On Sept. 11, 2001, I arrived at Newsweek’s Washington bureau a little before 9 a.m. Flipping on the TV, I saw reports that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Moments later the phone rang and it was Mark Miller, the magazine’s chief of correspondents, based in New York. While we conferred, the second plane struck.
About 45 minutes later, my colleague Evan Thomas burst into my office pointing out the window. “We’re under attack,” he said breathlessly. My office overlooked the White House and other iconic Washington landmarks. Way off in the distance, across the Potomac River, was a low-slung, oddly shaped building. In the nine months I’d been serving as Washington bureau chief, I’d never noticed it. But now I could see what had so stunned Evan: there was an enormous fireball sitting on top of the Pentagon, dark smoke billowing up from behind it.
Reacting as Americans and as humans, we were horrified and scared—for the country and also for ourselves. But we also needed to react as journalists, which meant immediately figuring out how to cover the story. That morning, Don Graham, CEO of The Washington Post Co., which at the time owned Newsweek, reached Mark Whitaker, the magazine’s editor, in New York. “What are you thinking?” Graham asked. The only thing Whitaker was sure of at that moment was that the we couldn’t wait until Saturday, our normal print deadline, to publish. “We need to put out a special issue now,” he told Graham.
As we plunged into reporting, I knew that 9/11 was going to be the biggest, most complicated story I’d ever covered. What I didn’t know was that it would also be arguably the last vital moment for a certain kind of newsmagazine journalism.
In their heyday, newsmagazines like Newsweek and Time had helped set the national agenda and interpreted the news for millions of people. Other than the networks and about five major newspapers, they were the principal source of in-depth national and international news for most Americans. By 2001, with the rise of the Internet and the proliferation of new media, that was no longer—or was very soon to be no longer—the case. But 9/11 revived, however fleetingly, the newsmagazine’s central relevance in the life of the nation. And it gave those of us who worked at Newsweek a renewed sense of mission.
A traditional strength of newsmagazines was group journalism. Far-flung correspondents from a vast network of bureaus around the world sent in rich, deeply reported “files” to writers in New York who spun them into finely crafted stories. In an age of celebrity journalism, where writers had cable TV contracts as pundits and carefully measured the type size of their bylines, that kind of ego submersion was already starting to feel old-fashioned. But 9/11 was such a complicated story that it was uniquely suited to this kind of team coverage.
The man at the center of this unwieldy work was Thomas, a master of weaving the information provided by different correspondents into a single narrative. Our first reporting break—which ended up providing the lead anecdote for Thomas’s post-9/11 cover story—came from a talented and dedicated Newsweek researcher named Lucy Shackelford. Shackelford had a distant family connection to Lyz Glick, the widow of a passenger who’d gone down with United Flight 93 in a Pennsylvania field. Shackelford persuaded Glick to describe to us the last conversation she’d had with her husband, who had been able to place a cellphone call from the plane. As we huddled around the speaker phone in my office, Glick told us that her husband, Jeremy, had revealed to her that he and several other passengers had a last-ditch plan to “jump the hijackers” and regain control of the aircraft. The rebellion began while the call was still connected: there was silence, then screams, then silence, then screams, then nothing. As he listened to Glick’s account, Thomas began to choke up, realizing that a few brave passengers had very likely saved hundreds of lives by diverting Flight 93 away from its intended target, either the U.S. Capitol or the White House. It was the first moment we’d learned Americans weren’t just victims; some had fought back.
The story, written by Thomas and containing reporting from eight different correspondents, appeared on Sept. 13, under the headline “A New Date of Infamy.” But already we were looking ahead to the following issues. The next week, Whitaker ordered a 10,000-word narrative that traced the origins of the war between al Qaeda and the United States while also chronicling the missed signals and squandered opportunities to stop Osama bin Laden along the way. In classic newsmagazine style, the piece crystallized many of the ideas that would later become conventional wisdom. Thomas posited that the attack was an audacious example of “jujitsu”: al Qaeda, a militarily weak enemy, had leveraged America’s strengths—freedom, openness, and superior technology—against us. The story was reported by a cast of 15, and Thomas wrote it in just over a day.
A couple of weeks later, Fareed Zakaria wrote a masterful essay on the roots of Islamist rage against America. It ran under the provocative cover line “Why They Hate Us,” and was devoured by average readers and policymakers alike, who hungered for a nuanced analysis of the clash between radical Islam and the West. Though the story was not a group effort, it was also, in its own way, an example of what newsmagazines could do best: help readers to step back, weigh historical context, and make sense of current events.
The great rivalry between Newsweek and Time was also reignited after 9/11. (Each publication called the other Brand X.) Most readers probably didn’t notice it, but the competition forced both magazines to dig deeper. Within days of 9/11, Michael Isikoff, Mark Hosenball, and I exclusively reported definitive connections between the attacks and al Qaeda. But Time would also have its share of big scoops, which kept us on our toes. Nine months after 9/11, Brand X published a sensational cover about an FBI whistleblower named Coleen Rowley, who’d warned her bosses in Washington about an al Qaeda suspect in Minneapolis attending flight-training courses. Time had obtained Rowley’s scathing memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller about the missed clues and unheeded warnings that could have prevented 9/11.
Newsweek hit back the following week with a big scoop of our own. The CIA, it turned out, had followed two of the hijackers to an al Qaeda planning summit in Malaysia and then watched them enter the United States. But they let go of the trail and didn’t bother to notify the FBI until it was too late. Interestingly, we had reported the guts of the story right after 9/11, but it got no traction. In the weeks after the attacks, the country was still healing and was not yet ready for finger-pointing or recriminations. When the cover story ran some nine months later, it exploded into a full-blown Washington feeding frenzy.
Most of my colleagues at Newsweek would probably admit that—as traumatic and tragic a story as 9/11 was—they loved covering it. That sentiment is surely why the public often sees reporters as vultures. But it wasn’t a morbid pleasure. It was rooted in the sense of deep fulfillment we derived from the work we were doing: covering a story of profound importance by drawing on the 80-year-legacy of a unique style of journalism.