The Glory Days
By Jonathan Alter
Excerpted from the website of Foreign Policy, October 19, 2012
Those of us who worked at Newsweek through the turn of the century wish the new internet magazine, Newsweek Global, well. But we can't escape the feeling that there's been a death in the family. 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 cover stories, almost all of them on domestic affairs.
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. 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.
Good Proxy: 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 I did get a piece of the 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. 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.
Sitting Pretty: 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.
Open Secret: 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 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 (un-expensed) 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. 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.
Even before blogging, deadline pressure demanded quick takes. 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.
Hot Copy: 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 canister, 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.”
High Hand: 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 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.
Jonathan Alter joined Newsweek in 1983 as a Nation writer and media critic, began writing his column in 1991 and left the magazine in 2011.