Ground for Contention  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   January/February 2003

Ground for Contention   

Controversy surrounds an article about Ground Zero from The Atlantic Monthly

By Steve Ritea
Ritea is a reporter for New Orleans' Times-Picayune     


Of all the September 11 heroes to emerge from the ashes of the World Trade Center, New York City firefighters are undoubtedly the most prominent. Chronicling and emphasizing their valor has become such a mainstay of post-9/11 coverage that many got a jolt last fall when Atlantic Monthly correspondent William Langewiesche wrote that firefighters and others working on the cleanup "though ferociously dedicated to a grim and dangerous task, were simply not involved in heroics."

In the longest and one of the most attention-grabbing pieces of original reporting The Atlantic has ever run--now compiled into a book, "American Ground"--Langewiesche (pronounced "Lang-a-veesha") described "shadowy, widespread" looting at Ground Zero. "Firemen were said to prefer watches from the Tourneau store," he wrote on one page and, on the next, described an excavated firetruck and how "its crew cab was filled with dozens of new pairs of jeans from The Gap, a Trade Center store." He added: "It was hard to avoid the conclusion that the looting had begun even before the first tower fell, and that while hundreds of doomed firemen had climbed through the wounded buildings, this particular crew had been engaged in something else entirely, of course without the slightest suspicion that the South Tower was about to hammer down."

People were livid. Roughly 150 firefighters and widows of uniformed men who died in the wreckage protested at a Langewiesche book-signing November 18 in New York, chanting, "Liar! Liar!" One firefighter's widow said the accusation was "disgusting" and "tarnished the memory of everyone in that building that died," according to New York papers. Threats of a similar protest caused a Cambridge, Massachusetts, bookstore to cancel a signing scheduled for a few days later. A Web site lambasting Langewiesche for the claims and other alleged errors also appeared. Altogether, it gave a host of New York media columnists highly emotional fodder and planted seeds of doubt about the validity of Langewiesche's work.

The Atlantic issued a statement saying the magazine stood "proudly" behind Langewiesche, a respected journalist who won a National Magazine Award in May for a piece on the crash of EgyptAir 990 and, for this story, had unequaled unrestricted access to Ground Zero. Toby Lester, the Atlantic's deputy managing editor, told AJR that Langewiesche's self-described "frank and even-keeled observations" naturally stirred emotions, adding, "It would be a complete misreading of 'American Ground' to believe that it denigrates the New York Fire Department."

To focus on the watches and the jeans--a mere three pages in a 205-page book--is to miss the point entirely, Langewiesche wrote in a recent e-mail interview from his home in France. The passage was included, he said, to illustrate a fierce rivalry that existed between the various groups working at the site.

In "American Ground," he wrote that the "hero" image had seeped through the ranks of firefighters at Ground Zero "like a low-grade narcotic." "[T]he firemen seemed to become steadily more self-absorbed and isolated," causing "resentments...expressed in private conversations on the pile." Construction workers who unearthed the firetruck were in fact responsible for spreading the story that firefighters had stolen the jeans, he said, and jeered them upon the discovery. "The very point of the jeans story," Langewiesche contends, has "everything to do with the overreactions of the construction workers on the pile and the growing divisions between the various groups."

Atlantic editors and Langewiesche say the story was vigorously fact-checked, but FDNY Deputy Assistant Chief Ron Spadafora says no one ever checked out the story with him or any other top department official. He also says he has video of the truck, Ladder 4, being unearthed, and it shows jeans strewn all over, not neatly stacked and folded in the cab, as Langewiesche wrote. The jeans were also from a Structure store, not The Gap, Spadafora says.

Lester, of The Atlantic, says the fact-checkers were not concerned with determining whether or not the jeans were folded or whether they came from Structure or The Gap. He says the fact-checkers "deliberately didn't want to pin down, 'Was it Ladder 4?' " or other such details, but rather they sought to confirm "that this story was circulating"--and they did.

Even if Langewiesche was using the story to illustrate a larger point, why not take steps to check it out? That's the key question coming from Langewiesche's most vocal critic, Rhonda Roland Shearer, an expert on Dadaist art and the widow of Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. Though she openly admits her journalism experience is "none," Shearer has compiled an extensive list of "corrections" to "American Ground" that alleges dozens of errors in addition to the jeans passage.

Shearer, who helped raise more than $1 million to assist with the cleanup at Ground Zero, has posted her findings on a Web site, www.wtclivinghistory.org, that also serves as a homepage for her organization, The WTC Living History Project. The group, which is made up entirely of Ground Zero workers and Shearer, has one mission--aside from attempting to garner a retraction from The Atlantic. That mission, in Shearer's words, is "to do a new type of journalism" based entirely on firsthand accounts of people who were there, rather than filtered through a reporter. "It's an experiment," she says.

So far, her rally against "American Ground" has failed to elicit much outrage, although she has gotten the attention of Gary Hill, chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists' Ethics Committee. "At this point, we're just saying she's raised some serious questions," says Hill, who adds that he has not checked out any of Shearer's allegations and is just taking her at her word. Whether his committee will actually look into Shearer's claims was unclear in December. "So far," he says, "it hasn't raised that much discussion" within the group.

In an October column for Slate headlined "Lay off Langewiesche," Timothy Noah describes Shearer's "corrections" as "highly emotional and largely incoherent." Noah only discerned six errors in "American Ground," all points he dismissed as "extremely minor." In fact, the majority of Shearer's complaints center on nebulous details (Langewiesche wrote that a firefighter took medical leave because of a self-described "minor heart attack," but she says the man did not actually suffer a heart attack), disagreements over exact numbers (he wrote that "as many as 250" firefighters were unaccounted for in the wreckage; she says the correct figure was 253) and--perhaps most commonly--semantic disagreements.

In one section where Langewiesche describes firemen venturing "like sightseers" into a subway tube, Shearer responds: "The depiction of visual inspections of a dangerous environment by trained and dedicated firefighters as 'sightseers' is inaccurate and an injustice to those who risk their lives in professional service and in their extensive training."

Jay Rosen, chairman of New York University's department of journalism, says no one doubts that firefighters deserve untold thanks and praise, but attacking Langewiesche for an open-eyed, honest account of the cleanup at Ground Zero serves no good purpose. After all, depicting realistic, three-dimensional people is the most any journalist can hope to accomplish. "I think that the defense of the firefighters, particularly by Ms. Shearer, does a disservice to the people who showed so much courage, by insisting on this portrait that we intuitively know cannot be true," Rosen says.

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