KETR

How Aaron Brown Became CNN's Voice Of Sept. 11

Sep 11, 2011
Originally published on September 11, 2011 6:49 pm

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Aaron Brown came into work at CNN still preparing for his new role as the anchor of the network's flagship evening broadcast. He wasn't supposed to go on air for several more weeks, but on that morning and in the days that followed, Brown became the guide for millions of viewers glued to their television sets.

As he scurried to the roof of CNN's headquarters in New York shortly after the towers were hit, Brown remembers stopping in the middle of 8th Avenue and telling himself to stay calm.

"In some ways, you were like too into it, too focused to be anything other than a reporter with the biggest story anyone had ever had," Brown tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

Brown, now a journalism professor at Arizona State University, reported live that day for 17 hours. Over the course of the day, he says he remembers feeling shocked, even stupid, but never scared.

"I know I was exhilarated, which I know will sound strange," he says, "but it's what I had prepared my life to do."

Balancing Reporting, Emotion

But like the rest of the country, he was also processing the horror in front of him. There were moments in which Brown took off his reporter's hat to simply react.

When the north tower fell at 10:28 a.m., Brown became quiet.

"Good Lord. There are no words," he said, looking at the smoke billowing just 30 blocks away.

Brown didn't talk publicly about his coverage of the terrorist attacks for many years. He doesn't see his reporting as heroic compared to what the firefighters and other first responders did that day.

"Sometimes I'm a little embarrassed, I suppose, at this notion that anything I did mattered," he says. "I think I just told a story."

Brown confesses he doesn't think his coverage was even that good, but he did win the Edward R. Murrow award for his Sept. 11 coverage atop the CNN roof.

A Haunting Image

Looking back, it's not the straight-on view of the World Trade Center that's seared into Brown's memory — it's an aerial shot of the destruction from a helicopter coming over the New York harbor. He says he thinks of that image all the time.

"It captures what television ought to capture — which is the totality of a story — and that one did it all," he says. "The strength of the country, the beauty of the day, and the horror of the moment."

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GUY RAZ, Host:

The morning of September 11, 2001, Aaron Brown came into work at CNN, still preparing for his new role as the anchor of the network's flagship evening news broadcast. He wasn't supposed to go on air for several more weeks, but that morning and the subsequent weeks, Aaron Brown would guide much of the country through those events.

AARON BROWN: ...changed, and we see this extraordinarily and frightening scene behind us of the second tower, now just encased in smoke. What is behind it, I cannot tell you. But just look at that. That is about as frightening a scene as you will ever see. Again...

RAZ: Shortly after the towers were hit, Brown rushed to the roof of CNN's building in New York, and he stayed there for 17 hours. Aaron Brown is now a journalism professor at Arizona State University, and he joins me from New York. Welcome to the program.

BROWN: Oh, thank you for having me.

RAZ: Did you have time to absorb what you were about to do that day?

BROWN: Oh, I had no idea what I was about to do that day, honestly. I mean, I have this memory of dumping my car at 34th and 8th where CNN was located, and running across 8th Avenue and stopping literally in the middle of 8th Avenue, and saying to myself, calm down. Whatever it is that's going to happen today, however this is going to play out, whatever tests for the country, for you, for journalism, for all of that, is all going to be wasted if you're not calm.

RAZ: The south tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m. And at that moment on CNN, we were hearing from a reporter at the Pentagon, which, of course, was also hit, I believe it was Jamie McIntyre.

BROWN: Yeah.

RAZ: And you interrupted him. And let's listen to what happened.

JAMIE MCINTYRE: ...boxes are located.

BROWN: Wow.

MCINTYRE: And some people were...

BROWN: Jamie. Jamie, I need you to stop for a second. There has just been a huge explosion. We can see a billowing smoke rising, and I can - I'll tell you that I can't see that second tower, but...

RAZ: Behind you, we see all of Lower Manhattan engulfed in smoke. I mean, it looked like a scene from a disaster film. Were you scared?

BROWN: No. I don't ever remember being scared.

RAZ: Were you shocked?

BROWN: Oh, I was - no, I was shocked. I felt stupid. It never occurred to me the towers would fall down. And I thought, my god, you're stupid. The most obvious thing that could happen, you didn't really think about. But it's funny. I don't know that anyone - I've been asked a million questions about that day. I don't think, honestly, anyone has ever asked me if I was scared. And I can't imagine that.

I mean, in some ways, you were like too into it, too focused to be anything other than a reporter with the biggest story that anyone had ever had. And I know I was exhilarated, which I know will sound strange to listeners, but it's what I'd prepared my life to do.

RAZ: At 10:28 a.m., the north tower collapses, and then we hear you say this.

BROWN: And there, as you can see, perhaps, the second tower, the front tower, the top portion of which is collapsing. Good Lord. There are no words.

RAZ: And at that point, by that point, you had become the guide for millions of people in the United States and around the world. And you had to report on this, but it was a moment where, in a sense, you were just reacting as a human.

BROWN: Yes.

RAZ: Aaron, you didn't talk about anchoring the coverage that day on 9/11 until many years later.

BROWN: Yeah.

RAZ: Why?

BROWN: There are more important things people should think about than who told the story. And in this case, you know, 3,000 people died, and it just, you know, my life is fine by comparison. And I just always felt it was a little awkward to talk about it. And the other thing is, honestly, I don't know that I've ever said this out loud, but I listened to the work I did, and honestly, I don't think it's very good.

You know, it's - I get it. I mean, a lot of this is just that I was there. I was the guy. I'm not sure that any of the rest of it is really warranted. I think I just told the story.

RAZ: And yet I should mention you won the Edward Murrow Award for your live coverage that day. Where you were standing, you were literally on the roof, and that live shot position, of course, became famous because it was a clear view of everything.

BROWN: It was an amazing view, wasn't it? I mean, it was an incredible platform to report this horrible story from. But if I can just turn the whole kind of visual around for a second, there's a shot that I don't know if your listeners remember, but it's my favorite shot of the whole time, which was actually a helicopter shot coming near the way, across New York Harbor. Statue of Liberty is off to the left, the towers smoldering.

And it captured everything to me about the story, the horror of the story, the resilience of the country and the Statue of Liberty, the beauty of the day. The thing about 9/11, September 11, 2001, if you were in New York, it was an incredibly perfect day until it was not. I think about that picture all the time, because I think it captures what television ought to capture, which is the totality of a story. And that one did it all, the strength of the country, the beauty of the day and the horror of the moment.

RAZ: That's Aaron Brown. He's the former lead anchor on CNN who covered the attacks on September 11, 2001. He's now a journalism professor at Arizona State University. Aaron Brown, good to have you on.

BROWN: Thank you. It's good to talk to you again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.