On the ground on 9/11: A journalist remembers
Documentary producer David Giddens was in New York, working on a different assignment, when the twin towers fell. Here in J-Source, he shares his memories of covering one of the biggest stories ever—and his opinion on how the U.S. media failed to do their job in the aftermath of 9/11.
(The World Trade Centre antenna with the post-9/11 front pages in the background at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Photo: Belinda Alzner)
The morning of September 11, 2001, I was in a hotel in midtown Manhattan, blearily descending in an elevator for my pre-production breakfast, when my elevator mate, an old lady in a startling robin’s egg blue pantsuit, said to me “Did you hear? TWO planes hit TWO towers at world trade!” Oh boy, I thought, even with Giuliani spoiling the party, New York still gets some prize nuts.
I walked across the oddly quiet 7th Avenue, took one look at the TV screen in the deli where I planned to get coffee and bagel, and immediately ran back to get my camera operator, Jeff Brinkert. All of our scheduled shoots for our media-issues television program were obviously cancelled. It was time to go and record the media in action on a day where truly no one had any answers.
From 50th Street, down to St. Vincent Hospital, and over and down to lower Manhattan on 10th Avenue we walked, rolling tapes, and interviewing every media person we met on the way. Journalists from Reuters, BBC, South Africa, and all the American networks, sound guys, camera people, anyone in media, doing stand ups in Times Square, in crowds of hundreds of weeping, stunned New Yorkers and tourists.
We spoke to and comforted lost people. People covered in dust, ghosts carrying odd shoes, people walking—dazed. We spoke to policemen who were hoarse from trying to tell people how to get home on the transit-paralyzed island.
I did brief phoner hits for my home channel (Citytv). I remember saying something embarrassing about seeing this as an opportunity to watch media making unfold. I never quite had the nerve to listen afterwards to what I said. I could tell it would be too cringe-inducing.
In all, we walked more than 100 blocks that day, humping Jeff’s crazy piles of extra gear, shooting everything of media merit we could think of.
I asked all the shocked media people the same questions:
What is your first responsibility in a situation like this?
Absent hard information—which we all clearly were—what are you telling your viewers?
Are you spreading information or alarm?
What do you think has happened here?
The piece became a ten-minute, (which was long for my show) unscripted walk through 9-11. My season opener, as it turned out.
Within two months I was back in New York city, where homeland security was already trumping all other concerns—even before the Homeland Security Act was actually passed—and a policy that was explicitly ‘Media workers are either for us or against us’ was leading directly to a sham search for weapons of mass destruction, and untold ongoing geopolitical bloodshed.
But the American media were actively towing the line; foursquare behind an administration whose motives were, by policy, Not To Be Questioned.
Many things were lost on that day, of course. Lives lost are the greatest tragedy…but in the United States of America, there was also a national, sweeping loss, one that affected every man woman and child citizen of our southern neighbor and friend nation: the loss of journalistic scrutiny, the loss of external oversight of power being wielded at the highest levels of American government.
It was a very bad thing, in concrete terms. One wonders if any of the 112-thousand and counting civilian deaths in Iraq may have been preventable had policy makers been subject to the criticism of a lively and active fourth estate.
In hindsight, almost the entire American press became ineffective for the duration of the 9-11 response era. A part of the world went off its keel that day, and it’s only just now getting back to normalcy.
David Giddens is startled by the realization that he has been working in TV for almost 20 years. He is currently with the documentary unit at CBC. Prior to that, he enjoyed a long run at the CHUM group, most notably producing the late, lamented Media Television. There were some formative years on Bay Street and in Canadian Publishing before that. He lives in Toronto. He likes running.