It was 8:49 a.m. ET, and CNN cut away from a commercial break. Viewers didn’t see a return to the studio, but what anchor Carol Lin described as a “very disturbing live shot”: “That is the World Trade Center, and we have unconfirmed reports this morning that a plane has crashed into one of the towers,” she said on air, in a moment that has, in the years since, been replayed in retrospectives, documentaries and movies.
As it happened, Lin, in Atlanta, was the first national anchor to report on what, by the next hour, became apparent when a second plane struck the South Tower: The U.S. was under attack. The network’s coverage of 9/11 and its aftermath, along with other major outlets, would continue over the next weeks and months.
Lin, who left CNN in 2006, was among a team of anchors and reporters who mobilized for a round-the-clock schedule that day, as coverage shifted to Leon Harris and Daryn Kagan and later to Aaron Brown and Judy Woodruff.
“When you see an image like that, your first reaction as a human being is, ‘Oh my God. What happened? Who’s in there? How many people are in there? What are the rescue operations going to be like? What happened?’ And knowing, in a situation like that, how little we know. We only know what we see,” Lin said in an interview with Deadline. “There’s a tremendous weighty responsibility in what you don’t say versus what you do say.”
Lin recounted the events of that morning — and the coming weeks and months — and the impact that it had on her career, life and journalism as a whole:
LIN: CNN was experimenting with a new morning show format, and interestingly enough, CNN was interested in developing more in-depth news as well as feature segments, and I was preparing to do an interview with author Amy Tan about a new cartoon series that she was launching on PBS. So we were in the midst of a commercial break and the interview would be up next, when all of a sudden there were people running through the CNN newsroom past me, to the control room. And for anyone who’s worked in the CNN newsroom, people don’t run. Breaking news, big news, is the life’s bloodstream of CNN, and that is what the network knows and is, in so many ways, what it does best. So when I turned around, an executive producer ran by me and I said, ‘What’s going on?’ And she said, ‘There are reports of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center.’ And so my first reaction was, ‘I wonder if it’s a small plane.’ So, as soon as I was processing this, and again we were in commercial break, my executive producer got in my earpiece and said, ‘Get to the main set,’ because I was anchoring in different locations in the CNN newsroom. She said: ‘Get to the main anchor set. We’re going into live breaking news rolling coverage.’
When I got to my chair. I made sure the computer was on, and I was logged in, and I looked at what’s called the preview monitor, which is the next shot, if you will, that the network is going to put on the air, that would be the next visual that the audience would see.
When I sat down, that was my first look at the North Tower, which had a big, gaping, smoking hole in it and a fire burning. And that’s all we could see, that’s all we knew at the moment. And so then the next thing was my executive producer said: ‘Get ready. We’re breaking out of commercial. We’re going into breaking news coverage.’
And the image comes up, and that is the first that I’m aware of that America, and to a large degree the world, was seeing the beginning of what would be the worst terror strike on U.S. soil.
CNN’s base of operations at the time was in Atlanta, Lin said. New York was still a bureau, where they scrambled to get crews and lights set up on the rooftop and anchors and reporters in place.
LIN: I had an initial instinctive response of, ‘Oh my God.’ And then what happens, because of the breadth of experience that everybody has at CNN in going into live coverage, you begin to tick through the information that you is available to you that provides some context while we begin the news gathering process — time of day, how many people would be in that building, how many subway routes feed that location. What are the surrounding buildings? These are the things that are going through my mind. The audience [sees] a full screen of the North Tower with a gaping hole and smoke and fire and uncertainty, but while I’m talking, I’m on my computer. The CNN International desk [and] the CNN national desk] are both feeding me information. And the priority really is to try to get someone who is an eyewitness to what is occurring, to get them live and talking to us so we have a better sense of what happened.
You go into work mode. You’re multitasking, because you’re carrying the air live. You want to make sure that what you say is fact-based. Sometimes when I look back on that clip, I think I sound methodical and clinical. But what was so important to me at that time was not being emotional. Because at the same time, while I’m news gathering, talking, listening to the producers, I’m also getting emails from friends, family, including people in Europe and South Africa who have friends who are working in that building, and they’re asking, ‘Do you know what floor? Do you know when the names of the victims are going to be released?’ And so [when] there’s so many things that are happening, it’s my nature to get extremely focused when there’s that much going on. [The clip] is one of those iconic moments and historic moments, and yet when I see it, I think to myself, ‘I hope it was enough.’ I don’t know if that makes sense. Because what I said was not profound. What I was saying was simply what you’re seeing, what we know.
Her first interview was with Sean Murtagh, a CNN executive who witnessed the plane striking the north tower, who talked to her live on air.
LIN: It was he who confirmed that it was a large passenger jet. Time gives us context, but in that moment, we know nothing. And we are learning things incrementally, and we only know what we see. And so when Sean confirmed that he was in a meeting, they looked out the window, he saw the jet hit the North Tower. And it was that deadening realization of how could this be? And then when the second plane hit, I remember thinking. ‘We are under attack. No doubt about it. This is a terrorist strike on our soil.’
The scene in the CNN newsroom, everybody was standing, talking on the phones. Executives were running back and forth from the control room. We were experimenting with this morning show and there was a videographer there to take extra shots of the newsroom, to give visual perspective to the audience, in what was supposed to be a feature segment that day. And he came up to me and he said, ‘I don’t know what to do. I started rolling video in the newsroom, and the executives were telling me to get out of their face. What should I do?’ And I remember telling him, ‘Keep rolling, because they’re gonna want this.’ That’s what he did.
Lin describes the newsroom atmosphere as one of shock “in realization that America was under attack,” but also “that there was a responsibility to get people to the scene. In the next hour or so came a flood of information, some of which could not be reported because they had not verified it. Among that deluge was a rumor that there was a car bomb outside the State Department. Another was that then New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was sending 10,000 body bags to Lower Manhattan.
LIN: When you hear that they’re evacuating the State Department, they’re evacuating the White House, there’s a threat against the Capitol, when a plane crashes into the Pentagon. … It was one thing after another, and it was surreal. It was utterly surreal.
Lin said that even though what was unfolding was unprecedented, “it is the same instincts that kick in. And I think every journalist understands and knows what that means, what that feels like.”
LIN: You go into a zone where it is your profession, this is what you do. These are the moments that test you. You want to be able to rise to that occasion. I think in today’s hyperbolic environment where journalists find themselves under attack, not only around the world, but in our country, that there is this impression that the public has lost faith in the profession. But I would urge people to understand that that that is the furthest from the case. There is a long standing, long held tradition and practice, and I think it’s not just myself, but everybody, whether you’re on the air or you’re the reporter or you’re the editor or you’re the producer, or you’re the videographer or the photographer, that feels and honors that responsibility. I know that sounds perhaps a little quaint, in 2021, but I am a firm believer in that. I don’t think that professional journalists are thrill seekers. They are trained and intelligent risk takers. They take calculated risks. They’re trained to do their job, but ultimately you have to want to be a part of history. And even if you’re standing in a newsroom in Atlanta, Georgia, you feel that responsibility. And so there isn’t the time necessarily to have emotion about it. I hope they still say that somewhere in journalism schools, or newsrooms across America: that it is a calling, and you rise to that calling.
After she was off the air, Lin got her assignment to anchor the overnight hours, which were prime hours because so much of the rest of the world is awake. She recalled preparation for what could be marathon shifts, “because you’ll be interviewing anyone from, you know, a prime minister to a president to eyewitnesses to family members, and you’re doing that for hours on end at CNN.” She adds, “I don’t remember sleeping. You just grab sleep in a few hour chunks.”
Over the next few days, she and other colleagues also began filling out paperwork to go overseas to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
LIN: We all knew that that’s where we were going to go. … What a lot of people may not have known at the time or might not recall is that … Afghanistan was under the control of the Taliban, and the Taliban issued visas to journalists who wanted to enter the country. So you had to apply for a visa, and obviously, they were not allowing female journalists into the country. So if you were female journalist and you wanted to cover the story, you would have to go to Pakistan, and make your way as close to the border as you possibly could. So for about eight weeks, I was based in the southern city of Quetta, Pakistan, which was largely known as a drug trade hub for heroin traffickers crossing into and out of Afghanistan. I ended up with a team of people covering the war in Afghanistan from that vantage point.
Lin has said that the experience was one of the events that caused her to reassess her own life.
LIN: I had put my career first for so long, and it was a career that required 110% of my energy and my passion and my time, and I had put off many life decisions including starting a family. And that day taught me that time is short, that life is precious. And I cannot tell you how much of an impact the personal stories of the 9/11 families [had], and what they said to each other on that day. I distinctly remember that one of the husbands on Flight 93 called his wife, told her what was going on, helped her understand that he was going to die. How he chose to use that time was to tell her, ‘I want you to know that I love you. I love our children. I want you to be happy. And you can do no wrong in whatever decision you make in your life. There will be no wrong decision, what you do for yourself or for our children.’ I will never forget that conversation that he had with his wife that she recounted later. Under such circumstances, where he knew he was going to die, he wanted his wife to know that she was going to live, and that she should love again. Whatever she decided to with their children, it will be the right thing to do and to not doubt herself, and to give that gift to his wife in those last few moments of his life was so profound to me.
Yes, the geopolitical story was so critical. But it was moments like that that really informed my view of the relationships I want to have and the life I want to live. And so my husband at the time [William Robinson Jr.] and I decided we would try to have a child. It was truly now or never. And six months into our pregnancy, he was diagnosed with what would be a fatal cancer. And so in hindsight, when I look back on 9/11, I think to myself, People have known tragedy and developed resilience and purpose and a future, even if they thought that everything that they’ve ever known was gone. And if they can do it, I can do it. And so I spent my last trimester shepherding my husband through chemotherapy, then the birth of our child and then the subsequent few months that he would have with us until he died.
I think that when people tell their story of 9/11, they don’t know who’s reading it or listening to it or how it’s going to help or impact people in different ways, but I would say the families of 9/11 helped me through a very personal and private tragedy because they demonstrated such character and courage.
And it gave me a whole other perspective on the stories that I would end up covering over the next few years until I left my journalism career to go do other things. And I’m thankful for their testimony because it gave me comfort that you know that you can go through the worst and make something of it.
After Lin left CNN, she spent a year at the Entrepreneur in Residence program at the former Stanford Research Institute, working with a team of AI specialists on building an application to help cancer patients and their families. Since 2007, she has been a visiting lecturer at the Annenberg School of Communication at USC, which included designing a course around police reform and officer-involved shootings before the start of the pandemic. She has worked as senior adviser for the CEO of Los Angeles County, and her daughter is attending University of California at Berkeley. She said that her next phase in life will be in better understanding journalism and what role she can play in supporting it.
LIN: Life happens, and it doesn’t always happen the way you think it would or should. But I hope what comes out of tragedy is grit. And I hope that in this super hyperbolic political time and so much pressure on journalists to report certain stories or to become so specialized in their political point of view or whatnot — and I’m certainly no expert I’ve been out of the business for almost 20 years — but 9/11, I hope on this 20th anniversary, points to the need to understand what are trusted forms of information, what is fact based journalism, and the sacrifice that so many journalists make to get the facts right, to be the eyewitness to the degree that they can, and to so preserve what is a precious in our democracy.
See the moment when CNN first broke from commercial to Lin’s coverage of the attacks below.