That Day of Infamy

By Klaidman, Daniel | Newsweek, December 31, 2012 | Go to article overview

That Day of Infamy


Klaidman, Daniel, Newsweek


Byline: Daniel Klaidman

Covering 9/11, journalists found a renewed sense of mission.

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 celeb rity 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. …

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