The First 20

“Just Asking the Question and Trying to Answer It”

Where was Slate on 9/11?


New York Harbor before Sept. 11.

Ken Graff/Thinkstock

In the early hours of Sept. 11, 2001, Slate published a droll photo quiz by Dahlia Lithwick asking readers to identify beloved NPR correspondents by their faces. “I worked on that piece for two weeks,” she recalled. “I was so proud of it, certain it would go totally viral.”

That morning, William Saletan was working on a story about the ongoing shark panic during the fallow end-of-summer news period. “I had been looking for a topic, and the best of a bad lot was shark attacks,” he said.

On 9/11 itself, Slate published a number of obviously precooked stories that weren’t about the attack that still speak to the site’s DNA at the time right before the attack: an aggregated “Today’s Papers” column about the “federal budget crunch,” a Franklin Foer essay about the Shalom Cup soccer tournament, and a short piece titled “The Problem of Being Salman Rushdie.” That wonky, literary, playful, quirky, smarty-pants Slate was still evident in the weeks, months, and years after the attack. It is also still part of the site’s genetic makeup today.

But immediately following the collapse of those towers, one thing changed: Stuff got serious, fast. “You’re just watching TV and trying to not be a snarky asshole,” Saletan said of how he remembered covering the attacks. Previously, the site had spent a lot of time making light of George W. Bush’s already faltering presidency. “And it’s like: OK, this is really serious.”

“That was the first time I remember us gathering resources and getting [at it] collectively and fast,” former editor in chief David Plotz, who was a staff writer at the time, told me over email. “I don’t think it fundamentally changed the nature of Slate though. It made us more serious, but it made the whole world more serious.”

The first piece of original content Slate appears to have published after the attack was a one-line post by Chatterbox columnist Timothy Noah titled “Ill-Timed Quote of the Day” in response to an unfortunate comment by Bill Ayers in that day’s New York Times: “I don’t regret setting bombs.” Noah says now that the story didn’t reflect the gravity of the moment.

“I concede that the item itself, focusing as it did on the most trivial angle conceivable, stands 15 years later as a good illustration of how hard it was at first to take in what happened on 9/11,” he told me over email. “In that sense I think it’s good that one can still retrieve it on the web. But no, it wasn’t terribly appropriate.”

Six hours later, Noah had written a sharp, brave, and poignant column on why calling the terrorists “cowardly,” as Bush did that day, was “to substitute testosterone for morality.” “This is not only a childish reflex, but one that weakens the moral force of the condemnation and thereby dishonors terrorism’s victims,” he wrote. This point would be made a couple weeks later, in less eloquent fashion, by Bill Maher, who would lose his TV show because of it. “He got himself into trouble by taking the argument to an offensive extreme,” Noah recalled.

Slate also responded with an on-the-ground scene piece from Washington D.C., by Plotz and Bryan Curtis, and one from lower Manhattan by Jacob Weisberg, who would soon after become the site’s editor in chief and is now Slate’s chairman. Weisberg described being evacuated from his apartment with his family and watching TV at a friend’s apartment:

The only official I saw who failed to create some sense of reassurance was the president. All he knew how to do was read his statement and offer a prayer. My honest, churlish reaction: I wish Bill Clinton were still the president. We all felt better when Mayor Giuliani came on. Giuliani is a man who knows how to deal with an emergency.

He later wrote that he regretted those remarks: “It was a small-minded, partisan thing to say at a moment when the president was struggling to deal with a national catastrophe of vast proportion.”

Perhaps the most important posts on the site that day, though, were the Explainer columns, already a Slate trademark. There were four: “How Good Were the World Trade Center Pilots?”; “What Liabilities Do Insurance Companies Face From Terrorist Acts?”; “Who Responds to Terrorist Attacks?”; and “Why Did the World Trade Center Towers Collapse?

Three of these directly addressed and preemptively rebutted ideas that would later inform 9/11 “truther” conspiracy theories. Lithwick’s column on how and why the towers came down the way they did is eerie to read in light of the moronic theories about a controlled demolition and the “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams” meme.

When a fire ignites in a large building, its steel core does not melt, but over time it weakens. As the steel supporting the floors collapses, a “pancaking” effect will result, with each of the upper floors collapsing onto the floor below. This is why the disintegration of the towers was not limited to the top floors. With the accumulated weight of each collapsed floor, the stacked floors continued to fall. This explains why the building collapsed vertically, rather than tipping over.

“I don’t think [that day was about] the long reflective pieces about what it all meant,” Lithwick said. “At least in that day it was like ‘what do people need to know, what do people need to know, what do people need to know.’ ” Her piece gave readers information they wanted in the hours after the attack. It quickly became the most read story on the site. Lithwick didn’t want to write it at first.

Jack Shafer, who was deputy editor, called and said, “Do a piece on why the towers collapsed the way they did,” and I was initially livid because I couldn’t fathom why that even mattered, and people were dead and I suspected we would all be dead. But I did it, called around and spoke to some engineers and architects and tried to explain it, and it turned out that is really what people wanted: just practical answers to what had happened.

It was actually weirdly comforting to work on that piece, because everything else was just too unfathomable. I learned that what I had thought of as the Kinsley-Vulcan model of journalism was onto something; that just asking the question and trying to answer it is really useful. After that day I don’t think I ever questioned Shafer again.

Curtis’ “Who Responds to Terrorist Attacks?” ended with a moment of prescience, when he considered the military’s role in counterterrorism.

A couple years ago, the Pentagon considered creating a “homeland defense” commander, who would serve as the commander in chief for the defense of the United States. Civil libertarians objected to the possibility of an increased role for the military on American soil, and the idea was batted down. Civil libertarians take note: Two years ago, a Pentagon official told the New York Times that a major terrorist attack would be “the most threatening event to civil liberties since Pearl Harbor,” a reference to the subsequent internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans.

“On that day to be thinking about civil liberties was pretty interesting because that’s not what most people were thinking about,” Saletan noted.

One thing that didn’t change for the site on Sept. 11: Slate didn’t suddenly begin producing a ton of editorial content in reaction to every breaking news story. “Slate was a pretty slow-moving vehicle back then,” Curtis remembered. “There was no flood-the-zone mentality, at least at Minute 1, for major news events. We tended to see where there were holes in mainstream news coverage and then jumped in.”

Indeed, on Sept. 11, 2001, when al-Qaida launched an attack on Washington, D.C., and New York City that left 2,977 people dead and resulted in a series of global wars that continue in some form or another to this day, Slate published fewer than two dozen stories, 17 of them about the attacks. On Sept. 19 of this year, when a guy tried to plant bombs around the New York metro area, killed nobody, and got caught, Slate published 59 stories, of which 12 were related to the attacks.

It would take iPhones, Facebook, Twitter, and a much tougher competitive landscape for Slate to become not just eccentric and snarky and serious but what it is today: quick, nimble, and immediately responsive to breaking news events large and small. It’s difficult to imagine how that pace will change in the next 20 years, but the site’s clear-eyed and informative response to tragedy 15 years ago offers a model to aim for as it does.