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American Journalism Review
September 11 Hawaii Hoax  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   November 2001

September 11 Hawaii Hoax   

The media reports Curtis Larson's erroneous tale of his son and daughter-in-law's death aboard one of the airplanes that crashed into the World Trade Center.

By Natalie Pompilio
Natalie Pompilio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.     

Pompilio, a frequent contributor to AJR, is a reporter for New Orleans' Times-Picayune. In Hawaii, a grieving father spoke to the press. He fondly remembered his son, Jude Larson, a medical student, and his daughter-in-law, Natalie, a fashion model--passengers, he said, on one of the two airplanes that crashed into New York's World Trade Center on September 11. Curtis Larson urged U.S. leaders not to take revenge on their killers.

"It's not going to bring my son back," Larson, a well-known local artist, told Honolulu's Star-Bulletin on September 13. "Where does it all stop?"

In Larson's case, it never really started. No one in Curtis Larson's family died in the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. Larson told the Star-Bulletin and the Maui News that he is the victim of a hoax, tricked by someone who called his home, claimed to be his ex-wife and told him the couple had been killed. The truth is probably murkier--it was later learned that Larson fabricated almost every detail of his story, ranging from Jude and Natalie's professions to their ages to their actual last name, which is Olsen, not Larson, like his own.

No one answered the phone at Larson's home on repeated tries, but for journalists, the question is not why Larson did what he did. It's more personal: How did the press let him get away with it?

Maui News Editor in Chief David Hoff says someone purporting to be a friend of Larson's called the newspaper's office soon after the attacks to report Larson's losses. News reporters contacted Larson, who was "quite broken up and shaken but agreed to talk to us," Hoff says. With no passenger manifests available to double-check the information and no real reason to doubt Larson, the News, circulation 18,880, went with the story.

"Like any newspaper in the country, we were trying to connect [the tragedy] to our local readership any way we could," Hoff says.

The Associated Press picked up the names Jude and Natalie Larson from the News Wednesday, putting aside its own stringent guidelines for victim verification. With the dead or missing tallies reaching the thousands and the story of the attack changing by the minute, the AP put its trust in its member paper and in the fact that Curtis Larson was well-known in Maui, says Jack Stokes, the AP's media relations manager.

The Honolulu newspapers--the Star-Bulletin and the Advertiser--ran their own stories on Larson's losses. But one paper that held back was the Boston Globe. With two of the fatal flights leaving from Boston's Logan Airport, the newspaper sought information about every passenger and crew member on the airplanes, says Assistant Metro Editor Marilyn Garateix, who handled the bulk of victim coverage. Jude and Natalie Larson appeared on the AP's victim list but weren't on the passenger manifests obtained by the paper. Airlines sources were unable to confirm the two names, even on background or off the record.

"We were being very careful," Garateix says. "We didn't put anyone in the paper that we didn't have independent confirmation on." Another Globe editor called Curtis Larson and found he was expressing uncertainties about his heartbreaking tale, Garateix says. There were also inconsistencies in Larson's latest words, she says: He said someone from the airline had called to tell him of his son's death, where earlier he had said it was his ex-wife. He originally said the couple was on the American Airlines flight out of Boston, but he told the Globe they were on the United plane.

Another clue that something was amiss: Larson had told the press that his daughter-in-law had family in Massachusetts. If so, they were being extremely quiet about their loss.

"I found it strange that we couldn't find anyone," Garateix says. "Where was her family? Why had nobody in the entire state not stumbled across them?"

The full truth was finally revealed when Larson's son, the real Jude--last name Olsen, not Larson--e-mailed the Star-Bulletin on September 16 and said that he and his wife were unhurt and at their home in Olympia, Washington. The three Hawaiian newspapers published the good news. The AP asked its members to remove the names of Jude and Natalie Larson from its victim list and to delete any photographs of the pair that had been transmitted. Across America, corrections columns noted the error. (The Larson incident isn't the only case of a father fabricating a lost child. Press reports said that Alan Braker told a tear-jerking story about his 6-year-old daughter Mya, who he said was visiting her mother's Morgan Stanley coworkers on the 107th floor of the south tower when the attack began. Weeks later, Braker's sister came forward and called her brother a liar. His estranged wife, who does not work for Morgan Stanley, said that he has a teenage daughter, not a 6-year-old.)

The AP has since raised its standards regarding victims, noting that inclusion on a member paper's victim list is not enough proof for the wire. Honolulu Advertiser City Editor Marsha McFadden wrote in an e-mail to AJR that although there's been no change in policy at the Advertiser, "we'll be more cautious in dealing with similar claims in the future. The editor who dealt directly with the reporter on this story has said she is a little changed by this experience, for better or worse."

At the Maui News, Hoff says he told his reporter that he would have done the same thing if he had been assigned the story. "There are many nights I've gone home and banged my head against the wall for things I did," Hoff says. "This wasn't one of them."

Edited by Lori Robertson



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