- Ned Potter
ABC News Correspondent, New York
strangest thing happened to me on the way to Ground Zero.
in New York, where the natives are famous for avoiding eye contact and
ignoring stoplights, people began to come up to me to tell their stories.
A few were friends of mine, but most were strangers. I don't think they
even knew I was a reporter--they just wanted to talk to someone sympathetic.
"Oh, God, it was awful...."
"I haven't slept the night through since this began...."
"I'm sorry to bother you with all this; you're so kind to listen...."
I'm not sure I was such a great listener, but this breakdown of New-York
aloofness was a surprise to me. I've always thought of New York as vibrant
but difficult - it's hard to go six blocks, find a parking space or
a quick snack, impossible to find a restroom. Now there are signs on
shops around Ground Zero: "Rescue Workers Welcome. Restroom Available."
I found myself smiling at people more often. Perhaps that's selfish
- it gets you across police lines more easily - but it's also pleasant.
It costs nothing to ask people how they are, and it seems to bring surprised
"I'm holding up. How about you?"
Nobody says they're fine.
Digital Journalist: What was it like when ABC News World headquarters
in NY was inspected for anthrax?
Ned Potter: I found out about the ABC case at home in the evening.
I went online to find wire copy; there were references to the infant
son of a producer. I began to shiver; a friend of mine - a good friend
- had been out for a few days because her baby had been sick. All I
could think of to do was go to the bathroom and wash my hands -- and
wash them, and wash them, lest I infect my own family, even though I
knew I couldn't.
I tried to call my friend; I never reached her. I wanted to cure the
baby. I felt awful.
Somehow it never occurred to me to worry about my own safety. The next
day, when the police interviewed me and later took a nasal swab, I smiled
at them the same way I had at strangers near Ground Zero. Still, when
I caught a fever from my kids a few days ago, I felt just crazy enough
to call my doctor.
DJ: Were there special challenges working in an office while
it was being tested for anthrax?
NP: It wasn't frightening, at least to me, just strange. It seemed
a mix of apocalypse and pajama party.
People camped in others' offices; they called each other's cell phonesbecause
their phone extensions couldn't be answered. The producer I work with
shared my office with me - lots of confused callers had to be
reassured: "Don't hang up - he's right here."
Stories for "World News Tonight" are edited in an area known
as "Slant" - an archaic term for the way pictures were recorded
on reel-to-reel videotapes.
Slant was closed. In it were several thousand half-inch videocassettes,
all carefully catalogued, going back to September 11. Need a picture
of anthrax spores, or people in hazmat suits in Florida? Go back to
the original source - the tapes we'd normally use were out of reach,
twenty feet beyond a security barrier.
DJ: You were ahead of the curve on anthrax detection. How did
you feel being in position, as it were, for the train wreck?
NP: I'm a science reporter; it so happens I'd been assigned,
after September 11, to report on potential terrorist targets and whether
we need to worry about them.
So - partly with some newsgathering help from my friend Amy Bowers,
who freelances for ABC News in New Mexico - I'd done pieces on anthrax.
Weshowed ideas for detecting and reporting outbreaks more rapidly. When
Tommy Thompson showed up at the White House one afternoon to report
there had been an anthrax case in Florida, it washed right past me.
I'd been doing careful, calming stories about how it would be hard to
use anthrax to kill - as opposed to scare - large numbers of people.
If we were right, I take absolutely no comfort.
DJ: What do you hope to accomplish in the couple of minutes of
airtime you get on World News?
NP: I overuse a quotation from Pascal: "Apologies for such
a long letter. I lacked the time to write you a short one." Sometimes
I feel as if we turn that upside-down on television - we write short
letters to people, even though fearsome deadlines loom.
Still, I went into journalism with an airy idea about doing the world
some good, and I haven't given up yet. Maybe, in those all-to-short
letters, I can give people some information that will help, or amuse,
or provoke some thought. On rare occasions, I go home feeling as if
I've really succeeded.
Can you walk us through the process of one of your day-of-air
NP: There are various awards in journalism for "individual
achievement;" I don't enter because, at least in my life,
there's no such thing.
If a story comes up for that night - usually dictated by events,
or by the need for an explainer piece to follow a news-of-day
piece - we assemble a little army.
A producer and I will get on the phone - looking for the best
people to call, or for background information. I'll search the
Web for material; a researcher may chime in too. We narrow our
list of people to interview (two or three in a typical breaking-news
piece); we call bureaus to launch camera crews in their direction.
If there's been an event in a particular place, we of course go
to it - but sometimes, for a science reporter, there may not be
a single "place" for information. Prime example: there's
an anthrax case in Florida, and, while another reporter will do
a piece from the site, my job is to describe the disease. I'm
in New York; the leading authorities on the subject may be in,
say, Albuquerque and Boston. I may do the interviews by phone,
or feed questions to producers in those cities.
I used to object to this system (don't you need to be there to
capture the nuances of the scene?) but for some stories it makes
perfect sense. Others will funnel information to me; I need to
write, concisely and coherently.
The producer will break away from me to gather pictures or, if
we need one, get the graphics people started on an explanatory
diagram of something. We're lucky if we have video and interviews
shot by 3pm; we're doing something wrong if I've finished a script
The story will change; editors will weigh in; video we absolutely
counted on will turn out not to exist. We lose another hour, perhaps
I'll read the narration into a microphone, in a booth if we're
in New York, the back of a car if we're on-scene. The producer
and I then look over the shoulder of a videotape editor, feeding
him or her time-code notes on where particular pictures or sound
can be found on the dozen-or-so tapes that, by late afternoon,
contain useful material.
It is high praise to a tape editor to say that smoke rises from
the controls as he works. The best editors are very fast, and
very creative. But the right pictures are often tough decisions.
The piece may be 120 seconds long; into that time we cram 350
words, 30 different pictures, three or four sound bites, and who-knows-what
I do this eighty times a year. Once or twice, the piece is finished
by the time "World News Tonight" begins.