Jeremy Bitz, producer of special programming at AOL-Time Warner’s New York One 24-hour news network, held an informal roundtable discussion last Friday morning about his experiences covering the World Trade Center attacks at Ground Zero and the aftermath of them.
Approximately 15 students attended the first discussion as Bitz chronologically told his story beginning on Sept. 11 and the weeks afterward, also showing video clips he shot himself at Ground Zero. A second session was held in the afternoon for graduate students and faculty.
As a producer and camera operator with experience covering plane crashes, he was able to see and record the events from a point of view rarely seen.
“It was a beautiful day in the city,” Bitz said, describing the weather on Sept. 11.
He said that he was at home when the first impact occurred and was immediately called to the newsroom.
“You prepare to go to work for a very, very long time,” he said. “You know that you’re not coming home for a while.”
The newsroom, he said, was like “normal activity times one million.”
His first assignment that day was to go to the airport at Westchester to investigate the possibility that one of the planes took off from the county.
Although he kept on him three cell phones, a pager and a satellite phone, he said he “couldn’t make a call” to his parents until reaching the airport.
Bitz then described life as a television producer on assignment with little sleep or food. At one point, he was forced to sleep in 20-minute shifts on the sidewalk.
After 14 days reporting the attacks with only nine hours of rest, he said, he finally took a break.
“It’s a surreal experience that normal people can’t get their hands on,” he said. “You’re working on adrenaline; food and sleep become irrelevant.”
He also gave insight into how he performs his work.
“You kind of create your own stories as you go. You find the stories that are interesting as you go along,” he said.
He was able to create his own stories on Sept. 11 by interviewing random people on the streets and talking to relatives of victims who were trying to find their loved ones.
Later in the afternoon, Bitz was told by his manager to get, “as close as you can to Ground Zero and get video that no one else has.”
Using a small broadcast-quality camera, he traveled on foot, starting at 14th Street and “walking through memos, Rolodexes [and] business cards” two or three inches deep.
Finally, when Bitz could not get any closer to the building, he let an iron worker keep his camera in return for getting footage inside of the World Trade Center. Bitz gave the worker 40 minutes; when the time was up, he assumed the worker had taken the camera and left.
The worker had not returned for an hour and when he finally appeared out of the rubble, camera in hand, he even refused an on-the-spot $10,000 offer from an NBC news crew for the footage. He returned the tape to Bitz and was allowed to keep the camera as promised.
“The footage sold [to other stations] all day long,” Bitz said.
After describing the details of his experiences, the focus of the discussion shifted to ethics and the choices made by journalists reporting on the attacks. Bitz specifically addressed the networks’ airing of footage showing people jumping out of the Twin Towers.
“What does that really do for our viewership?” he asked, voicing his support for only showing clips of bystanders watching them fall to their death. “That’s a better image, I think — the look on their faces.”
He also discussed the coverage of the plane crash in Queens one month after the attacks.
“More people died in Queens than Flight 800 [which crashed on July 17, 1996],” he said. “I can’t tell you a thing about it. That’s how the business has changed.”
He recalled his station manager’s description of the Queens crash as a, “garden-variety plane crash.”
Bitz explained how his journalistic abilities improved from his experience covering the World Trade Center attacks.
“How has it changed me?” he asked. “I was very numb. I wasn’t happy, I wasn’t sad, I was just awake. … I can’t remember how tall the towers were; I can’t remember that they were there, to be honest.”
He noted the fact that the World Trade Center relief efforts resulted in “the most successful and largest mass evacuation in history,” with up to 23,000 people evacuated from the buildings.
Bitz concluded with a video showing clips from Ground Zero, some of which he taped himself.
Archived article by Andy Guess