Reliable Sources: What happened when CNN New York had to evacuate

Posted at 1:00 AM, Dec 07, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-07 03:47:10-05

A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

Bomb threat at CNN NYC

Honestly I’m reluctant to start off this edition of the newsletter with Thursday night’s bomb threat at CNN NYC, because these attempts at intimidation are infuriating and unacceptable. Most bomb threats don’t get much if any news coverage. But Thursday night was different for three reasons. One, the phoned-in threat to CNN came six weeks after the mail bombs targeting CNN and numerous Democratic officials. Two, the offices were evacuated, meaning that CNN had to halt its live programming due to the threat. And three, the NYPD shut down a city block and searched every floor of CNN’s offices as a result.

It was a false alarm. There was no bomb. But unfortunately this bomb threat was still newsworthy. Let me take you through it step by step.

What happened

Per a law enforcement source, a caller indicated there were five devices in the building. The call came in at 9:47 p.m. ET, according to building security. Officials with CNN’s parent company were alerted. Law enforcement agencies were contacted. “CNN Tonight” went to commercial at 10:26. Don Lemon and his producers were told to grab their coats and evacuate the building. At the exact same minute, two floors below, Rob McLean was told the same thing. He edits this newsletter at night… He promptly headed home to keep working from there. Meanwhile the “CNN Tonight” staff gathered at a restaurant across the street and tried to figure out what to do next.

CNN’s master control in Atlanta started to show a rerun of “AC360.” Alert viewers wondered: What happened to Lemon’s show?

How we went live

While Lemon’s staff was evacuating, I was downstairs at Whole Foods. CNN NYC is part of a sprawling complex, the Time Warner Center, containing a mall, grocery store, event spaces, hotel, restaurants, apartments, and offices. I heard the sirens and saw an alert on my phone. So I came out to the street — already roped off police — and found staffers from the New York bureau. We tried to connect to CNN Atlanta through my laptop, but it didn’t work, so we set up a live shot signal via my iPhone and the Skype app. It was shaky, but good enough.

CNN International anchor John Vause began to anchor from Atlanta. He showed the iPhone live shot, then brought in Lemon by phone. A few minutes later we used the iPhone as our “stand up position,” to use some TV lingo, and stayed there for the rest of the 11 p.m. hour. Pro tip: Make sure your phone battery is always charged. I was at 10%, so I had to borrow a colleague’s mobile charger.

“They don’t normally evacuate buildings” because of something like this, Shimon Prokupecz explained. The recent spate of mail bombs must have been a factor in the NYPD’s decision. CNN analyst Sam Vinograd also joined us from the makeshift live shot position. It was freezing, obviously, but the police response was warmly appreciated.

The all-clear

The all-clear came at 11:50 p.m., and Lemon and the rest of us walked back into the building. CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker, who was outside on the street with us, updated staffers via an internal memo. “The building is secure and safe for everyone to return in the morning,” he wrote. “We appreciate the swift action by the local authorities, and the patience and professionalism of all the employees who were impacted.”

Trump’s tweet

Between the time of the phoned-in threat, 9:47, and the time of the evacuation, @realDonaldTrump tweeted, “FAKE NEWS – THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!”

So if you thought this specific tweet was a trigger for the threat, think again. But the broader climate of attacks against the news media is undeniable. Let me share with Rick Wilson wrote shortly after midnight ET:

“Right now, @realDonaldTrump could tweet the following: ‘Bomb threats against CNN and other media outlets are never acceptable.’ But he won’t.”

Read more of Thursday’s “Reliable Sources” newsletter… And subscribe here to receive future editions in your inbox…

Back to the news

Here’s what I liked most about Thursday night’s unusual CNN programming lineup: As soon as Lemon was back on the “CNN Tonight” set, the show moved on to OTHER news. We covered Kevin Hart, Heather Nauert, etcetera. This is something I tried to say during the breaking news coverage out on the street: We didn’t want to “be” the news. We wanted to be covering the news.