By Bob Priddy
One Year Later: News managers look back on the year that changed everything...news managers from New York and Washington had powerful, personal stories to tell. But they also had reservations. They did not want to give even the slightest impression that their efforts were any more significant than those of their teammates. I promised to honor that concern as we discussed the lessons they've learned about their newsrooms and themselves in the past year.
by Jill Geisler for the Communicator, September 2002
No single day in the 65-year history of RTDNA changed the organization more than September 11, 2001. Although organization leaders had recognized the changing business and media climate around them and were pondering changes RTNDA (as it was called then) would have to make, they could never have anticipated the changes set in motion that morning. As the day unfolded, I started keeping a log of events. Later, I added other notes that might add context to what happened in about seven hours that day at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville. The times listed for what was happening to us that day in Nashville are the readings from my watch and might not match times in other chronologies of other events. Here is a behind the scenes look at the day history changed the world and RTDNA.
It was a Tuesday. The RTNDA convention was to start the next day. Exhibitors were building their displays in the large exhibit hall. They had paid us a lot of money to rent space to show us their products and services. Chairman-Elect Dave Busiek had put together an excellent schedule of workshops, banquets, awards ceremonies, and other activities. A year of hard work by Dave and his planning committee was about to pay off.
Chairman Mark Millage was about to preside over his last executive committee meeting that morning and over his last board meeting starting a couple of hours later. Lou Prato was to attend his last meetings as RTNDA Treasurer, ending two decades of service in that position. Board member Bob Salsberg was looking forward to becoming the next chairman-elect, the person who was to produce the 2002 convention in Long Beach, California. The hotel was looking forward to hundreds of people occupying its rooms. Convention-goers were in the air or soon to climb aboard airplanes headed to Nashville. Some had driven in or were on the road.
Jill Geisler, a regular workshop leader at RTNDA conventions, was packing her suitcase and would soon catch her flight to Nashville when she glanced at her television set and saw “video of disfigured World Trade Center towers.” She reacted the way a former television news director might react. “I grab a notebook,” she later writes for TelevisionArchive.org. She began to keep a journal. Entries marked (*) are from Jill’s log. She would write a few days later, “On September 11, 2001, when life in the United States was at its worst, broadcast journalism was at its best.”
Others connected to RTNDA shared their stories in various other ways. Several posted their stories on the RTNDA webpage. Their comments are marked with below a double asterisk (**).
All times are Central Daylight Time.
The first executive committee members and association staff members had arrived in Presidential Boardroom A about 8 a.m.—association attorney David Evans, Chairman-elect candidate Bob Salsberg and myself. We were just starting with the breakfast buffet of a ham, egg, and cheese muffin, assorted melons and fruits, some cereals, juice and coffee when Millage walked into the room at 8:09 a.m. and said an airplane had hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. I noted that it was the second time something like that had happened, that a B-25 had crashed into the Empire State Building in 1945. It was one of those trivial things that we pick up in life as we go along.
Prato had arrived by the time Rick Osmanski came into the room and told us a second plane had hit the second tower. Prato hauled a small SONY Walkman radio and earphones out of his bag. He started relaying information to those in the room as details were broadcast.
Former Chairman of the Board Mike Cavender, now a member of the RTNDF board, had decided to drive the 225 miles from Atlanta to Nashville instead of catching a plane. He was about 100 miles into his trip when he heard reports of the events on his car radio. He immediately turned around. Mike never made it to Nashville.
*8:20: All networks show wide shots of the earliest damage. Fox News relies on video from local New York stations WABC and WCBS. CNBC is talking over its NBC video with an eyewitness, a reporter from The Wall Street Journal. Anchors quote a “senior government official” who says “one or both planes may have been hijacked for suicidal missions.”
Within minutes we decided to cancel the committee meeting and move to Millage’s suite where there was a television set instead of waiting for the hotel staff to bring a set to the board room. Busiek instantly knew much of his convention planning work had been wiped out.
*8:22: ABC: Peter Jennings refers to “what now becomes a rescue mission,” adding “there was no warning, no intelligence whatsoever” about this event.
*8:29: NBC reports the President will speak soon from Sarasota,. National correspondent Jamie Gangel, in a phoner, reports that her sources tell her “this is clearly terrorist related. Matt Lauer and Katie Couric talk about two plans that hit the towers, referring to first as a 757 air bus that had been enroute from Boston to Los Angeles, the second as a 737. All networks cut to the President’s brief address from Sarasota. Most display him in split screen, showing live video of the WTC at the same time. ABC’s Peter Jennings describes the president as “clearly shaken.” A Fox anchor ad libs about the President’s interrupted visit with children at a school, “Perhaps, a little education worldwide would prevent this kind of thing.” Correspondent Rita Cosby talks about Osama Bin Laden, reporting there had been recent warnings for travelers heading abroad about potential terrorist threats. NBC interviews former State Department terrorist expert Larry Johnson, who says he wants to be cautious about connecting the event to terrorists, but “I would be inclined to say that’s the case.” I note that with the exception of the President, we haven’t seen the faces of people who are speaking. Directors in booths everywhere understand the compelling nature of the pictures and our need to keep seeing them. Not only are people tuning in to he coverage every moment, but the story is in progress and nothing tells this story more clearly than the video.
*8:38: Fox News reports the NASDAQ and New York Stock Exchanges have not opened. Anchors speak with a Wall Street Journal reporter by phone. His office is across the street from the World Trade Center. He describes hearing what sounded like a sonic boom. Fifteen minutes ago, he says, bodies started dropping from the World Trade Center. He says he saw 5 or 6 people who he believes leaped to their deaths. CBS is showing the video of the second airplane hitting the second tower, running it in slow motion as Bryant Gumbel talks with James Kallstrom, who headed the FBI investigation into the 1993 World trade Center bombing.
*8:41: NBC cuts to correspondent Jim Miklaszewski, who reports from the Pentagon that the building just shook and he sees construction workers scattering from the area. “It appears to be a small blast. Windows rattled. The building shook.” He promises more details as soon as he can gather them “please be careful,” urges Katie Couric.
*8:42: ABC’s Clair Shipman reports smoke coming from behind the Old Executive Office Building. There is video of the smoke, from a camera position near Lafayette Park. No definitive word on what we are seeing. NBC”s Miklaszewski is back with word that the Pentagon is being cleared. “This appears to be a highly sophisticated, coordinated attack.” CBS reports from the Pentagon that the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine has claimed responsibility for the acts.
*8:44: ABC reports a fire at the Pentagon and evacuation of personnel. CBS reports all airports, tunnels, and bridges in New York are closed. NBC’s “Mik” reports pandemonium in the hallways of the Pentagon. CBS says the Pentagon bombing was a plane attack. Fox reports that the Pentagon incident involved another large airliner, perhaps hijacked.
8:45 (Opryland Hotel): The FAA announces the shutdown of all air traffic, nationwide. Moments later, as Busiek, Millage, Priddy, and Salsberg—now joined by President Barbara Cochran—watched as word came that the Pentagon was on fire. RTNDA Vice-President and convention planner Rick Osmanski arrived and quickly went into a huddle with Cochran, Busiek, Millage, and Salsberg to assess damage to the convention. They feared many people would pull out of the convention or not even attend. They recognized right away that substantial losses were possible. Cochran remarked, “The Pentagon thing is the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Within five minutes Osmanski and Evans had started reviewing the contract with the hotel.
*8:45: Tom Brokaw has joined in NBC’s coverage, reviewing the events to the moment, as the network shows both the wide views of the towers and D. C. and early pictures from the ground in New York. I note several things. All network reporters are being cautious in their choice of words as well as their tone. They are serious, professional, and appear careful not to panic people. I note that Fox News’s cluttered graphic treatment makes their coverage difficult to watch. Too much design in he way of the story.
*8:52: All networks report that airplane takeoffs nationwide have been canceled. Planes in the air have been diverted.
8:54 (Opryland): Those clustered around the television see a report that the White House has been evacuated amid fears that it was the next target. Within four minutes we learn the FAA ordered all airplanes to land immediately at the nearest airport. A number of people headed to Nashville found themselves in a strange city with no idea of what would happen to them next.
*8:54: Fox reports that the Pentagon event may have been a helicopter crash. ABC reports the United Nations is ordered evacuated. Debris is falling onto the street from the World Trade Center. There is a call for help to pick people off the roof of the World Trade Center. From the Pentagon—an eyewitness report that a plane crashed near the Pentagon and there appears to be a fire in the courtyard. Quote an AP report saying a U. S. official says “One of two planes hijacked after takeoff from Boston was American flight number 11 for Los Angeles.” Jennings, clearly concerned, says “I realize we are going to put the fear of God into the West Coast and a lot of people waiting for that light.” Jennings is having problems knowing which of several video feeds are being shown to viewers—calmly, politely he asks his crew to give him the information he needs. I think about the value of professional, well-informed, well-known anchors and reporters. When you hear the voices of journalists you recognize and respect, you view with greater confidence, if not comfort. I note that despite the gravity of the story, the likelihood of it being a terrorist attack, there is no jingoism in the delivery of this news.
8:59 (Opryland): We watch, stunned, as the south tower collapses.
**New York 1 reporter Kristen Shaughnessy was on the street talking on the phone when the building came down. “I thought I was far enough away, but within seconds it was there,” she later wrote. “The FBI agents were all running and looked scared. One grabbed my arm and said, ‘Run or you’ll die.’” For several hours, her news director had no idea where she was until she started phoning in reports about noon, New York time.
*9 a.m.: NBC reports a spokesman for the Democratic Front for the Libertion of Palestine denies responsibility. Tom Brokaw notes that in situations like this, there are always “claims and counter-claims.” CBS reports the Sears Tower has been evacuated in Chicago. Dan Rather has joined the coverage. During a morning filled with video instead of anchor faces, we got Dan full frame saying, “There is much that is not known. The word for today is ‘steady.’” ABC shows video of the southern tower of the WTC folding, nothing ti happened just moments ago. “My God,” says Jennings, “We’re talking about massive casualties.” Jennings begins to speculate that in order to demolish a building, there must be detonation at its base. He seems to be suggesting further bombs. Reporter Don Dahler steps in to change the direction of the thinking. “The top part was totally involved…the weight at the top collapsed the building…there was no explosion at the bottom.” Jennings invokes Pearl Harbor…and massive casualties. Dahler reports hearing rescue workers on radios screaming for help at the triage center.
*9:06: NBC talks about “a real breakdown of anti-terrorism.” efforts in the U.S. CBS’s Harold Dow is breathless as he reports from a subway station around the corner of the fallen tower. He describes the scene from which he just escaped as “surreal and devastating.” Rather asks if the building came down. “Yes,” is the painfully obvious reply.
9:06 (Opryland): Roz Stark, the executive director of the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation comes into the suite. We did not learn until later the personal stress she was under. Nor did we know until later in the morning the anxiety of another of our staff members.
9:08 (Opryland): Osmanski came back to the suite, contract in hand, and suggested we close our Washington office because the Washington Metro system had been shut down. No cabs were running. He reported that the temp Laura Trope, alone in the office, was “scared to death.” Cochran called Laura while Osmanski began discussions with our then Chief Financial Officer, Jane Nassiri and began going over the contract with Millage.
*9:10: ABC reports it was a plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Fox News goes to reporter Rick Leventhol on the ground near the collapsed tower. He cannot hear the Fox anchors, so he just talks. Talks about the victims with soot and dust covered faces headed his way. Tries to talk with some. Asks a man in fire fighting gear, What’s your assignment?” He gets a two word reply: “Help people”
9:12 (Opryland): Board member Angie Kucharski arrives to announce that she had arranged a 2 p.m. flight back to Denver if the planes had resumed flying by then. Several people in the suite have begun what millions throughout the country are doing: speculating about what these events were all about. Millage wonders if they had any connection with the execution three months to the day earlier of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber.
*9:16: CBS’s Jim Stewart in Washington reports the House and Senate are shut down. Metro police are on full alert. All flights grounded. The FBI offices are open. I remind myself that I have been raptly monitoring ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox. What about other outlets?
*9:20: CNN Headline News has changed from its ultra-busy graphics to streamlined information about the event. Reports that the Capitol, State Department, and Treasury Department have been closed. The West Wing of the White House has been cleared due to a “credible terrorist threat.” MSNBC has ground footage, taped outside the Pentagon. Interview with an MSNBC.com employee by phone with an eyewitness account of what now seems like old news about the initial crash.
(Opryland): By 9:20, Evans was able to provide some assurance that the loss of the convention would not be as devastating as we already had begun to fear. He told us it appeared we were insured for the full budget amount of the convention and that we would make refunds to exhibitors and attendees. The closure of the airports worked in our favor, he said. Evans and Osmanski decided to alert the insurance company to the situation.
9:23 (Opryland): A somber Busiek notes the options are to cancel or to “muddle through.” But Osmanski had no reservations. “We have to cancel,” he said. Cochran noted, “Symbolically it would be unseemly to have the convention and to hold the Murrow Awards on Wednesday night.” Millage noted, “We’ll have workshops without panelists and moderators.”
David Evans told us the contract with Opryland said the contract would be voided if there was any peril to the hotel. RTNDA’s insurance policy talked of cancellation, postponement, or abandonment of the convention. But, he said, if people stay away to cover the news, the coverage might not apply.
*9:25: On ABC, Peter Jennings says, “I’m still confused about what caused the buildings to collapse,” over powerful close up video of the first tower breaking apart and falling. Jennings notes that “the other tower is leaning. Fire is spreading downward.” There is concern about the safety of rescue workers at the scene. Says Jennings: “New York firefighters have a reputation for staying until the very end.”
9:27 (Opryland): “Let’s get together around the table,” said Cochran, wanting to discuss our situation now that we had some information to work on.
9:28 (Opryland): As we gather for the discussion, the second tower falls. Within five minutes, board member Robert Garcia, news director of CNN Radio, tells the group that CNN, our biggest vendor, had volunteered to leave its booth in place if the convention were pushed back a week. But he said it was impossible for CNN to tear down the exhibit and come back in a month.
*9:30: NBC has ground level video. Lauer and Couric talk about the rubble following the bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City. “Mik” reports that security officials have evacuated the entire area around the State Department following reports of a car bomb outside the department. He says another plane has been reported hijacked and is 20-25 miles outside Washington, D.C., headed for D.C. Reports Donald Rumsfeld refused to leave the State Department. Admiral Clark was taken to an alternate command site. Another hijacked plane headed to D.C.? I think about the people on board. So far, in all of this reporting, we have seen buildings, and dust...and only a few people. This has been a “macro” view so far. I think about the thousands of personal stories that must be told.
*9:32: ABC reports that an American Airlines headed from Dulles to LA was hijacked, with 60 passengers and crew on board. Jennings reads an AP report of a car bomb outside the State Department. MSNBC is checking hospitals, including those in New Jersey, that are poised to take in victims. CNN is carrying video from WNYW in New York—the remaining tower is falling. “Good Lord,” says correspondent Aaron Brown, “There are no words.’
**NBC producer Allison Gilbert has been moving against the crowd rushing from the area of the collapsed first tower when “I heard someone yell, ‘Get out of here! Get out of here!’ Then I heard the second tower falling. A horrendous rumbling,…a thunderous sound. The scariest part for me was thinking the building was to fall like a tree. I literally ran out of my shoes; I was barefoot. I was running over debris and rocks, but I didn’t even feel it.” She was engulfed by the cloud of smoke and debris. ”It was so scary I was didn’t think I was ever going to see the sky again,” she wrote. She wound up being taken to a hospital with severe breathing problems. She did a live report from her hospital bed.
**Former NBC reporter Jim Plante, who had been working at an exhibit table at a convention of the National Association of Business Economists at the Marriott Hotel near the WTC, when the first plane hit, is being interviewed by a WNBC-TV street reporter when the second tower comes down. “People started running past us and emergency workers started pushing all of us further up West Street,” he later wrote. He wound up in a Greenwich bar run by an old friend. Plante hoped to use the bar’s phone to call his daughter. An old lady who lived in an apartment building that gave her a clear view of the WTC entered the bar with her daughter, sobbing. The rumble of the tower collapse could be felt in the bar. “Flo started going hysterical and ended up grabbing on to me. I talked to her a long while and she finally calmed down,” he wrote. He looked at his friend who ran the bar and told him, “I think we lost a lot of friends today, you more than me.”
*9:35: Over video of the second collapse, NBC’s Tom Brokaw says, “The profile of the United States has changed. Terrorists have declared war on the United States.” Fox reports a hijacked plane is headed to Washington and military aircraft have circled the capital. NBC reports a huge, gaping hole in a Pentagon wall. CBS shows one f the shots I will never forget. It is a wide, wide aerial view from the harbor. The Statue of Liberty stands proud and strong n the foreground. Behind her, Manhattan—all of it—is shrouded in smoke.
*9:36: ABC is showing video from ground zero near the WTC. People are walking toward the Brooklyn Bridge exit. The air is gray. People are covered with ash and dust, cell phones on their ears.
9:36 (Opryland): Cochran to Evans, “You’re saying it would be unwise from an insurance standpoint to cancel?” Treasurer Loren Tobia says the shutdown of all flights across the country is a reason for canceling the convention. But Evans advises against a quick decision and Osmanski suggests we meet with exhibitors who already had spent a lot of money getting to Nashville and starting to set up their facilities in the exhibition hall. He felt the association, as a courtesy, needed to let them know whether to stop their work or continue. Evans suggested we have more talks with the association insurance carrier but warned that there was risk because no matter what the association did, the insurance company may take the opposite position.
Tobia told the group at 9:40 that the Nashville airport had closed but people were being booked on flights leaving the next day—although there were no guarantees.
Cochran called for a meeting of the exhibitor advisory committee, a group of exhibitors, for 10:30. Osmanski was dispatched to the hall to announce that the executive committee and the board were examining options.
Staff member Stacey Staniak suggested the organization needed to post some information to its website. Not yet, said Cochran.
*9:40: Fox reports it was US Air Flight 737 that crashed into the south end of the Pentagon. At the bottom of the screen, the super reads “Hijacked plane now en route to D. C.” Fox is relying on video from local ABC affiliate WJLA in Washington. On CBS, Rather describes the story aptly as “A well orchestrated orgy of terrorism” as we again see the unforgettable harbor view of the event. NBC shows and describes people fleeing from the second building collapse, from a round vantage point 10 blocks from the WTC. “Emergency workers are coming out stunned,” says the reporter, “struggling for breath, with breathing problems…emergency workers had to get out to survive...Now they are trying to regroup and go back in.” And that’s when I witness the second signature scene of the morning. Two firemen in full gear reach to one another. They embrace. This is, after all, a story about human lives.
9:46 (Opryland): A critical moment. Dave Busiek says, “There’s just no way” to have a convention. While those in the room at that moment knew he was right, the timing of the announcement was important. Cochran warned that cancelling too soon may hurt during discussions with the insurance company. The group breaks up and clusters around televisions in the suite. Prato, watching news coverage on one off the TVs n the suite, remarks, “This is the day America changed.”
9:48 (Opryland): Our television sets and our Walkmans tell us police have confirmed a plane crash in Pennsylvania.
***Former RTNDA board member Paul Paolicelli, in Palermo, Sicily receives a call from a friend in Rome. “Get to a television,” his friend said. Paolicelli stumbles into a general store and commandeers a TV set in time to hear that something has happened in Pennsylvania. He is able to reach his sister “who, on the verge of tears, recounted the morning’s events.” He also gets through to his wife in Columbus, Ohio. “The Italians in the store watched me with sympathy and interest. They wanted to make sure this Americano’s family was okay. I relayed the conversation to them when I finished. They treated me as if there had been a death in the family…I felt so alone, impotent, isolated.”
*9:50: Fox has slapped a label on its coverage: “Day of Terror.” CBS reporter Byron Pitts is with a New York firefighter. Over video of the chaos we are allowed to listen in as the firefighter talks by phone to his wife. He tells her he is all right.
9:54 (Opryland): Tobia says he has learned people are NOT being booked at the Nashville flights for tomorrow’s flights. CNN reports Washington’s K Street (where the association had its headquarters at 1717) was in “absolute gridlock” with cars pouring out of parking lots. Cell phone circuits were jammed.
*9:55: ABC reports there is no car bomb at the State Department. On CBS, Rather quotes Edward R. Murrow: “No one can terrorize a whole nation unless we are all accomplices.” NBC reports that Osama Bin Laden may have predicted this event three weeks ago when he warned there would be a future terrorist event. CBS labels its coverage, “Attack on America.”
9:57 (Opryland): We watch as CBS reports a large plane crash in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, eighty miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Another report citing FAA sources says a United Airlines plane has crashed in the vicinity of Camp David. Garcia mentions in the meeting room that he had heard a half hour earlier that seven planes had been hijacked and five were unaccounted for. Someone else notes that September 11th was the anniversary of the Camp David accord.
Shortly after 10 a.m., Roz Stark is seen standing next to another table in the Chairman’s suite wiping her eyes, quietly crying. She explains a few minutes later that her son works at a Times Square office in New York, not far from the World Trade Center, and could watch the events from his office.
“In the movies, Bruce Willis would show up to save things,” remarks Millage just before ABC switches to Florida where President Bush had been earlier in the day. By now he has left for a secure location, leaving behind ABC White House correspondent John Cochran, Barbara’s husband. She gasps, puts her hands to her mouth, and listens intently to John’s report.
Other board members Dave Baer and Jim Turpin have arrived in the suite now, about the time the meeting of the full board was to start. Turpin reports that CBS was saying several commercial flights remained unaccounted for. Moments later board member Joe Coscia reports his wife has been told Hertz is not releasing any more rental cars. Turpin says his travel agent has assured him he had one.
*10:20: Fox reports US Airways says all its planes are accounted for, contrary to earlier Fox reports.
*10:21: NBC reports live from outside Stuyvesant High School near the World Trade Center. The area is being evacuated because of bomb threat. I walk through every channel on my cable system and see how other media outlets have responded. ShopNBC is carrying MSNBC coverage, reporting 156 lives on two American Airlines planes have been lost. There is a message on screen: “In light of the tragedy that occurred this morning and the impact on each of us as American citizens and particularly those who have been directly affected either in person or by family and friend, we here at ShopNBC have temporarily suspended programming.” The Shop at Home Network, the Home Shopping Network, and QVC also suspend programming. Onscreen messages direct viewers to turn to “your news channel.”
TBS is carrying CNN coverage. TNT is carrying CNN coverage. CSPAN2 is running the live broadcast of Washington CBS affiliate WUSA. Univision has a statement about the tragedy from Mexican President Vicente Fox. ESPN2 shows ABC live coverae. FX is running Fox News live coverage. Court TV is covering the story. VH1 is broadcasting coverage from WCBS, the local New York O&O, instead of its originally scheduled program, “Rock and Roll Jeopardy.” I continue to shift from channel to channel for the latest information. It is nearly 11 a.m. and I need to file this report.
Before I stop taking notes, I check another channel: The Eternal Word Network. The religious haven is running an old, taped program. They should have been live today.
10:21 (Opryland): Moments before board members leave the suite for the meeting with exhibitors, NBC reports Canada has shut down its airports although it would allow incoming flights to land. As we enter the area we meet Membership Services Director Missy Snodgrass and learn that her brother was working in the Pentagon only 200 feet from the place where the hijacked airplane had struck the building. She is shaken but relieved to learn he is okay although, she says, all of his bosses have been killed.
10:24: We meet with Osmanski outside the RTNDA office. He tells us the exhibitors think we should cancel the show. By 10:31, 30 people have gathered in the office. Evans is on the phone with the insurance company.
10:35: Evans tells Millage, Busiek, Garcia, Salsburg, Prato, Busiek, Cochran, and Priddy he has been insured by Debbi Wistafke, a spokesman for our insurance company, Sedbury and Smith, that they were trying to contact their underwriters. He says he told her RTNDA needed information and she told hm “Everyone understands the situation. This is not a pre-existing condition. You have no worry that RTNDA will be compensated for reduced attendance if you are going on or for total loss if you cancel.” Evans says he asked her to tell us the amount of coverage for a total loss. The answer: just over $2 million. But Evans is not sure yet what the situation is with the hotel although he plans to talk to Opry land about mitigating the damages.
10:41: Cochran makes sure the message she will give exhibitors is correct: “I’ll say we’re trying to figure out what to do. We’ll meet with the board. I’ll call on you (speaking to Evans) and you can explain what we’ve done and ask them what helps them the most,” Evans says getting the thoughts of exhibitors is important to our decision-making Osmanski joins the group, saying he has told exhibitors we might have to cancel the convention. He says the exhibitors understand the situation because of the national tragedy.
Twenty-two people are seated around a long table. Twenty-one more are standing when the meeting begins at 10:43. Evans tells the group that today is the big travel day for our attendees and there is great uncertainty about people getting to Nashville today or tomorrow. But, he says, many who planned to come or who are already in Nashville are leaving or not coming. He says negotiations with the insurance company and with the hotel are ongoing. But the opinions of exhibitors are important.
One exhibitor wonders about options. Cochran says the only ones are a reduced convention or cancellation. There is no possibility of rescheduling. “It’s on to Long Beach,” she says, referring to the 2002 convention already scheduled to be held there. Another exhibitor noted that he felt the 2001 convention was going to be a “hard convention” anyway in terms of attendance. He doubted the news directors would come to Nashville, especially with the events in New York. Another one doubted that anyone not already in Nashville would arrive later. He already had talked to people who had landed in Nashville and said they were trying to immediately get home with rental cars or trains.
The clincher seemed to come from a SONY representative who told us, “We’re working now to tear down our space. We’re pulling out. We have a lot of people here with family and friends in New York City and we don’t have enough people to support our exhibit if we go ahead.”
The meeting ended at 10:54. There wasn’t much doubt in our minds about our decision as we headed to the board meeting. As we gathered in the meeting room, Turpin told fellow board members that if they had a confirmation number from Hertz, they could get a car. But if they went to the counter, they could not get one.
**11:04: Los Angeles International Airport evacuated. Former RTNDA elected President (the position is now the Chairman of the Board) Paul Davis already had checked in for his flight to Nashville. “Reclaiming my bag was a zoo as all bags were being ‘jettisoned’ into the four United carousels and stacking layers deep with hundreds of passengers grappling with bags or other people.” Another former elected president, Spence Kinard, had a similar experience in Salt Lake City where he had just checked his bags curbside when that airport was ordered closed. Kinard, working with the Utah tourism office, spent the day keeping his office open, “helping stranded passengers at the airport find hotel rooms, retrieving my bags, canceling and changing RTNDA plans (being also an exhibitor made things more complex, like trying to get everything we’ve already shipped to Nashville back to SLC…” Salt Lake City was to have had a display in the exhibit hall promoting its upcoming Olympics. “Security for the Olympics just jumped to a new level. Life and the Olympics will never be what they were,” he wrote.
11:06 (Opryland): The board meeting begins with 10 empty chairs at 11:06, just short of three hours since Millage had walked into the same room to tell a few of us of the first crash in New York. Everybody, staff members included, is allowed in the room although the board meets in executive session to discuss the legal situation. Cochran reported on the exhibitors meeting and told the board we had two choices: continue at a reduced level or cancel. She told the board that the exhibitors advisotry committee was doubtful news directors would be in Nashville and that SONY had been told to extract its booth and send people home. “There’s no practical way to re-schedule this,” she said. But RTNDA faced some fiscal issues. Exhibitors had paid up-front and had expenses. Registrants would be seeking reimbursement. The hotel had an attrition clause in its contract saying RTNDA would pay stiff penalties if our room rentals were less than 80% of the guaranteed numbers. Evans told the board the organization had paid its annual convention insurance premium and the insurance company had committed to reimburse the association for its losses. He did note the policy had a clause allowing denial of claim for an act of war and said underwriters might use that language to deny coverage but, he said, “I wouldn’t think this would apply.”
Six minutes into the meeting, Osmanski reported SONY wasn’t the only exhibitor pulling out. AP, Leach, Fuji, and several others also were leaving. That was “helpful” news to Evans who noted the circumstances would “create an inability to hold this event.” But he wanted to board to fully understand the gravity of the circumstances. “Our insurance wasn’t designed to cover all potential liability of the hotel and he viability of RTNDA could be threatened,” he said, “We’re at risk.” But he said the organization did have a lot of insurance money and hoped its claims are not contested. “We’re not alone,” he said, but the question was who would pay for the cancellation of the convention.
He said the hotel had told him it was not surprised the organization was thinking of canceling in the face of a national emergency. But the hotel would lose a lot of revenue from cancellation of the entire room block. In addition, RTNDA had several other costly contracts for labor and equipment.
Garcia observed, “It’s a moot point. It’s over. I have a feeling people know that.”
Evans noted there was a potential that damages would exceed revenues. It was important for the organization to protect its position that the cancellation was justified. My sense is we have extensive information from exhibitors they are pulling out, so we can cancel. We need to notify people who are trying to find alternative means to come in,” he said.
The next step was to notify the insurance company of the cancellation and the reasons. I started drafting a resolution setting forth the reasons for the cancellation. Board members suggested some changes until the final handwritten resolution read:
“Whereas a national emergency has been caused by multiple acts of violence involving public and private enties, and
Whereas the members of RTNDA feel a deep obligation to serve the public in this time of national crisis, and
Whereas the shutdown of the nation’s air traffic system renders it impossible for thousands of potential attendees to reach the convention sites, and
Whereas the exhibitors at the meeting have informed the board they are unable to conduct business under these circumstances because of the crisis,
Therefore the Board of Directors of the Radio-Television News Directors Association hereby cancels the 2001 RTNDA International Conference and Exhibition.”
It was unanimously adopted by a roll call vote called by Cochran.
But the cancellation caused another problem that had to be addressed before board members could begin a scramble to get back to their newsrooms. Priddy noted that the cancellation of the convention also meant the cancellation of elections for chairman-elect, treasurer, and at-large directors. The organization constitution had nothing in it to address the situation. Millage was still the Chairman. Busiek had lost his year of work as chairman-elect and could not yet move up to chairman. Bob Salsberg could not be elected chairman-elect to plan the convention for Long Beach. A new executive committee could not be picked because that was done at the post-convention board meeting. And newly-elected regional directors could not join the board because their terms began at that post-convention board meeting. No convention, no elections, no post-convention board meeting.
12:08: The board adjourns for lunch. Evans and Priddy remain at the table to work on proposed constitutional changes to deal with conducting association business when conventions are canceled. They paused at 12:11 to watch President Bush make his first television appearance.
The board reassembled at 1:40 after lunch and after many members had checked out of their rooms to approve constitutional changes that would allow the elections to be held with mail ballots and the new board members and officers taking office upon completion of the ballot counting. The new executive committee would be done at the December board meeting. By 3 p.m., the board was done. Farewells had been shared. The world had changed for RTNDA in those seven hours. All of us knew it. None of us could anticipate that the change would go on for a decade and beyond.
Most board members scattered after the meeting to look for ways home or to hit the road by whatever method possible. One final piece of business remained. As Dan Shelley and I were heading out the door, RTNDF Executive Director Roz Stark stopped us. There, in the lobby of the hotel, she presented me with the Barney Oldfield award for service to the foundation. She, Shelley, and Angie Kucharski gave me a standing ovation.
Angie Kucharski caught a cab to the airport where she rented a car and got strict instructions that it was not to leave Nashville. She promptly went back to the hotel, picked up Dave Busiek left Nashville. They headed to Kansas City at 90 mph where Busiek’s wife met him. “Once we stopped for gas and there was a really long line as people had started hoarding,” he recalled later, “That was pretty scary…like society was teetering on the edge pretty quickly.” He got back to Des Moines at 3 a.m. and was in his newsroom five hours later. Kucharski headed for Denver in her “local” rental car that got her into Kansas before a couple in an RV smashed into it at a gas station. Priddy and Shelley set out in Priddy’s minivan, listening to NPR’s coverage, aiming for Litchfield, Illinois, about 60 miles north of St. Louis, where someone from WTMJ, Milwaukee, picked up Shelley while Priddy headed toward Missouri, where the fall legislative session was to begin later in the day. Shelley arrived in his WTMJ newsroom at 4 a.m.
Board member David Louie caught a break when he was able to retrieve his rental car that he had turned in at the hotel in the morning. He, Mark Miller, and Bob Salsberg left Nashville at 2 p.m. Louie’s San Francisco newsroom had decided to send him to Washington to report from there. They arrived at midnight. “D.C. was eerie because there was no traffic and the skies were quiet with no commercial aircraft taking off from or landing at National Airport,” he remembers. One of Salsberg’s strongest memories of that long drive was “how good and how damned important radio was that day…I was so proud of the service radio offered and it wasn’t just the all-newsers either.
Music stations, even religious broadcasters, stopped normal programming and went to their networks or read wire copy or did whatever they could to keep listeners informed.” Louie let Miller and Salsberg take the car to Miller’s home in Baltimore, where they arrived at 2:45 a.m. Salsberg snatched a few hours of sleep on Miller’s couch, then drove the car to his home in Boston. Louie and his photographer were among the few guests at the Mayflower Hotel. He recalled a decade later, “We never heard footsteps in the hallways nor room doors opening or closing. But we did see and hear tanks stationed right underneath our corner windows overlooking Connecticut Ave., just a few blocks from the White House.”
“The eeriest part of the trip,” says Salsberg, “was when I made the pass near New York City on I-95. Flashing signs informed motorists that all routes into the city were closed and police were stationed at some interchanges to turn traffic away…While I could not see Ground Zero from the angle of that highway, when I opened the car window I could swear I smelled the smoke drifting from the ruins of the World Trade Center.”
A few people were still at the Opryland Hotel that Tuesday evening for the scheduled dinner honoring Prato for his service to the organization and the announcement that a Lou Prato scholarship had been established by his friends. Prato’s service as treasurer continued for another month, however, until the mail ballots were counted that elected Loren Tobia his successor. Former RTNDA President Jack Hogan and his wife drove Lou and Carole to Indianapolis where they rented a car and drove to their Pennsylvania home on Thursday.
For Prato’s eventual replacement, Loren Tobia, a little bribery was necessary to get home. He got nowhere with all the car rental companies until he went to the airport and saw a lot full of cars. “But when I told him it was one way to New York, he said no. It didn’t matter that Syracuse was four hours from NYC, he wasn’t letting a car go to NY,” recalled Tobia, “So first I gave him $100, then another $100. Finally after he put $300 in his own pocket, I got a car.”
Board chairman Mark Millage remembers that Osmanski “commandeered” a rental car for him. He left at 4:30 a.m. Thursday with board member Derrick Hinds, whose home was in Mankato, Minnesota. Hinds’ sister met them at Owatana, Minnesota and took Hinds to Minneapolis, where he’d left his car at the airport. Millage reached his home in Sioux Falls, South Dakota at 10 p.m.
The RTNDA staff cleared up convention business in Nashville on Wednesday, chartered a bus, and spent all day Thursday traveling to Washington, reopening the RTNDA office on Friday.
The hotel let us out of our contract without penalty, charging only for services and goods actually used. Insurance money took a few months to arrive. By the December board meeting, Busiek had become chairman and Bob Salsberg had become chairman-elect and therefore the executive producer of the 2002 convention.
At the meeting, NAB President Eddie Fritts suggested RTNDA hold its convention in Las Vegas in conjunction with the NAB convention, an offer the board accepted, meaning Salsberg had just three months, not a full year, to put together a program. Fortunately he and his committee were able to move some of the planned Nashville workshops to the spring convention. “We rolled up our sleeves, kept it as simple as possible and got the job done,” he said later. The multi-year agreement with the NAB also meant RTNDA had to cancel its dates in Long Beach, Denver, Orlando, and Seattle. Months of negotiation through counsel David Evans got the association out of those commitments with little financial penalty.
It wasn’t long before RTNDA began campaigning against efforts to limit news coverage in the post-attack era. FAA flight limits included a ban on news helicopters, a ban the organization quickly protested. Although RTNDA’s protest that the limits infringed on First Amendment Rights seemed to be generally appreciated within the broadcast news industry, some in and out of the industry objected. One writer to “Shoptalk” observed, “News Directors are just limited from airing live yet another police chase in LA…I doubt the average American is interested n this latest, self-absorbed, self-interested TV News whine.” The FAA restored general aviation access in 27 of the nation’s top 30 metropolitan areas on December 20. In Washington, New York, and Boston, increased access was allowed with some local restrictions around sensitive areas.
RTNDA also protested the Department of Defense renewing its exclusive contract with Space Imaging, Inc., which denied media access to satellite imagery over Afghanistan and surrounding territories from the IKONOS satellite.
Within two weeks of the attacks, RTNDA asked Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld “to work with the news media to provide as much media access as possible to military actions that may be taken against the perpetrators of the…attacks.” .
The mail arriving in the RTNDA office on January 10, 2002 contained an insurance check for the full amount of the claim the association had submitted. Refunds began within days to registrants and exhibitors that asked for them. Many did not.
Shifting the convention to April, however, enabled the organization to do something it had talked of doing for several years-- create a high profile event in New York City. The presentation of the Edward R. Murrow Awards became that event in September, 2002.
The situation also meant the organization had a choice to make—hold another election at the Las Vegas convention, meaning Busiek would serve only a few months as chairman, or delay the elections until the 2003 convention. The decision was made to delay the elections, meaning Salsberg would wind up planning two conventions before his term as chairman began. He remembers, “I actually had the chance to learn from the mistakes of the first convention and get it right the second time. And since the format was very different from the stand-alone conventions of the past, the first go-around gave us all an opportunity to figure out what was going to work in Vegas, and what wasn’t.”
Times already were changing for RTNDA when the airplanes hit the twin towers in New York that day. Industry support was softening and the terrorist attacks further weakened it as they did the entire national economy.
It was clear that convention exhibition income was beginning to decrease as industry economics were reducing attendance at national conventions.
Association leaders were faced with trying to resurrect the stand-alone convention or finding another partner. Former Chairman Dave Busiek wrote recently, “The economics of our business have changed so much in these ten years. There simply isn’t as much money as there was for employee training, kicking the tires on equipment, etc., I always felt the main goal of our convention was to give…news people outstanding training opportunities. But if companies are not willing to spend a few bucks to send their employees, then the convention business is going to be drastically hurt. It’s not just the media business. Many other industries have experienced the same thing.”
RTDNA has been steadfast in this decade of shrinking resources and industry change that could not have been anticipated by those who started gathering for breakfast that Tuesday morning at the Opryland Hotel. It has even changed its name to reflect the growth of what we were calling “new media” in 2001. But it has never retreated from the standard of excellence in electronic news that it has held for these 65 years. It remains the only organization that speaks exclusively for those in the constantly evolving field of electronic journalism. And now, 10 years after events that triggered a decade of change for the organization, it looks forward to a new partnership, a joint convention with the Society of Professional Journalists/Sigma Delta Chi in New Orleans later this month.