Crimson Colleagues Reunite at Newsweek Magazine

When Jonathan Alter ’79 began his sophomore year at Harvard, he enrolled in a general education class called “Space, Time and Motion.” After a week of struggling through incomprehensible problem sets, he dropped the class—only to find that his buddy from the daily campus newspaper, Mark Whitaker ’79, was TFing a section of the course after acing it his freshman year.

“Mark was easily the most intimidating person in our class,” Alter says of Whitaker. “He managed to do a lot of work on The Crimson and also to do very well academically, which is rare.”

“Space, Time, and Motion” may not have been Alter’s strong suit in college, but today neither space nor time separates Alter and Whitaker, who have worked side-by-side at Newsweek magazine for the past 21 years.

Whitaker, who serves as editor of the magazine, met Alter, a columnist and senior editor, when they were both comping The Crimson in the winter of their first year at Harvard in 1975. They’ve been friends—and colleagues—ever since.

Whitaker began interning at Newsweek after his sophomore year, and hasn’t worked at another publication since. Alter, who serves as Whitaker’s unofficial adviser, a “minister without portfolio,” has been writing a regular column for the magazine for over a decade.

Under their guidance, Newsweek has garnered two National Magazine Awards in the last three years—in 2002 for its coverage of Sept. 11 and its aftermath, and last year for its war reporting.

Whitaker and Alter both stress the importance of fresh reporting and fresh writing to keep the magazine alive.

“I’ve tried to make Newsweek a more substantive magazine,” Whitaker says. “There is nothing more powerful than sheer reporting, than breaking stories.”

Whitaker even met his wife, Alexis Gelber, at the magazine as well. Gelber, who began writing for Newsweek shortly after she graduated from Barnard College, has served as the editor of Newsweek’s international edition, an associate managing editor and now the publication’s director of special projects.

Before Gelber and Whitaker first met, they shared a byline: “Alexis Gelber, with Mark Whitaker, on the Cote D’Azur.” Whitaker had submitted a file from the Paris bureau that Gelber used to report one of her very first stories on the job (which, incidentally, turned out quite well).

“A cousin of mine called me,” Gelber says, “and said, ‘What’s going on over there at Newsweek? You’ve only been on the job for a week and you’re already running around the south of France with some guy!’”

The two finally met and started talking at an office Christmas party about a year later—and they’ve been talking ever since.

But working so closely with friends has its risks, Alter points out.

“People often wonder if we were competitive over the years,” he says. “But we weren’t because we were always working in different realms. Mark rose in management, and I rose in reporting.”

FINDING THEIR ROOTS

Whitaker, the son of academics, came to Harvard after an unhappy year at Swarthmore College. And while Alter, a Chicago native, may have found his future boss “intimidating,” the awe was mutual.

“John had gone to Andover and hung around the Crimson a great deal,” Whitaker says. “Almost from the very beginning, he was breaking stories...We were very intimidated.”

“The rest of us were laying out downstairs and paying our dues and John would just come in and bang out these big scoops like it was nothing.”

Whitaker particularly recalls one of Alter’s “scoops,” a story he broke about two MIT women, Roxanne Ritchie and Susan Gilbert, who had compiled a list—complete with starred ratings—ranking the performance of the 36 men with whom they had slept. Their article ran in the MIT’s alternative weekly under the headline, “The Consumer Guide to MIT Men.”

Alter heard about the story from a retired federal judge during lunch at the Signet Society.

“I got their names, and just went over to interview them with a Crimson photographer,” he remembers. Gilbert wasn’t home, but Ritchie was, so Alter interviewed her—“but didn’t stay afterwards,” he reports. “I did not mix Crimson business and pleasure on that occasion.”

Alter’s story on the scandal, “MIT: ‘Fear of Flying’ Now Playing,” first ran in 1979 in The Crimson—and later all over the world’s tabloids—with the lede: “Names, sex, newspapers. They don’t mix.”

Sex and pleasure might not mix with business and newspapers, but Alter and Whitaker definitely did.

And though Alter says that “most of us thought that Mark would become a professor like his parents,” both of them—along with Whitaker’s former roommate and current editor of the online edition of Newsweek, Joe Contreras—comped The Crimson at the same time, went into journalism shortly after college and never left the newsroom.

“Joe grew up in the Barrio in Los Angeles,” Alter remembers. “He showed up to The Crimson comp sessions with hair down the middle of his back, wearing a white t-shirt, a pack of cigarettes in one hand and in the other he’d be clutching a copy of The New Republic.”

The triumvirate has shared a number of experiences over the years, from The Crimson to Newsweek. Whitaker and Contreras even shared a girlfriend, Whitaker having “stolen” Contreras’ significant other.

Whitaker describes the friendship between the three of them today with laughter:

“Jon has a great sense of humor but he can be very earnest as well,” he says. “One of the necessary elements of being a columnist is that you need to believe that people can benefit from your opinion every week—Jon has that, he takes himself very seriously. But,” Whitaker adds, laughing, “There’s nobody in the world who deflates Alter like Contreras, and then Jon will dig himself even deeper, and Contreras will get even more irreverent.”

Those laughs began at The Crimson, where all three worked as avid reporters, but never took on leadership roles as top editors.

“The one thing that Mark, Joe and I all had in common on the Crimson is that we didn’t take major positions, which I think helped because we didn’t get burned out on journalism,” Alter adds. “At some point, I just didn’t want to be there every night,” Alter says.

Still, Alter and Whitaker both have fond memories of The Crimson, the place which helped launch them into journalism.

Alter’s early stints with tabloid journalism helped propel him into the highest echelons of political journalism—covering the president and his sex scandals.

“During the Clinton impeachment process, I was back to sex and the media,” he quips. “I wrote an enormous number of articles about how far is too far for the media to go in reporting this kind of thing, so I guess some of that began at Harvard.”

Whitaker, who covered a number of different beats, from faculty council to the admissions office, remembers the newsroom as a “very egalitarian place.”

“You would show up, do the work, drink some Crimson Kool-aid, and they would accept you,” he says.

Growing up in an academic environment, Whitaker never thought he would choose journalism for a career.

“I thought I had to work on my academics,” he says, “that seemed like the real world to me.”

But one day he got a call from a graduate student named Chris Foreman who had seen Whitaker’s pieces in The Crimson and told him the he had “a good shot” at landing an internship at Newsweek.

Whitaker applied, got the job and flew off to San Fransisco for the summer, where he covered everything from bogus cancer cures to the shooting of the San Francisco mayor.

Alter also remembers The Crimson fondly, filled with budding media stars. In the late seventies, Steve Ballmer ’77, Nicholas B. Lemann ’76, Francis J. Connolly ’79 and Alix M. Freedman ’78 were all working in The Crimson’s newsroom.

“I think we learned as much from our friends as our teachers,” Alter says. “Many people were just developing their talent back then, and it’s important to remember that not everybody is developing at the same pace. There are going to be people who really surprise you with what they do with their lives...and then there are people who seem like they have the whole world at their fingertips and then don’t do as much with it.”

But Alter’s confidence about his life-long friend never waned. “I always knew that Mark would be successful at whatever he did because he combined such a powerful intellect with discipline and motivation and determination.”

The summer after their junior years, Alter and Whitaker lived together with other Crimson editors—Susan D. Chira ’80 and Robert E. Grady ’79—in a house in Washington D.C., described by Christopher Buckley in Esquire as the “Washington bureau of The Harvard Crimson.”

Chira was working as an intern on Capitol Hill, Grady as a speechwriter, Whitaker as a reporter for Newsweek, and Alter as a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter.

“Mark lived in the basement,” Alter recalls, “which was full of books. I remember having the distinct impression at the end of the summer that he had read every book in the place.”

After college, Alter found himself at “loose-ends.” In his senior year he had moved off campus with his roommates and had thrown himself into a thesis on the changing nature of American policy during the Vietnam War.

A history concentrator, Alter calls writing the thesis “one of my best experiences at college.”

David Kaiser ’69, who advised Alter’s thesis, remembers Alter the college senior as “quite low-key, mid-western, with a great political background having grown up in a very political atmosphere.”

“He used to always tell this story about how his mother went to the democratic convention when he was just three years old,” Kaiser said.

Kaiser also recalls Alter’s thesis as outstanding and remembers that it received two summa readings.

“He probably worked harder on his thesis than anything else,” adds Kaiser, who wrote a book on the same subject about four years ago. “In part it was an oral history, with interviews, but it also had a good theoretical argument.”

University President Lawrence H. Summers remembers talking with Alter about his thesis as a graduate student in Lowell House, where Alter lived as an undergraduate.

“I’ve known Alter for a long time, and we talked on and off when I was in Washington,” Summers remembers, “but I was first bowled over by him when he was writing his undergraduate thesis on Vietnam...a lot of people write theses about Vietnam, but most people who are college seniors don’t have the sophistication to interview the best and the brightest politcal figures like MacNamara and 290 other people. That just left me enormously impressed.”

Over the years, Summers says that Alter “has given [him] advice about Harvard and questions relating to education.” He adds that he has spoken with Alter at length about “ways that Harvard can make in a difference in terms of education.”

Summers says he regards Alter and Whitaker as “extraordinarily successful,” and he calls Alter “one of the three or four most talented journalists of this generation” because of “his thoughtful approach.”

“He is a powerful journalist because he’s willing to step back from the news," Summers says.

Alter also remembers courses with now-retired history pundits Adams University Professor Bernard Bailyn and David Donald. He also remembers a course at the Kennedy School with the Charles Warren Professor of History Ernest May and Richard Neustadt called “The Uses of History,” which he says has “proven very helpful to me for my column, since one of the things I like to do is provide history as context for current affairs.”

“I have had a life-long interest in history, and that is one of the things that I bring to the table,” says Alter, who often draws on analogies to Vietnam for his political coverage.

But after college, Alter had less conviction about life-long interests. “I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my life at all,” he says. Whitaker was going to graduate school at Oxford and working at the London bureau of Newsweek.

“I decided to travel around Europe and backpack around, and then I stayed with Mark in a house he was housesitting in London,” Alter remembers, “And I visited Joe who was on his way back from the Middle East and at [the London School of Economics], also working for Newsweek.”

Alter says he planned to go to law school, but “forgot. Oh, and I never got around to taking the LSATs.”

After finishing his thesis comparing Henry Kissinger’s academic work and his performance in office and graduating summa cum laude in Social Studies, Whitaker took a prestigious Marshall scholarship to study at Oxford.

But like Alter, he found he was at loose-ends. He was unhappy doing graduate work, and eventually left Oxford without getting a degree.

“I found myself sneaking away from Oxford to do stringing for Newsweek constantly,” Whitaker remembers. “I think it took being away—really away, from my parents, from everything—for me to realize what I wanted to do was journalism.”

All that stringing paid off, and Whitaker was offered an entry-level job at Newsweek. He left Oxford and took a three-month trip around the world, taking up Pan-Am airlines on their “80 days around the world for 1,100 pounds” offer—which allowed him to fly for three months as long as he moved in one direction and only took Pan-Am flights.

When he arrived at Newsweek, Whitaker did not have a desk or an office.

“For six months, I moved from desk to desk, and finally when they gave me an office, it was windowless,” he says. “Nobody would have seen me at that point and thought I was being groomed for anything more than writing sidebars.”

Meanwhile, Alter tried his hand at journalism as well. He would join Whitaker and Contreras in a few years, after brief stints at The Washington Monthly and The New Republic.

“I wrote my way onto The Washington Monthly,” Alter remembers. “Out in the world they don’t care too much about your college work, but what they care about is what kind of clips you have in professional journalism. If you want to be a writer, you have to write; you have to sell your wares like an entrepreneur.”

Whitaker’s wife Gelber remembers hearing about Alter when he was working at Washington Monthly.

“Jon was one of the first people that Mark told me about,” she says, “as this brilliant writer at the Washington Monthly, who was making nothing and eating spaghetti day in and day out.”

Alter soon followed in the footsteps of his college buddies when the editor of the Washington Monthly, Charlie Peters, convinced Bill Broyles, the newly appointed editor of Newsweek, to hire Alter as his assistant and informal “spy.” His role was to help ease the transition and tell Broyles, an outsider of Newsweek, what was going on internally.

“So many of the people that I now have good working relationships with despised me at first,” Alter says with a chuckle.

“He seemed like too nice a guy to be a spy,” Gerber says. “Eventually, he won everyone’s respect at the magazine. Jon has this incredible combination of being incredibly knowledgeable about the most arcane details about American politics and also being an incredibly nice guy.”

Alter’s days of espionage may be over now, but he still serves a special role as a “minister without portfolio,” as he describes it, who informally advises in various capacity on the magazine, in addition to his senior editor and columnist duties.

“Over the years, Mark has played more of an inside role and I have played more of an outside role in the magazine,” says Alter, who figures as a kind of public intellectual, appearing regularly on television—he has signed three contracts with NBC News since 1997—and working on a book about Franklin Roosevelt which is due out later this year.

Whitaker worked his way up the editorial ladder, starting as a business editor, then an assistant managing editor, next as managing editor and finally as editor.

Alter worked for seven years as a media critic at Newsweek, and his column on politics, government and social issues has run in the magazine about two out of every three weeks since 1991.

He also began, with a few colleagues, Newsweek’s popular “Conventional Wisdom Watch,” which ascribes up-and-down arrow judgments to the weekly news reports.

Gelber, who has worked with both her husband and Alter on projects, describes the Newsweek environment as “collegial,” citing Whitaker and Alter’s friendship as “strengthening that atmosphere.”

“Jon is a very honest, inquisitive person, and he never wants to do anything in the same old way,” she adds.

Alter says that he has sustained a lively career in journalism with this very thirst for news that Gelber points to.

“I think you have to be very curious for this kind of job,” he says. “I drive people crazy with the number of questions I ask,” he quips. “But you also have to recognize that you’re getting paid to further your education and learn something new and get paid for it.”

Alter sees the other perk of journalism as “an excuse to call up anyone in the world and ask them anything at all.”

“Some people say that we have a license to kill in journalism,” he quips. “But I see it as a license to satisfy our curiosity.”

—Staff writer Lauren A.E. Schuker can be reached at schuker@fas.harvard.edu.