September 11
Thick black smoke emerges from the towers of the World Trade Center in the New York borough of Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001. (Hubert Boesl/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

I was getting a late start, which wasn’t uncommon at newsmagazines early in the week. It was the turn of the century—and print was everything. The production of each glossy issue ran into the weekend. Work mounted on Friday and Saturday and eased at the beginning of each week. Some idiot flew into the tallest building on the East Coast, I thought, as I was getting dressed on a late-summer Tuesday. I left a phone message for the editor of Time, saying that we could dispatch our aviation correspondent to New York. I was the deputy bureau chief of the Washington bureau and in a way responsible for its—to use an ominous phrase—air traffic control.

Like everyone watching The Today Show, I was stunned when the second plane hit the South Tower. (By this time, news helicopters had moved into position to record the burning North Tower.) Despite more than two decades of magazine writing, I was denser than most viewers. It took me a couple of minutes to realize that the obliteration of a second plane, the decimation of the South Tower, with all the cameras fixed on Lower Manhattan, was not an accident but an attack, a crime scene and not a coincidence.

The following 48 hours were a blur of adrenalin and caffeine, anxiety and depression, monomaniacal focus and vacant stares. The staff of Time was galvanized, putting together one mammoth issue of the print magazine, published ahead of schedule on Thursday instead of the weekend, built mainly around one story. Written expertly by Nancy Gibbs, later to be the magazine’s editor, it was composed of hundreds of files—reporting dispatches, to the uninitiated—that she managed to synthesize into a piece that won the 2002 National Magazine Award for a single-topic issue. There was no headline on the cover, only a picture of the towers aflame. The traditional red border that had marked Time’s covers since the Henry Luce era was replaced by a mournful black. Sometimes mammoth newsweekly undertakings could be heavy-handed and eye-rolling. (A couple of years earlier, also in late summer, I’d stayed up all night in New York at Newsweek, where I’d been editing and writing for the rushed Princess Diana cover, which was exceptionally well done, although it bestowed a gravity on her death that now seems insanely overwrought.) Gibbs’s opus, though, worked. I’d always admired her opening lines: “If you want to humble an empire it makes sense to maim its cathedrals. They are symbols of its faith, and when they crumple and burn, it tells us we are not so powerful and we can’t be safe.”

Everyone who wasn’t a young child that day has a 9/11 story. Mine is less emotional than many. I wasn’t friends with anyone who died. My downtown D.C. was dappled with Pentagon smoke but no falling men, no cloud of ash, no paper debris. My life wasn’t in danger—although with Humvees on the streets of Georgetown, who could be entirely sure?

That day isn’t just a wound but a vantage point that offers some perspective on the present—this very different age of reporting, technology, and America’s place in the world.

In 2001, as now, there were people who hated the mainstream media. I do, too, from time to time—its banality, its focus on polls over policy, its both-sides-ism. (See Monthly alum James Fallows’s Breaking the News.) But when I hear the fake news slander from the former president or his minions, I twitch with rage. I remember how we labored on 9/11 to get things right amid a fog of war that was particularly thick. I know how hard I’ve worked on the many stories that, like 9/11, have overturned the world as we know it: on the financial crisis, the election of our first Black president, his bigoted successor, a pandemic that left everything frayed.

While conventional wisdom quickly focused on al-Qaeda as the perpetrator of 9/11, no one could really know at the time. The terror cult hadn’t claimed credit, and untangling the biographies of the foreign nationals on board the four doomed flights took time. Al-Qaeda had been linked in the 1990s and early 2000s to bombings of the USS Cole and the American embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. The World Trade Center itself had been bombed in 1993. But we were at pains not to write what we didn’t know. I spoke on background to the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke in the hours following the attack; I knew him professionally and a bit socially. (I relay his comments now because he’s passed away.) He offered a warning that al-Qaeda might not be responsible for the attack and pointed me toward a longtime intelligence hand with experience in Pakistan and the region, who played down the possibility that the mysterious Osama bin Laden might have masterminded this.

Holbrooke’s caveats were misplaced, as it turned out. But this is how reporting happens. You talk to everyone and try to make sense of it, coming up with the best shot at the truth that you can in the time you have. Criticism of journalism is fair. The charge that it’s fabricated is usually libel. (There are the fabulists who have made up stories, but news organizations are more on guard now than in the days, say, when I wrote the “White House Watch” column for The New Republic and Stephen Glass was an intern.) On 9/11, I don’t think I would have guessed that the charge of liberal bias—a mainstay of Republican critiques for decades—would morph into the Nazi Lugënpresse (lying press) slander of the Trump years.

September 11 sits in my mind like dots in a pointillist painting—getting my son out of preschool, crying when I saw the towers fall, elated when we could crack a few facts or hear from Jay Carney, one of our White House correspondents, who was part of the Air Force One pool that day. (He would later become White House press secretary under Barack Obama.) Few of us had cell phones, and those who did often couldn’t get them to work. Time’s resourceful office manager, Judith Stoler, had kept one dedicated hard line separate from the main system of desk phones, which also often failed. It became our lifeline to New York. Just as the CIA and the FBI hadn’t been talking to each other, a former Time colleague reminded me this week, it took time to get everyone to share information with ease: “I remember thinking not too long after but certainly not that day that we were as badly organized to cover it as the government had been to prevent it, that we were all in our silos, right?”

The day, of course, should offer lessons in caution as well as remembrance. If you’d told us that day that 9/11 would not usher in a wave of terror on American soil but would lead to a 20-year war in Asia that we would lose—a Vietnam for our millennium—it wouldn’t have been my first notion. In the weeks that followed, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security became a wise idea for all right-thinking people, left and right. Now it seems like an unwieldy conglomeration, combining the anti-counterfeit operations of the Secret Service with the often heavy hand of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, administering citizenship tests, policing cybersecurity, and even handing out generators after hurricanes. But then we still thought the AOL–Time Warner merger that had boosted our shares and options was also a brilliant idea.

September 11 always reminds me of the importance of where the camera is. There are no photos of United 93 crashing into the Pennsylvania dirt. The only pictures of the American Airlines plane hitting the Pentagon are from a security camera, and you rarely see them. Mobile phones with cameras weren’t ubiquitous then. If you look at photos of the stunned New Yorkers staring up at the burning towers, they aren’t holding phones; there’s no device putting distance between them and evil. George W. Bush soared in popularity after 9/11, but on the day of the attack, he was off-camera most of the time, being shuttled around the country. (Garrett Graff describes the president’s journey in incredible detail in The Only Plane in the Sky.) He had been reading to schoolchildren in Florida when the planes hit, and he chose to finish The Pet Goat even after being told of the strike. He then flew to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana to make a statement and spent the rest of the day under wraps at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, only returning to Washington that night to address the nation.

That left a video void, but also a void for a media and country that ached for leadership or heroism. (The NYC firefighters perished away from the cameras.) Most of the day, the most memorable public officials were Rudy Giuliani and Donald Rumsfeld, who seemed the epitome of bravery and leadership. Never mind that each would, to put it mildly, discredit themselves in the years that followed. Or that Giuliani’s courage walking the streets of New York was in part because he had nowhere to go—he had ordered the location of the city’s emergency command center at the World Trade Center, even after the 1993 attack on the complex, a decision that was widely criticized at the time. His idiocy thus became his fortune. Rumsfeld helped remove the injured from the Pentagon. The camera showed the bravura that marked his career as a Korean War pilot and, in the course of two terms, both the youngest and oldest defense secretary. The camera didn’t—couldn’t—show how invested he was in a war with Iraq, a folly that exceeds our efforts in Afghanistan.

If 9/11 had happened 20 years later, would the country believe the president and elevate him to 80, 90 percent approval ratings? No, we’re too divided for that, which may be a good thing, given Bush’s march to war. On the other hand, would “truthers” be a fringe element or the dominant voice on one of the partisan networks? Some news organizations, like Time, now owned by Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff (who by all accounts has done a wonderful job with the place), have the muscle to do what they did. But few other news outlets could summon it. Layoffs, which have provided story lines to fictional representations of newsrooms back to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Broadcast News, have accelerated in the years since, devastating local media.

The dynamics of the web and social media—there was no Facebook and Twitter in 2001—and the economics of modern journalism put a premium on hot takes. Would a modern Time hold its fire for two days and put it all in one mammoth issue? Probably not. I joked with a former Time Washington colleague about how most major newspapers’ opinion voices would handle 2001—with a salvo of knee-jerk takes on what it all meant. Can you imagine enduring 9/11 and then Tucker Carlson?

We at Time had the money, muscle, and restraint in 2001 to write one long history of 9/11 in a day and a half, maybe less. It’s not that there were better journalists in 2001 than today. It’s that the economics generally favored better journalism, and the country, yet to be divided by news feeds and Twitter streams, was better able to listen.

I spoke with Nancy Gibbs this week. She’s now the director of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Wise then and now, she noted that the great files she received would have all been tweeted in real time. There was and would remain a need for a narrative that made sense of the attacks, she said, but today’s readers would have already had shards of information flying at them before we’d put together a stained-glass window.

She lamented that “our attention spans have been rewired since then,” although she noted, rightly, the importance of the big general interest narrative even in an age of polarization. But her optimism has waned. “Before the last year, when I would teach about polarization, I was operating, I think, on the assumption that the only thing that could bring us together again would be another 9/11 kind of attack,” Gibbs said. “And then we get attacked, not even by a foreign adversary, but by a respiratory virus. And we find a way to divide around that. I’ve lost a lot of my optimism, because there’s so much profit in division.”

She’s right. The terrorists maimed our cathedrals, as she wrote in Time. But two decades later, we’ve done a pretty good job of defacing our institutions all by ourselves.

Matthew Cooper

Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattizcoop. Matthew Cooper is Executive Editor Digital at the Washington Monthly. He is also a contributing editor of the magazine and a veteran reporter who has covered politics and the White House for Time, The New Republic, Washingtonian, National Journal and many other publications.