Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Saint Christopher of Plante

I hate it when I labor to create a transcript for a CNN segment, only to find out there was one online all along---I just couldn't find it. Oh well, keeps me humble.

The CNN telecast of September 11, 2001, for the segment that ran from 9:29am to 10:11am, as cataloged at archive.org, first makes mention of a terrorist attack in Washington or Arlington, when a chyron changes at 9:40am (10:52) to “Reports of Fire at Pentagon.”

At 9:42am, Aaron Brown, the preternaturally calm anchor, who was going on-air for the first time on CNN that day, begins a telephone interview with Chris Plante, a CNN producer who has an office in the Pentagon and was the source of the fire report. Aaron asks him, "Chris, you’re on the phone, can you hear me OK?" Chris says, "yes, I can hear you just fine." Aaron prompts, "tell me whatja know."

Chris starts off in a measured cadence, but soon veers off into a ditch,
"Well, ah, arriving at the Pentagon a short time ago there was a huge plume of smoke, which continues to rise from the west side of the Pentagon, over in the area there is a helicopter landing zone, it’s along Route 27, if you’re looking at maps of the area. The building is currently being evacuated. Police and emergency units are, of course, responding from all around the building, and from the local Arlington County Fire Department. The plume of smoke is enormous a couple of hundred of yards across at its base, its billowing into the sky hundreds of yards. It’s impossible for me to say from this side of the building, whether the building itself is on fire, up in flames, or what caused it. I did not hear an explosion, but there is certainly a very, very significant fire in this enormous office building, on the west front. The building is being evacuated, the Defense Protective Service Officers, the police force for the Pentagon, are on a very...tight...string. As I arrived, I was held…at…gun…point..."

Aaron and his ear piece could sense Plant going rogue, so Aaron began overriding that with a "Chris, Chris, Chris…let me interrupt you for a second." (14:00) 9:43am "Hang on, don’t go anywhere."

Aaron had to interrupt Chris and shut him down, and for this he needed a reason. Chris Plante was forcing an on-air showdown over his version of the truth. Since Chris had actually interviewed sources he trusted on the scene, and they formed a consensus, he must not have understood the single-mindedness of purpose he was encountering in his producer, who was insisting on leading with an AP report of a dramatically different eyewitness. Plante must have felt he was acting the role of hero---surely, they'd thank him the next day. But he couldn't know what he was coming up against: a schedule of narrative reports of a synthetic story made up out of whole cloth.

Aaron Brown would ultimately announce that a plane had hit the Pentagon 28 minutes before the AP report sourcing the information was issued. Because of Chris Plante's integrity, Aaron was forced off schedule, and needing to fill up air time quickly, he pulled reports out of his sleeve--literally. Rather than adjusting the rules of journalism to fit a circumstance, or situational ethics, Aaron Brown was now playing games with the fundamentals of reality.

At the same time, Aaron Brown went live with the first Associated Press news report about the White House being evacuated, on-air at about 9:43am, even though the AP report he is quoting wasn't issued until 9:52am, Terrorist threats made against the White House.
"but we’re getting reports now that the White House is being evacuated as well, we don’t know precisely what, ah, is caused that decision to be made, whether that is precautionary, whether something has happened at the White House, again, the president is in Florida this morning so the President is not in any danger but the White House of course is fully operational, whether the President is there or not. We have reports the White House is being evacuated (14:26). Getting back to Chris in a moment, we also have reports now from Chris Plante on the scene, that the Pentagon is being evacuated as well, all of this coming on the heels of a large fire at the Pentagon 9:44am We can’t tell you at this moment whether that fire is inside the Pentagon building itself, or on the grounds of the Pentagon. And these two planes (14:51) that you can see behind us that hit the world Trade Center, that’s Washington, the Old Executive Office Building, I believe, and you can see the plume of smoke rising behind it, which we’ll assume until we’re told otherwise, that that’s the fire at the Pentagon, I believe that’s correct, as you look now at Washington, so we’ve got a major fire at the Pentagon, and the Pentagon being evacuated, the White House being evacuated, and we don’t know precisely the circumstances there, what caused that decision, and we have these two enormous explosions at the World Trade Center here in New York, where two planes slammed into the buildings (15:30) (long pause for ear chatter) We are also getting reports now that there is a fire on the Mall in Washington, that part of the Capital that runs, essentially from the Capital to the White House, in kind of a straight line going up Washington D.C. and we have reports of a fire there, What you’re looking at now is Washington, at least if I can see the monitor in front of me, it’s a little tricky from where we are, but it looks to me like the Old Executive Office Building then in back of it you see the large plume of smoke. Here in New York, sirens everywhere, people out in the streets staring at this grotesque scene of the World Trade Center buildings. It was in February of 93, if memory serves me correctly, that there was an attack, a terrorist attack, on the World Trade Center—bomb exploded in the garage of the Trade Center, on that day in February of 93. Here we are in 2001 and what appears to be deliberate attacks on the World Trade Center. And then we have these two reports out of Washington the fire at the Pentagon."
Aaron's droning small talk masked the furious back stage efforts at detente. Aaron broaches the subject at one point, (16:40) saying, "Chris Plante is still on the phone...I… do…believe...(read: er...ear...piece...is...talking...) but a sharp female voice at an open microphone could be heard to say, "Alright!" and he was warned away for another round.

"We’ll get to him in a second," says Aaron. Needing anything now that was handy, he reaches for a tethered show pony, "Greta Van Sustrin is at Washington Airport…Greta what are you hearing?" Greta chomps at her feed bag:
"I just got off my plane. I was heading to New York. Planes are stalled. I’m at National Airport parking lot. I heard a huge noise; I looked over at—in the direction of, the Pentagon. There’s a huge plume of smoke coming from that area. I can’t verify it’s the Pentagon. There’s these huge buildings in the way. You see particles coming down through the air, white particles, I can’t tell what that is. I heard a noise slightly before I seen the smoke. I don’t know if it was an airplane or a bomb, but it’s certainly something, and there’s a terrific fire going on. The skies are clear here except for the tremendous amount of smoke coming from, there lots of firemen from all different directions, and of course, a lot of uncertainty here at National Airport. (17:20)
Greta doesn't know what "white particles" are because she is repeating a line she has been given. It is good Aaron didn't ask a follow up. Aaron continues, (17:28)
"Uh, uh…G r e t a… thank…you, uh…I want to just again recap as we pick up small pieces of information along the way."

(Recap? Small pieces of information? He's about to spring the first news an airliner crashed into the Pentagon! This man must have ice water in his veins!)

"The Associated Press is reporting that a plane, it was a plane that crashed at the Pentagon, and the Pentagon is being evacuated."

(Aaron is now quoting from another Associated Press release that will be issued at 10:11am, Large airliner crashes into the Pentagon. It is 9:47am ET---or 24 minutes premature.)

"There is a large fire there and there is the smoke (17:43) you see looking at now, whether that fire is inside the building or not, we have not confirmed."

(Are they trying to be ironic? Did he know about the fuel oil tank, or is he farblongjid?)

"There’s a fire on the Mall in Washington."

(I have no idea where Aaron is getting his "fire on the Mall" report, but he could be conflating it with an AP report, Car bomb explodes at State Department, although that one isn't due out for another 30 minutes---at 10:35am.)

"The cause of the fire on the Mall we cannot yet tell you. We can tell you the White House has been evacuated. We can tell you two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. All of this began just a little over an hour ago at eight forty-five Eastern time..."

(suddenly getting the green light and smoothly segueing)

"Chris Plante, tell me what you’ve learned since we’ve last talked:"
Chris: (levelly) Well, in speaking with people here at the Pentagon, as they’re being evacuated from the building, I’m told by several people that there was, in fact, an explosion, I was told by one witness, an Air Force enlisted—senior—enlisted man, that he was outside when it occurred, that he saw a helicopter circle the building, he said that it appeared to be a U.S. military helicopter, and that it disappeared behind the building where the helicopter landing pad, zone was, excuse me, (cough), and that he then saw a fireball go into the sky. I’m attempting to make my way around to that side of the building in my car right now, to see if I can get a, (dripping with sarcasm) ah, better, “visual perspective” of the scene on that side of building, but I can tell you that security has certainly clamped down. The U.S. Park police and other Federal law enforcement department, has arrived in force on the scene. There’s a Park Police helicopter overhead, (19:20) every car that arrives at the gate where I was located, was being stopped by officers at gunpoint. Everybody is being forced out of their vehicles as they arrive at the Pentagon. It is a very tense situation obviously, but initial reports, from witness indicate, that, um, there was in fact, a helicopter circling the building—contrary to what the AP reported, according to the witnesses that I’ve spoken to anyway—and that this helicopter disappeared behind the building and that there was then an explosion. That is about all I have from here. (19:45)

Aaron:(negotiating)OK. let’s do this Chris, why don’t you continue your reporting and I’ll pass along a couple of other things we’re picking up along the way. Trading at the New York Stock Exchange…9:49am etc.

Chris Plante was allowed to air his report, I believe, but only in exchange for telling a white lie, meant to offset a breach of etiquette---by placing himself into the story, when he said he had been put at gun point. Apparently, this crossed some line and needed to be sanitized.

To add insult to injury, Plante's report of a circling helicopter followed by an explosion made it into an AP report at 9:47am, but under a banner "Reports of helicopter crashing into Pentagon," a no-doubt specious item meant to compromise his own, "an eyewitness said that they saw the helicopter circle the building and after it disappeared behind it, an explosion occurred."

It was not a coincidence that so many players in the September 11th drama were either on their first or second days of new jobs, or else filling in for others, like Captain Charles Leidig, who was standing watch in the National Military Command Center for Brigadier General Montaque Winfield. I'd analyzed that fact to indicate a weakening of those roles was the intent. But in Aaron Brown's case I think it's just the opposite.

Perhaps Vice-Presidential candidates are rolled out before they're ready, but that task pales in comparison with the planning that went into 9/11, and Aaron Brown, as a central master of ceremonies would have undergone hundreds, if not thousands of hours of training, briefings and scenarios. The fact that CNN didn't simply move on in that botched moment to something elsewhere, (like New York City for instance,) shows how tightly scripted and constrained they were by their planning. This premature announcement had a snowball effect on the other major player generating narrative output that morning---the local CBS affiliate, and an examination of the glitches there reinforces these conclusions.

Brown's waltzing into CNN stardom that day must have been questioned after the dust had settled. In an extended interview he gave in July 2003 to Brad Goldfarb for bNET, a business management website, an attempt was made to minimize as "urban legend" and "myth" his 9-11 on-air debut, by saying he'd been on the CNN pay role for awhile "designing a show" with his senior executive producer, David Borhman.

Strange is his explanation of how he got the nod that day---no words were used even, just suddenly, "I knew that we were going on the air." His famous energetic nature was likewise acquired as a gift he tells us, when he paused, in the middle of Eighth Avenue, opposite Madison Square Garden, "[a]nd it was as if this wave of calm descended on me." With my luck, I would have gotten hit by a bus.

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