What it was like to work at Newsweek at its best.
- By Jonathan AlterJonathan Alter, now a columnist for Bloomberg View, wrote and reported for Newsweek from 1983 until 2011.
Tina Brown, the founder of the Daily Beast and editor of Newsweek, announced this week that the print magazine was headed to the morgue file, dead after nearly 80 years. A digital offering called Newsweek Global will take its place. Those of us who worked at Newsweek through the turn of the century wish the new venture well, but we can’t escape the feeling that there’s been a death in the family.
Until the Washington Post Co. sold the magazine in 2010, I qualified as a "lifer," a concept that no longer exists in the American workplace. Over nearly three decades at Newsweek in the pre-tweet era, I was the magazine’s media critic and later a columnist. I interviewed and wrote about five American presidents and authored more than 50 stories, almost all of them on domestic affairs.
I was never stationed abroad, and I stand in awe of legendary bureau chiefs like Chris Dickey, Melinda Liu, and Ron Moreau who still write for Newsweek and still can set the pace in covering the world. They and many others were (are?) in a league of their own.
But during the fat years, when Newsweek had a readership of 15 million, my indulgent editors let me pretend to be a foreign correspondent for a week or so a year. I got to parachute into some of the biggest stories in the world without having to uproot my family and move. My international reporting, the luxury of a bygone age, was not especially distinguished, but it sure was fun.
From the start, I was too chicken to dodge bullets. The only battlefield I ever saw was when I stood five feet away from President George W. Bush on Sept. 14, 2001, as he spoke through a bullhorn atop the smoldering wreckage of the World Trade Center.
But the beneficence of a world-class news organization allowed a homebody like me to get a piece of proxy wars in Central America, the fall of communism, the emergence of China as a world power, U.S. recognition of Vietnam, President Bill Clinton’s Mideast peace efforts, and the run-up to the Iraq war, among other international stories. I was Walter Mitty in a trench coat.
Newsweek opened doors. For decades, mentioning my affiliation carried more weight abroad than had I worked for the New York Times or the Washington Post, which — before the Internet –circulated in foreign capitals only through the International Herald Tribune. Like my colleagues, I could land in a country and within a few hours arrange important interviews that would be impossible at the same level in the United States: The foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, the top general in Guatemala (a man responsible for mass killings of civilians), the soon-to-be president of Nicaragua. All talked. And when they came to New York, I had no trouble sitting down with leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev (by then out of office), Hugo Chávez, and Ehud Barak.
My global jaunts began in 1983 as a form of good-natured hazing shortly after I joined the magazine. I was 25 but looked 19, and my role as special assistant to the editor-in-chief, Bill Broyles, subjected me to charges that I was a spy for management. (I’d been hired in the office of Katharine Graham, CEO of the Post Co., which didn’t help.) When a vacationing Broyles learned that I had no place to sit my first week, he told his secretary to have me settle in his office. This did not exactly endear me to my new colleagues.
A few weeks later, President Ronald Reagan delivered a prime-time address to the nation in which he used aerial reconnaissance photos to accuse the Soviets and their Cuban allies of building a secret airstrip on the tiny island of Grenada. Mischievous editors — wondering whether I knew how to report at all — told me to fly to Grenada, find the secret airstrip, and file a story within 48 hours. Mission Impossible, they thought.
But fortune was smiling on the rookie. When I got off the plane, my chatty cab driver told me that the airstrip under construction on the other side of the island wasn’t a secret at all. In fact, there was a picture of it on the cover of local telephone book. He took me there immediately, and I used my high-school Spanish with Cuban construction workers to confirm the story just an hour after arriving in the country. The following day I easily arranged an interview with Grenada’s president, Maurice Bishop, who seemed more interested in tourism than communism. ("An ad we placed in Glamour magazine is returning 30 reservations a month!" a Marxist minister exulted). After I filed my story by telex from the Western Union office, I could find no flights off the island. Ensconced at a beautiful inn with exquisite food, I was compelled to stay for Easter weekend and enjoy some (unexpensed) water skiing and snorkeling. After I returned to New York with a sun tan, one of my jealous colleagues — also a domestic writer — was able to score an overseas assignment of his own … in strife-torn Suriname.
Six months later, Bishop was killed in a communist coup and the United States invaded, an event that became one of the signal events of Reagan’s presidency. Our reporter embedded with the Marines developed a severe case of writer’s block. As the seasoned Grenada hand in New York, I talked to her on the phone briefly and wrote a stirring, first-person account from more than 1,000 miles away of storming the beach and "liberating" the country.
Newsweek in the 1980s and 1990s was edited by Rick Smith and then the late Maynard Parker, both former foreign correspondents in Asia. Their successor, Mark Whitaker, also had experience abroad. They all invested heavily in foreign coverage (the magazine boasted several international editions) and imbued the staff with the idea that foreign news was important for readers.
But even before blogging, deadline pressure demanded quick takes on the news. One week in 1989, it looked as if Gorbachev was beginning a crackdown. "Fly to Moscow tonight and file by Friday whether glasnost is working," Parker ordered. When I resisted, he added: "It’s only journalism."
On that trip and others, I was always struck by the importance of an American newsmagazine in closed societies.
In 1984, a young Chinese dissident, anxious to obtain a copy of Newsweek, asked me to walk past him quickly on a darkened Shanghai bridge as if we didn’t know each other and hand off the contraband magazine.
In 1987, the KGB followed me and Newsweek photographer Peter Turnley as we chronicled the lives of outré punk rockers in Latvia, which was then a part of the Soviet Union. When a goon approached us in a café and demanded our film, Turnley used his magician’s hands to reach into his camera and then his vest and turn over an empty cannister, after which we hustled out of town. The publication of the story and photos shocked American readers accustomed to drab Soviets with bad haircuts and cheap shoes.
In 1989, I was in the Magic Lantern Theater in Prague as Vaclav Havel declared the end of communism in Czechoslovakia. When I joined students in the streets to celebrate the peaceful "Velvet Revolution," they all were eager to talk to "Noose-week."
So were American ambassadors. I remember visiting Chris Hill, later ambassador to Iraq, when he was posted to Skopje, Macedonia, in 1999. With tens of thousands of refugees from Kosovo camped nearby and his embassy badly damaged by demonstrators, he still had plenty of time for Newsweek. The same went for American military officers at Guantánamo Bay and other bases I visited.
About the only person who wasn’t so happy to see me was the captain of an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf at the end of 2002. After I landed in a small plane — an experience in itself — a naval officer boarded and shouted a question but the noise was too loud to hear. I was traveling with a distinguished-looking AP reporter and a Canadian admiral, scheduled for a high level visit to the carrier. The officer confused the reporters with the admiral and escorted me and the AP man off first. We were saluted by dozens of sailors lined up on the flight deck and smartly saluted back.
"And you are?" the captain asked me with a puzzled expression.
"Newsweek, sir!" I answered brightly.
"Well, you just got an admiral’s welcome," he said.
But once aboard, I had the run of the place. I interviewed navy pilots returning from secret missions bombing Saddam Hussein’s radar and anti-aircraft installations in advance of the U.S. invasion, still two and a half months away.
The Iraq war has already begun, I wrote in Newsweek, before beating a hasty retreat to New York.
My war stories can’t compare to those of the scores of Newsweek correspondents and photographers who struggled — and in a few cases, died — trying to bring global news and perspective to an American audience. For decades, Newsweek magazine helped sustain an important tradition of vigorous international reportage. Let’s hope it lives on.