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The Surreal Early Morning TV of 9/11, Just Before the Attacks

In the footage, it's hard not to see eerie foreshadows of the events about to unfold.

Sep 11 2014, 12:00pm

If morning television is a particularly dense portrait of a culture, then the TV we watched before the planes struck, with its cheery anchors and shots of a beautiful fall morning, looks like a time capsule from another era, another country even.

In 2011, Motherboard's video producer Chris O'Coin and I dipped into the Internet Archive and scanned through hours of footage from the far side of the 9/11 attacks. We weren't interested so much in how the various networks covered the breaking story; there is seemingly no end to the early news footage that began around 8:46 in Lower Manhattan, first on CNN, then on NBC, and then on every news channel from Beijing to Baghdad.

Instead, we had hoped to grasp a sense of how things felt back then, in that last hour before nothing would be quite the same again. What we found was stranger and more disorienting than we could have anticipated.

In this mundane, prelapsarian final hour, it's hard not to feel the beating of time and of a fateful history. And to even feel some kind of surreal foreshadowing.

It was a primary election day in New York and the start of Fashion Week, and the new President had gone out for a jog in the early Florida morning, and the smiling crowd had dutifully gathered outside the Today show. Babyface had a new haircut. Sarah the Duchess of York was promoting a new book.

But in a number of moments throughout the morning, anchors, stories, and promos carried eerie foreshadows of the events about to unfold.

  • An American spy drone was shot down over Iraq, Ann Curry reports at the top of the Today newscast, "for the second time in two weeks."
  • "There is something in the air," says a CNN anchor at the top of the hour. (He is referring to Michael Jordan's rumored comeback.)
  • In a promo for the evening news, Tom Brokaw reports on "three numbers that could save your life—9-1-1."
  • An anchor on an NYC local newscast reports that in a Fashion Week pop quiz, most of the models failed to answer the question "what happened on December 7, 1941."
  • "Whatever you do, do not open that door!" says weatherman Mark McEwen, quoting a Gene Wilder bit, just before he mentions that Ray Romano is in the studio, and says he watched Everybody Loves Raymond "while flying out here on American Airlines."
  • At the end of his weather report, McEwen adds, "It's kind of quiet around the country. We like quiet. It's too quiet."

There's nothing here to suggest a sinister plot. I highlight these strange and mundane morning TV coincidences because, ultimately, they are part of the anxious story of that day and the days afterwards.

There is a something ineffable about the events of that day that sends us reaching for answers that aren't there, that causes us to connect dots that have no connection, in the hopes of throwing some light into the blackness. I've always thought this mistaken dot-connecting, so often the breeding ground of conspiracy theories, was regrettable when there were so many dots that should be connected that barely even get noticed.

It was, after all, an inability to connect dots, to assimilate intelligence, that led the US to miss crucial clues about the terrorist plot, and that led to missteps afterward. And afterward, the leaders of the country generated their own conspiracy theories, incorrectly connecting dots that painted a false picture and led us down the path to war.

The shocking thing about rewatching these clips, gauzy and innocent, isn't just the uneasy sense that something terrible and unavoidable is coming—if only you could warn them!—or even the strange omens sprinkled throughout that may prove fodder for yet more conspiracy theories. Thirteen years later, the most shocking thing is how familiar it all looks.

You can read Chris's original essay about his experience of that day here.