The Columbus Circle area of Manhattan was transformed Wednesday morning into a chaotic scene of police barricades, bomb squad trucks, security tape, and shuttered streets as New Yorkers grappled with another bomb threat, this time directed at CNN headquarters in the Time Warner Center building.
The scene on 58th Street outside the entrance to what is now WarnerMedia’s corporate offices was surreal for numerous CNN staffers after the building was evacuated around 10 a.m. ET. More than a dozen news satellite trucks were parked around the area and camera gear and chords were strewn around the streets. Reporters from all over the world were delivering lives shots as tourists and locals also mingled in. The streets were packed with NYPD officers, FBI agents, and members of the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner on Public Information office.
By noon, a big crowd of journalists and camera operators gathered at a police barricade at 58th and 8th Avenue where police slowly let reporters onto the cordoned-off street to cover the news conference with by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, which was held against the backdrop of an NYPD bomb squad truck. CNN reporter Kate Snow and her camera crew were among those who waited patiently to gain access to the street that she undoubtedly traverses regularly going in and out of CNN’s offices.
Other CNN employees without NYPD press passes tried to gain entry by showing their corporate ID cards, but NYPD officers and FBI agents kept a tight grip on the area. Adding to the sense of unease was the fact that the Trump International Hotel and Tower is right around the corner from Time Warner Center on Central Park West. President Donald Trump’s harsh criticism of mainstream media outlets as “enemies of the people” has been widely blamed for increasing the level of anger and threats of violence aimed at journalists.
MSNBC anchor Ali Velshi was among the many non-CNN journalists enlisted to cover the aftermath of the evacuation following the discovery of a suspicious package in CNN’s mail room. He’s covered numerous events involving security threats and suspected terrorist actions, but this assignment hit close to home.
“I spent seven years years in this building and 12 years at CNN in total,” Velshi told Variety. “These are all my colleagues. To me, it’s personal because it’s media and a lot of these people are my friends.”
Velshi said news organizations have been on heightened alert since the 9/11 attacks. Wednesday’s incident at CNN came as suspicious devices were also found to have been sent to the homes of former president Barack Obama and Trump’s 2016 Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton. MSNBC and NBC News staffers were “reminded to keep your eyes out and reminded about what to do when there’s an evacuation alert,” Velshi said. Security “will get a little firmer around news organizations and reporters” because of Wednesday’s incident. But he stressed that the scare at CNN will not deter journalists from doing their jobs.
“We’ve noticed the increase in tension because of the idea that the press is the ‘enemy of the people,’ ” Velshi said. “It’s difficult to swallow. We have to keep reminding ourselves what our job is. We’re supposed to hold people accountable. We’re supposed to bear witness. We’re supposed to speak truth to power and we’re supposed to fact check. That’s what we do.”
Amitoj Singh, a reporter for New Dehli TV, was among the many reporters for foreign news outlets who delivered live shots from the scene in Columbus Circle. Singh said many Indians have been following the political developments in the U.S. closely in part because of Trump’s avid use of Twitter.
“Everyone is always watching his tweets, particularly the national media [in India],” Singh said, adding that India is also heading into important national elections next year, so there is heightened interest in the U.S. midterm elections. “There are many people in India who think Donald Trump has been good for America, and many who do not,” he observed.
Tourists who happened to be in the area to visit Central Park and other landmarks wandered into the crowd and were surprised to see familiar faces from TV news at work. “Hey, there’s Ali Velshi,” said a young man who whipped out his smartphone to take video of Velshi doing his live shot on 58th Street.
Locals who live in the area were brought out by the noise, and some were already watching CNN when the news network began reporting on its own evacuation. A woman who said she lived in the area but declined to give her name placed the blame for the CNN incident squarely on Trump and his attacks on the press. She noted that security threats are particularly unnerving to New Yorkers because of the 9/11 legacy.
“It scares me that Trump is doing this,” she said. “He’s using this [anti-media] rhetoric to please his base.”