- Arts & Life
During a “Good Morning America” commercial break on Sept. 11, 2001 Charles Gibson got a message from a producer in his ear piece.
“Something has just happened at the World Trade Center,” producer Stuart Schwartz said. “There are flames coming out of the building. A plane may have hit the building. We have a traffic camera pointing at the building. You are on the air, go.”
Every ABC station in America instantly broadcast the “Special Report,” and Gibson barely had a moment to gather his thoughts.
“We’re joined by the entire network just to show you some pictures…this is at the foot of New York City,” Gibson began. “This is the World Trade Center. Obviously a major fire there. There has been some kind of explosion. We don’t fully know the details.”
The whole country was watching the live video of the towers on fire, and Gibson did not have much more information than the viewers did.
Americans watched the coverage anchored by Gibson and Diane Sawyer, wondering what was happening in New York City. While narrating what he saw on screen, Gibson continued to gather information from every source he could find. That day, he knew he was reporting the biggest story he would ever report, Gibson said.
I sat down with Gibson last week for a 30-minute interview discussing his Sept. 11 coverage, his advice for aspiring journalists and what he is doing now after retiring from ABC News.
“Everything that [I] have done in 30 some years in this business is predicate to this point… to this moment in my life,” Gibson thought to himself while reporting on the attacks.
He thought back to the moment he saw the second plane approaching the second tower live on television. He thought it might be a plane bringing fire retardant materials, he said.
“And then, it hit,” Gibson said. “I will forever look back at what we said at the time. Diane, in the very human reaction said, ‘Oh my God.’ And I wish I had done the same. I said, ‘Now we know what’s going on, we’re under attack.’”
He admires Sawyer for her “human reaction” due to the lives that would be lost, while he was in “reporter mode,” he said. The Sept. 11 attack was the first topic that his tone was more important than the content of his report, he said.
“I thought the tone I had to adopt was reassuring,” he said. “There were 4,000 planes in the air that morning and they got four. Okay, we are too strong a nation to let this break us.”
After all the lives lost as a result of those attacks, Gibson said his reassuring tone was successful and was helpful to some viewers.
“People will come up and say, ‘You were my company every morning for weeks after that,’ and that’s flattering in a way,” Gibson said. “But people will say, ‘You got us through that.’…and that is the nicest thing that they can say.”
Gibson continued his “Good Morning America,” role until he was promoted to anchor of “ABC World News Tonight,” in the summer of 2006.
While Gibson anchored ABC’s flagship newscast, Lee Kamlet (who is currently the Dean of Quinnipiac’s School of Communications), was Gibson’s head writer at ABC News.
In 1979, Kamlet and Gibson first met while reporting in Washington D.C. and they became close friends.
“We don’t talk to each other—we have no talk for each other. [Kamlet] knows too much about me that I am afraid he will tell and I know too much about him,” Gibson joked.
They worked together at ABC News in the 1980s. But then Kamlet took a job at what Gibson called, “The National Biscuit Company,” which is known to others as “NBC.” After what Gibson called Kamlet’s “lost years” at NBC, he returned to ABC.
“He was a terrific producer, he was a terrific writer and he’s a great human being,” Gibson said of Kamlet.
Gibson called Quinnipiac President John Lahey directly to suggest he hire Kamlet as School of Communications Dean.
In 2009, the news business was headed in a direction Gibson didn’t like and didn’t understand, he said, which is one of the reasons he retired.
“You understand social media better than I do,” Gibson said. “So much of what is being done now is involved with social media that I don’t understand. So I thought it was time to get out and I think it was indeed the right time.”
Since the Internet opened up opportunities for many new sources of news to form, his broadcast saw more competition than ever before.
“In order to maintain audience you need to give the audience what they want to know, and not so much what you think they need to know,” Gibson explained, and that was a direction he didn’t like.
After retiring from one of the nation’s top seats in news, now he provided advice for aspiring journalists.
In this time of uncertainty in the journalism field, with the industry making vast changes, Gibson sees opportunity.
There are many options for jobs at new media outlets for students to take, which didn’t exist when he was a young reporter, he said. Though jobs may be cut at some traditional media outlets, there will always be a need for journalists; the industry is just evolving, he said.
“It’s tough for journalism students,” Gibson said. “It’s a great thing to do, it’s different every day, it’s a national service, and we need good journalism more than ever. We need it.”