My September 11

What Dan Rather saw, and what he was thinking, on the day that changed everything.

Crisis reporting made Dan Rather. From Hurricane Carla in 1961 (during which he strapped himself to a tree in Galveston and filed reports for Houston’s CBS affiliate) to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Vietnam, Watergate, the Challenger explosion, and the Gulf War, the seventy-year-old Wharton native has made a career of being in the literal center of headline-making news. The events of September 11, 2001, were no different. Anchoring CBS’s commercial-free coverage of the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., Rather demonstrated the mix of tough-guy poise and naked humanity that has made him a fixture of American broadcast journalism for nearly half a century.

Three weeks later Rather talked to me by phone about thinking he had seen it all, only to find out that the unthinkable was at hand. EVAN SMITH

 

I WAS AT HOME ON THE MORNING OF SEPTEMBER 11. I had just stepped out of the shower when a bulletin came over the radio: There was smoke coming out of the World Trade Center, and there were reports that a plane had hit one of the towers. I walked out onto my balcony, and I could see the smoke myself. Then Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News, called to say I’d better hotfoot it to the office.

I did think pretty seriously—for, like, fifteen seconds—about going to the scene, calling in on my cell phone, and saying, “I’m down here.” I’ve always considered myself a reporter-anchor, not an anchor-reporter. I have a discussion with myself fairly regularly about which one should prevail. On September 11 I said to myself, “I’ve spent my whole life preparing for a day like this. God, what can I do? This is what I can do. This is a day I can anchor, a day I can bring my experience to bear.”

I live about fifteen minutes from our broadcast center, which is in Hell’s Kitchen, between Tenth and Eleventh avenues. While I was in the car, word came in that a second plane had hit the towers, which was inconceivable to me. Obviously it was an attack of some kind. At Eleventh Avenue I hopped out and took a look downtown. It was an incredible sight—”incredible” has to be the most overworked word in every journalist’s vocabulary, but there’s no other way to describe it. Huge billows of smoke were pouring out of both buildings. There were flames. Traffic was stopped and beginning to back up. I could see people far down the street running toward me.

When I got upstairs, we knew very little of what had happened. Andrew and I discussed what our plan was for covering the story. Our morning show [ The Early Show] was staying on the air live. There was some suggestion that until we knew more, maybe we shouldn’t plan to go into total special-events coverage. Somewhere in that period, there was a report that the Pentagon had been hit. Things began to tumbleweed. Very quickly Andrew Heyward and I and Al Ortiz, our executive producer for special events, decided to get on and stay on.

MY FIRST THOUGHTS WERE, “ THIS IS ALL SO UNBELIEVABLE. We have to double- and triple-check it. Can it be true? Are we absolutely sure a second plane hit?” The job in circumstances like these is to lead. In any journalistic enterprise, that means being as accurate as you can be. We have a credo at CBS, whether you believe it or not, that says: “I’d rather be last than wrong.” Then again, when you get into this kind of coverage, you have a deadline every nanosecond. There are going to be mistakes. The most responsible thing you can do is keep them to a minimum.

In my experience, the first thing you hear is likely to be wrong. Once you’re on the air, you envision a neon sign in front of you that says, “Check it out.” I feel very strongly that with this kind of coverage, you need to level with the audience—underscore it, italicize it—that we think something is true though we’re not absolutely certain. And you have to explain who your sources are. For example, the story about a car bomb going off at the State Department. The source for that, I happen to know, was a high official of the government, not just someone passing by. We questioned it, reported it, and as soon as it became clear it was wrong, we said so on the air. I don’t think this is entirely bad, by the way. More than at any other time, in a calamity the public sees the process of newsgathering. They can see the conditions under which we work.

Each of the first four days, I was on the air sixteen hours running. I’m not complaining. This is not about me; this is about the families, 13,000 at a minimum, that have lost loved ones or have otherwise gone through this. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t taxing—of course it was. On a story like this, I try to get zoned. I laser-beam focus so completely on what I want to do that everything else—eating, going to the bathroom—becomes not just secondary but irrelevant.

I knew from going through long periods on the air before—following the Challenger explosion, for instance—that this wasn’t going to be one day but day after day. Early on I remember saying to myself, “You have to pace yourself.” Keeping your energy up is not hard in a situation like this, but I did rely on something I call “zoom juice,” a heavy protein mixture that’s whipped up in a blender. Frankly I don’t know what’s in the damn stuff—someone on my staff makes it—but it’s good for a few reasons: It gives you a burst of energy, you can gulp it down quickly, and it’s liquid, so you’re not chewing when you come back on the air.

That first day, I got home at five-fifteen in

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