I know they existed in 2001…but I was a latecomer to personal devices), CNN became my lifeline for the remainder of that horrible day. One thing I’ll never forget is Aaron Brown’s marathon reportage. As awful as the situation was, he maintained the perfect tone. This may sound corny, but he was not only a level-headed source of information, but he was my friend that day.
And apparently, I’m not alone in that assessment:
He feels conflicted about it, of course. He is grateful -- "this is not a business where people say 'thank you' that often," he notes -- but he resists the attention. He seldom gives speeches or grants interviews about that day.
"It was something that I was fortunate, professionally, to do and painful, as an American, to live through. It's a weird contradiction that journalists live with -- the ambivalence of, on the one hand, loving the big story, and, on the other hand, hating the fact that that story is happening," Brown said in a rare interview on the eve of the fifteenth anniversary.
I remember watching Brown anchor CNN's coverage of the attacks, which he did from the roof of CNN's old New York bureau at the corner of 34th Street and 8th Avenue. I remember his calm, steady demeanor while narrating chaos.
"What was important is that we kept saying to people, 'Here is what we know and here is what we don't.' That's what mattered. And nothing else mattered," Brown said.
Re-watching the coverage so many years later, this remains a lesson for journalists.
As the day progressed, Brown was joined by Judy Woodruff, Paula Zahn, Wolf Blitzer, Jeff Greenfield and many other CNN journalists.
At one point, from his rooftop position, he could hear fighter jets overhead. But he told me that during the marathon day of news coverage he was never personally afraid of a followup attack in Manhattan.
"I was way too busy to be afraid of anything... I was too busy trying not to screw something up," he said.
Brown had New York and Atlanta control rooms in his earpieces simultaneously, feeding him information and guidance about what to say and where to go next.
When the towers fell
9/11 was Brown's first day on the air at CNN. He had recently been hired from ABC, and he was preparing to start a new prime time newscast called "NewsNight."
He hurried to the roof after the World Trade Center towers were attacked and took over from CNN's Atlanta-based anchors shortly after 9:30 a.m. Within minutes, word came of an attack at the Pentagon.
When the first tower fell at 9:59 a.m., Brown said he felt "profoundly stupid." While he had been thinking a lot about the impacts of the jetliners hitting the buildings, "it just never occurred to me that they'd come down."
Brown, who trained under Peter Jennings at ABC, said "it's the only time I thought, 'Maybe you just don't have what it takes to do a story like this.'"
That insecurity did not come across on the air.
When the second tower collapsed at 10:28 a.m., Brown could hear it from his perch several miles north. "Good lord," he said. "There are no words."
Some viewers, myself included, still remember his "good lord" reaction.
"From the moment the first tower fell, there was a clock ticking," he said. "It was ticking in my head. It was ticking in the heads of hundreds of millions of people in America and a billion people around the world who were watching it."
Brown left CNN in 2005. He now lives in New Mexico. He said "CNN was an amazing organization that day. And I was so proud to be a part of it."
When I asked him how journalism has changed since 9/11, he said he believes there's more pressure "to react to the instant, to the moment," with less time for big picture context.
"My view of 9/11, if I can just this once take a step back and give you a longer view, is that it required that we not get caught up in the moment -- that we, if anything, try and understand the implications of an attack on the United States of America.
"When I got off the air that night, or early morning, I kept thinking, 'Well, what was my daughter's day like?' Was it like my day, when Kennedy was assassinated and I was crying? And I thought, 'Her life is never going to be the same.'
"And that's a longer view of this. For my taste, too often, the lower third is dominated by some sort of instant thing or another that doesn't really help people understand the broader implications of the story, of any story. And I think, honestly, Brian, that is particularly true of this election story. That it gets way too caught up in kind of an instant check and we're not really focused enough on the broader implications of what's going on."
Late into the evening on 9/11, Brown was still on the roof, and he could see the smoke coming from the World Trade Center site.
"When we ended at 1 something in the morning and I sat down, in the corner of the roof, a lot of emotions happened," he recalled.
"This was the biggest moment in my lifetime in every sense -- in the history of my country, in the history of my business, in my personal and professional life."
At one point in the day, then-president of CNN Walter Isaacson came up to the roof and commented to Brown, "This isn't a story, this is history."
"I just wanted to get it right," he said. "I wanted to get it right for my audience; I wanted to get it right for the people who employed me; I wanted to get it right for the history."
That, my friends, is what a good journalist does. Remember them?
(Video at the link...
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