Lauren and Brian Jones

Brian Jones recalls September 11, 2001 beginning like any other Tuesday. It was a brilliant, blue morning, just starting to feel cool in Dallas, and he listened to The Ticket on his car radio while taking sons Austin and Trent to Lake Highlands Elementary. Brock, not old enough yet for kindergarten, was home with Brian’s wife, Lauren.

On the radio, the Morning Musers were talking about a plane which had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. They seemed to think it was a commuter plane. They seemed to be indicating the crash was an accident.

Brian, then general manager of KTVT Channel 11, looped back to head home instead of the station and made it inside to Lauren’s little kitchen TV in time to see the second plane crash into the second tower.

“It was powerful to see it happen live,” Brian remembers 17 years later. “My first thought was that I needed to get to the office.”

Instead of driving an hour to the station’s headquarters in Fort Worth, Brian went to their nearby Dallas location, then at Meadow and Central Expressway.

Once there, he processed with the rest of the world the shocking news that America was experiencing a coordinated attack by 19 al-Qaeda terrorists. A third plane damaged the Pentagon and a fourth, headed for the White House or the United States Capitol, crashed in Pennsylvania when brave citizens stepped in to fight the hijackers.

“Early on, there was concern that this attack was multi-dimensional, and we in the news media were concerned someone would try to take over our facility. The first thing we did was make sure our facility and our folks were secure and everyone had a game plan, in case someone tried to take over the air waves or do high profile damage.”

Looking back, Brian realizes the local CBS affiliate wasn’t on the terrorists’ checklist, but CBS 11 is owed by national CBS, and an attack would have garnered lots of attention. The station is also in a major market – Dallas is fifth in the nation – and home to a certain guy the terrorists weren’t too fond of: then-President George W. Bush.

On the air, CBS 11 was airing the network’s continuous reporting and supplementing with local news and information.

“People swung into a mode where they could stay late and come in early. They did what they had to do to beef up our coverage.”

Even while they working on one of the biggest stories of their lifetimes, though, people are still people.

“People went through phases of emotion, of shock and fear. What does this mean? How is this going to affect me? Then they’d say, ‘We’ve got to get back to work.’”

“It was happening in real time,” Brian answers when I ask if he and his colleagues in the newsroom had “inside” information. “We knew it as it was happening. Remember, the president was in the air, and they were moving him around. They landed him at Barksdale Air Force Base, then he took off again for North Dakota. Following George W. Bush, since he was from here, was a big part of our coverage.”

When the two buildings collapsed, Brian admits even the most seasoned news professionals were shocked.

“Just as you processed one piece of information, something else would happen and you’d have to start all over. Everything was focused on the fires that were burning and first responders getting in. Then the buildings came down.”

For several days, news of the attack preempted regular daily programming, with 24/7 national network news broken frequently by local coverage.

“We were inserting local news, including man-on-the-street coverage to share what Dallasites thought. People just couldn’t believe it. Schools were releasing children early. Tall buildings were evacuating. Businesses were securing their facilities.”

And was Brian tempted to head home and check on his family?

“We all knew our place was in the newsroom. I was communicating with Lauren, of course, and I knew the kids were safe in school.”

Brian does recall being in contact with lots of people that day.

“I was on the phone with my boss, and he saw the plane out his window in New York. We were in conversation with advertisers, because we weren’t running any commercials. The environment just wasn’t appropriate for a car commercial while a building is coming down.”

Advertisers understood, though, and most ads simply ran at a later date.

“Everyone’s priorities shifted, and the business of the television station became the coverage while the revenue took a back seat.”

Meanwhile, the effects of the 9/11 attacks affected virtually all Americans in ways large and small.

“My Dad was in Phoenix for business, but all planes were grounded for several days,” Brian recalls. “He had to rent a car and drive to the Washington D.C. area. I remember, too, coaching at Austin’s fifth-grade SVAA football practice that week, how eerie it was and how quiet, with no airplanes overhead.”

Today, Brian is chief operating officer of Nextstar Media Group, which owns 171 stations in 100 markets. September 11 was a defining moment in wall-to-wall news coverage, he says.

“It was the first attack on American soil ever. The loss of life exceeded Pearl Harbor. We all shared it. I wasn’t in the same room as you were, but we shared the same experience in real time. That’s a powerful part of media.”

Brian admits he’s proud of the role his station and his crew played on 9/11 and the role local stations continue to play today. Even as more people turn to smartphones and Facebook for news, he says there will always be a place for the local TV news broadcast.

“There are not as many local news outlets as there used to be,” says Brian. “Newspapers have declined, radio stations have declined, but local TV news outlets have a very robust commitment to covering TV news. That’s what we tried to do then, and that’s what we try to do now.”