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When meteors rained down upon the Earth to hasten the dinosaurs’ demise, there were no cameras to freeze those spectacular fireworks into images the doomed reptiles could ponder.

So in that regard, America’s three major news magazines—Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report—have a leg up on their cretaceous cousins. They can place photos of a moment in which they were blasted into irrelevance on their covers, and revel in their technicolor majesty.

In their special editions on the terrorist attacks perpetrated against the United States on Sept. 11, all three weeklies did just that. Their covers all featured images of the crash of a second hijacked airliner into the World Trade Center as their visual centerpieces—a colorful burst of smoke and flame redolent of a Hollywood blockbuster’s print ad campaign.

It’s no surprise that the weekly news triumvirate played to its own strength: color photography. Time devoted 32 full pages of its 52-page edition to photos. (And that’s excluding the numerous images used to illustrate its graphic-laden stories.) Newsweek devoted 31 full pages of its 68-page special to photos. U.S. News clocked in at 21 full pages of photos (including two gatefolds) in its 58 pages.

This is more than a simple math exercise. All three special editions overlapped visually to such an extent that it blurred meaningful distinctions between them. Each member of the news-mag trio used Associated Press photographer Suzanne Plunkett’s photo of New Yorkers’ mad dash to safety, and they chose similar images of bodies hurtling to earth from the doomed World Trade Center. They also lingered over the most graphic images of the attack in New York, employing multiple photos of the mayhem. (Newsweek devoted six photos over four full pages to the collapse of the twin towers.) The combined effect was virtually pornographic, much like the collections of crash-related JPEG files disseminated to e-mailboxes all over the world.

A dissection of the approach taken by Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News also lays bare how ill-equipped they were to handle this news meteor. In short, what they offered readers past the photos can be summed up in two words: “not much.”

It’s not entirely the weeklies’ fault, of course. A Sept. 17 story in the San Francisco Chronicle detailed Americans’ continued reliance on broadcast news, pointing to figures obtained in a Pew Internet & American Life Project survey about news consumption last week, including the whopping 81 percent of respondents obtaining their information from television. Worse yet for the weeklies is the advent of crisp color photography in most major newspapers. Readers had the photos that formed the spine of the news magazines’ efforts in their hands for almost three days before they hit the newsstands.

Time published the weakest of the special editions. Its graphic presentation of the attack on the towers was the least informative, though it did a better job tracking the flight paths of the doomed planes. Time also chose to weave its reporting into one lengthy piece, rather than break it into more easily digestible bits. To cap off the issue, Time published columnist Lance Morrow’s embarrassing screed on “The Case for Rage and Retribution.” America needs, wrote Morrow, to “explore the rich reciprocal possibilities of the fatwa.”

Newsweek and U.S. News offered readers more content. Newsweek’s graphic depiction of the attacks was more varied that found in Time, if less satisfying than U.S. News’ more detailed renderings. Newsweek’s opinion and analysis pieces were more restrained and thoughtful, but they suffered from a surfeit of reliance on the “conventional wisdom” spotlighted each week in the magazine’s Periscope column. U.S News aimed more broadly, producing a series of tightly written pieces that trod all-too familiar paths. The commentary was a grab bag—a nuanced commentary from Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami jousted with the tinny musings of political columnist Gloria Borger (who yearned for a new “greatest generation” and a fumigation of what she dubbed “cockroach holes”) and Michael Barone’s grandiloquent yet hollow call for a Congressional declaration of war.

In the speedy new media world that undoubtedly will outlast the “new economy,” time itself is a relentless enemy for Time and the other weekly magazines. In this case, the events of Sept. 11 ruthlessly exposed their soft spot—timeliness—and punished even their most feverish efforts. Worse yet, they were scooped by the even more feverish efforts of national papers such as the Washington Post and the New York Times on their stock in trade: the long contextual narrative. Whether the weeklies can regroup from this ferocious assault on their relevance is an open question.

The Op-Ed War

The divide between the news and editorial departments of America’s major newspapers has rarely gaped as widely as it did this past week.

Yes, the major papers made reporting mistakes. Widespread dissemination of false information about the “arrest” of terrorists at New York City airports on Wednesday was the biggest one, erroneously shaping the Thursday headlines of both the Washington Post and the New York Times. Yet the tenacity and courage of the overall reporting can’t be understated. The Times’ coverage was essential to understanding that city’s tragedy. The Post’s strengths were found in its political and intelligence coverage. USA Today had a killer story in its Friday edition by Blake Morrison and Alan Levin about soft spots in airport security.

America’s op-ed pages, on the other hand, were dominated by hysteria and hyperbole. At a moment when Americans need wise and measured voices, they’ve been given rat-a-tat claptrap. Ann Coulter’s call on the National Review’s Web site for an invasion to force a death-or-conversion scenario on the world’s Muslims was the worst such eruption, yet others battled for the low ground.

Keep It Simple: There’s nothing like writing the word “war” over and over on the op-ed page to salve one’s rage: “This is not crime. This is war.” (Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post, 9/12); “Please let us make no mistake this time: We are at war now.” (Robert Kagan, Washington Post, 9/12); “We are at war—some kind of war.” (Richard Cohen, Washington Post, 9/12).

Trademark the Term “World War III”: New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has written three columns since the terror attacks, and he cornered the market on the hyperbole of calling these events “World War III” in the first two of them: “Does my country understand that this is World War III?” (9/13) ; “If this attack on America by an extensive terrorist cell is the equivalent of World War III…” (9/14).

Fashionista! Maureen Dowd’s Sunday Times column managed to open with this call to the closet: “My mom wore a red satin blouse on Friday to please the president and insisted that I look in my closet for red, white and blue, too.” —Richard Byrne