Sonny Kleinfield, who writes under the penname N.R. Kleinfield, is a New York Times investigative reporter and author of eight non-fiction books. He has also written for several other magazine publications over the course of his career. When tragedy struck the United States on September 11, 2001, Kleinfield was one of the Times staff members selected to report on the scene. Following the tragedy of 9/11, Kleinfield wrote several of the “Portraits of Grief” published by the Times. Other works published by Kleinfield include
“How Race is Lived in America” and “Downsizing of America.”
When I first reached out to Kleinfield via email, I was not sure if this “big time” reporter would even respond to a random email from a college student in Waco, Texas. I found out through our email exchanges, however, that Kleinfield is a kind man with a heart for helping people wherever he can. Kleinfield spoke candidly with me about his personal experiences as a well-weathered reporter and particularly about his experiences surrounding 9/11. The following interview gives a glimpse into the thoughts, actions and emotions of a well-established reporter on possibly the most tragic day in U.S. history.
With so many things happening at once in the aftermath of 9/11, how did you know what parts of the story to focus on? I.e. the victims, the terrorists, the people involved in the rescue, etc. What kind of split second decisions were you making?
My focus was on the totality of what was happening, aspects of which weren’t always clear. On the day itself, my aim was to recount the horror of what went on during a short and bewildering span of time. Nothing much was known about the terrorists at that time, so the focus was on the victims and those who escaped from the towers and those who went in to save others.
What act of tragedy and what act of heroism associated with 9/11 is most memorable to you?
There were so many tragedies, but the one that came closest to me was the mother of a teenage girl who my daughter knew. She was on one of the floors above where the plane entered and had gone to the roof in hopes of being rescued and she died there. She was the only person who died who I knew at all.
So far as acts of heroism, two stood out: the window washer trapped with five other men in an elevator in one of the towers who used his squeegee handle to cut through a wall and allow them to escape. The other one was a story I wrote, about six firefighters who were coming down the stairwells of the north tower and encountered a weary woman trying to flee. Had they not come upon her, they would have moved faster down the stairs. They would have traveled slower if they hadn’t been able to coax her along, telling her she needed to keep moving to see her children and grandchildren. The pace they adopted, and not a few seconds slower or faster, saved their lives. They ended up inside a chunk of twisted stairwell, everything above them gone and below them crushed, and were rescued.
How did you keep your own emotions and opinions from entering into the 9/11 story, or did you even try?
It was not hard to keep my own emotions and opinions out of the story. That is what I’ve learned to do as a journalist. It’s instinctive. What was harder was preventing my emotions from keeping me from writing the story I was assigned on 9/11. I’ve often wondered how I was able to do that. Along with my wife and daughter, I was living four blocks from the World Trade Center. I knew my daughter was uptown at school. I didn’t know where my wife was. I did know that a few days earlier she had shopped with my daughter for school clothing in the stores that lined the ground floor of the World Trade Center and that she had left by the door of our apartment a bag of clothing to be returned to those stores. I didn’t know if she had gone there that morning. I tried her cellphone and got no answer. Much later, I would learn she had left it in the apartment. And I would find out that she had been out jogging and wound up taken to New Jersey on a ferry. Yet I didn’t know that as I reported from the scene and returned to the office to write. I think what kept my emotions in check was disbelief. What happened that day for those who were there and watched it defied belief. And it left me, as it did others, in something of a state of shock. Numbed. And what kicked in was the instinct to carry out my job because nothing made sense.
During subsequent days and weeks and months, when I wrote other stories, including more than 100 of the portraits of grief about the victims, again it was professionalism that kept emotion and opinion away.
Do you think that reporting on 9/11 changes anything about the way you report now?
No, I don’t believe so.
Did you personally experience any fear surrounding 9/11?
I was two blocks from the World Trade Center when the first tower fell. The sky turned dark and filled with residue. Had the tower fallen sideways, rather than imploding, I wouldn’t be here. But it happened with such suddenness and such improbability that I didn’t feel fear but shock. With scores of others on the street, I moved several blocks further north. While standing there, I watched as the sky cleared. Where two towers once stood only one did. That was the most terrifying sight I have ever seen. Then I knew the death toll would be staggering. The possibility that my wife was inside the shopping arcade of the towers was deeply unsettling and numbing. You carry on because you don’t know what else to do.
What kind of weight of responsibility did you feel to get 9/11 stories right? Did patriotism play any part?
I take seriously the need to get all stories right, big or small. There was no additional weight, and patriotism did not enter into my thinking.
How does a reporter stay objective without losing his humanity?
I don’t see them as competing forces. The very purpose of journalism is to try to convey the truth of a story. I don’t see it so much as striving to be objective, but striving to be accurate. And you get wired to accomplish just that from doing the job over and over. I don’t see that succeeding at that purpose undermines one’s humanity.
You wrote many of the Portraits of Grief following the 9/11 tragedy. What was it like to write those mini obituaries and has it affected the way you tell stories?
My principal interest in journalism is to learn about human beings and human nature. And so I learned about a wide array of people in a short period of time, unfortunately in the most unappealing of circumstances. It was disquieting work, perhaps the sensation being similar to what a coroner feels on a daily basis, but very much magnified. So many of the portraits I did were of young men who left families behind. Again and again, I would interview a young widow on the phone and in the background hear the voices of young children frolicking. It was those voices of the unwitting children that were the saddest for me. I wouldn’t say the work has affected the way I tell stories, but it certainly had made me want to write more about life than death.
Do you have any kind of set list of questions you come in with ready to ask when covering a breaking news story?
No I don’t. By now, most of the questions are obvious to me or ones that are suggested by the circumstances or the answers that I get. With feature stories and long-term projects, I do sometimes draft questions in advance of interviews—or keep lists of questions I have not yet gotten answers to that I need to pursue.
In one or two sentences, what would some of your tips be for young journalists trying to get into the field?
Read and read and read. You will learn by osmosis. Write about the subjects you are passionate about. Ask even the most obvious questions, for sometimes they trigger the most remarkable responses. Nothing is more rewarding than the amount of time you spend with your subjects, and the best rewards often come from observation rather than interrogation.