9/11 coverage showed reporter how to deal with Covid pandemic, misinformation

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Like many Americans, I remember every detail of September 11, 2001, like it was yesterday.

I was a Congressional reporter in Washington, DC for Dow Jones Newswires and was preparing this Tuesday morning to cover an audience when I noticed a photo of the Twin Towers on CNBC instead of the usual market news. I was in New York the week before and narrowly missed meeting one of my roommates, Elsa Gomez, for lunch in the South Tower, where she worked on the 72nd floor as a portfolio manager for Morgan Stanley.

I had just turned off my hairdryer and turned up the volume to hear what the TV reporters were saying when the second plane crashed into the South Tower at 9:03 am My frantic cell phone calls d’Elsa went to voicemail, then my own phone rang.

My office manager, John Connor, shouted, “Do you see the news? “

“Yeah, I’m watching it now. I was getting ready for this hearing,” I said.

“Forget the audience. We are under attack! Connor cried. “Go to the Capitol right now and start reporting.”

Internet and cell service weren’t that close to what they are today. I had a flip phone and a pager. The difficulty of communicating 9/11 would later prompt Dow Jones to buy BlackBerrys for everyone, but few of us had them back then, and I wasn’t one of them. If I happened to receive a spontaneous quote from a senator or regulator breaking the news, I would call the main office in Jersey City, New Jersey, and dictate my story to the copy office, who sent the headlines and finished articles to the markets.

My heart was pounding. I drove to Capitol Hill and ran to the Senate side with my laptop, cell phone, notepad, and pens. I was lucky and met John Glenn, the former astronaut and retired Democratic Senator from Ohio. Glenn said he was told the accidents were intentional, some kind of attack, and that he was waiting to hear a safety briefing about it.

As we spoke, at 9:37 a.m. a third plane crashed, this time into the Pentagon. A Capitol Police officer grabbed one of Glenn’s arms and one of mine, shouting “Everyone out NOW”.

We ran on the lawn with other Hill employees, reporters and lawmakers. I was panicked. At 30, I had no experience covering war zones. As a business journalist, I had never even covered as much as a bad tropical storm, let alone a terrorist attack. My most dangerous assignment was to deal with the pushback from the Capitol Police while conducting late-night negotiations over Gramm-Leach-Bliley, the legislation that caused the financial crisis by allowing sleepy banks to open arms. massive trade.

We all stood on the Capitol lawn staring at each other, not knowing what to do. I tried to call and report what Glenn told me, but couldn’t get a signal. That’s when we saw smoke billowing from the Pentagon and heard what we thought were bombs exploding across DC.

We were all terrified, except maybe David Rogers, a veteran Congressional reporter for the Wall Street Journal, who liked to call me “Kid.” I watched him coolly stroll next to a few of the staff as I ran and leaned behind a tree. Even Robert Byrd, the former Democratic senator from West Virginia, was hiding behind a tree about 20 feet from me. Byrd was president pro tempore of the United States Senate at the time, placing him in third place for the presidency if anything happened to the president, vice president, and speaker of the House.

My fear turned into concentration. Calming my nerves, I walked over to Byrd.

“Hello, Senator Byrd, I’m a reporter with Dow Jones. Do you know what’s going on?” I asked, gesturing to the Pentagon and the fighter planes.

“Hell if I know,” he replied in his dragging Southern signature.

“Are you not the pro tem president, the third in line for the presidency?”

“Why, yes, I am,” he said.

“Shouldn’t they have you somewhere safe somewhere?”

“You would think they would,” he said.

“Isn’t there a plan to evacuate the leaders from Congress?

“Apparently not,” he said, just as stunned as I was.

Other journalists and some staff gathered around him, sharing what they knew. Rumor had it that bombs had exploded at the Pentagon and the State Department, and they feared more bombs might be planted around the city. Most of this information would prove to be incorrect – the “bombs” we all heard were sonic booms from fighter jets flying over Washington.

The impromptu staff briefing sent us to wire reporters to call what we had, but neither of us were able to get a cell signal.

A prominent aide to Trent Lott, then Republican Minority Leader in the Senate, was heading for the Capitol. I ran to catch up.

“What is happening?” I asked.

“You don’t want to know,” he said.

“I actually do. It’s my job. “

“Officially, a plane is heading for the Capitol,” he said.

Within minutes, Capitol Police began to remove everyone from the Capitol grounds.

I camped at Bagels and Baguettes just outside the Capitol, inhaled coffee and a sesame seed bagel with cream cheese and tomato, and wrote my story. I paid them $ 20 to use their landline to call my editor and send the article by modem.

My office manager said that the mobile operators scrambled their signals so that the attackers could not communicate. He offered to call my parents to tell them I was fine. He told me that my colleague who was covering Congress with me couldn’t make it to Capitol Hill, so I was flying solo.

The Capitol Police Headquarters, just two blocks away, has become a makeshift briefing room for congressional leaders. The press was camped outside. It was then that I finally noticed how beautiful the weather was. The sky was a vivid medium blue; there was not a single cloud. It was the mid-1970s and a light breeze was sweeping through the city. Running had made me sweat, so I took off my jacket, feeling uncomfortable wearing a tank top around the buttoned up Congress.

We waited hours outside the headquarters for the briefings. Journalists took turns shopping for coffee. Journalism in Washington is ruthless, but there is an unspoken understanding that we let each other know if any of us are missing something by, for example, going to the bathroom or having lunch on a lookout.

It must have been nearly 11 p.m. when lawmakers came out to say that a terrorist named Osama bin Laden was responsible for the attacks. I was able to get a signal at that point and called into the story. I didn’t even know how to spell his name.

Congress leaders moved the last briefing of the night to the Capitol grounds – with a beautiful photo of the building in the back – for a press conference live on national television shortly after midnight. I don’t remember the exact time. I was wide awake, but exhausted. I got home around 2:45 am My roommates were still up. We watched CNN replay the collapsing towers over and over again. I called my editors in Jersey City to see what I had missed; they told me to rest. I had about two hours of restless sleep and was back on the Hill around 7 a.m.

The months that followed were some of the most difficult of my career. It would take two nerve-racking days before either of us could join our former college roommate. Elsa had left her cell phone at her desk, narrowly escaping the initial plane crash and then the collapse of the towers. But she was safe, unlike many of her colleagues and more than 3,000 others who died in the attacks.

I was too busy, too focused, I had too much adrenaline to feel anything those early days – until Saturday night when I had my first time out of the week. My roommate Katrina, who was a Senate aide, and I shared a bottle of wine and cried together during heartbreaking interviews with Todd Beamer’s wife and the families of other victims.

The coverage of September 11 was a turning point in my career.

It gave me the stamina I needed to later cover the financial crisis as a Washington-based housing and markets reporter and now as CNBC’s editor for health and science, overseeing much of our coverage of the Covid pandemic. It taught me to stay calm in the midst of a crisis, helped me understand the intricacies of covering catastrophic events, and showed me the importance of bringing timely and accurate information to the public.

A lot of bad or half-accurate information comes out quickly at the start of any catastrophic news event. You have to exercise good judgment. Who are you listening to? Are they qualified, do they have first hand knowledge, do they have a program? Are they just repeating what they heard from people you’ve already interviewed? Rumors can be inadvertently triggered or fueled by reporters calling and asking questions. Journalism is a first draft of history, but we all strive to clarify the facts from the start.

I personally take no offense at people on social media who don’t understand how news organizations work and blindly attack all media. There are a few politically biased news and media figures who don’t seem to care about the facts, and they have seriously damaged the reputation of objective journalism over the past decade. But you should know that the vast majority of us try to get it right. Covering September 11, the financial crisis and now the pandemic, public service journalism is at its most basic level, and we all take this responsibility very seriously.

As I edit articles this week on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I am still in mourning with the rest of America. While coordinating coverage of the Covid pandemic, I also mourn the lives lost to this more recent attack that came out of nowhere. But that was then and still is an honor and a privilege to inform the public.


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