On the morning of 9/11, columnist Juan Gonzalez of New York's Daily News was in Brooklyn, covering the city's mayoral primary, when he heard about the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. He headed on foot toward lower Manhattan, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge as the second tower collapsed. Arriving at Ground Zero, he began interviewing people. "It was pitch-black in lower Manhattan in the middle of the day," he remembers. "It was obvious there was a lot of pretty nasty stuff in the air." He would be the first to report on just how nasty it was.
Newsday's Laurie Garrett was on the Brooklyn Bridge when the towers collapsed. "You saw this massive amount of stuff coming down," she says. It struck her as odd that people were spitting out the dust and blowing their noses, but not coughing. She wondered why.
Christine Haughney, a 1999 Columbia University J-school grad who works as an editorial aide in the Washington Post's New York bureau, raced to the scene via subway. Almost instantly, she was coated with soot. Later, when Bureau Chief Michael Powell told her to follow the air pollution angle, she eagerly agreed. "It seemed a logical story," she says.
Andrew Schneider, deputy assistant managing editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, listened carefully as Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman proclaimed two days after the attack that "there appears to be no significant levels of asbestos dust in the air in New York City." He'd seen photos of the scene and knew a lot about toxic materials. "What everybody was saying didn't make sense," he says.
In the first weeks and months after the disaster, questions about health concerns from the World Trade Center collapse took a back seat to reporting on global terrorism, heroic acts and the loss of life. As time wore on, however, it became the story of concern to tens of thousands of New Yorkers and others.
Yet coverage has been inconsistent, ranging from repeated reassurances that the air is safe to fearsome headlines about toxins and cancer. That disparity--along with early suspicions about bias and motives on the part of government and the media--left Manhattan residents distrustful of what they were told. And hungry for answers that may not be known for years.
Not since the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania have reporters and government officials faced such an Everest-size task of communicating complex information to a frightened public. As at TMI, officials in New York were loath to concede they were in the dark, and as a result, offered erroneous and misleading information about the situation. Like TMI, the best stories often lay hidden in inconsistent statements and arcane technical data--awaiting discovery by curious reporters.
All too often after 9/11, however, journalists simply accepted the party line from city, state and federal officials. With a few notable exceptions, the New York media took months to zero in on a story that touched the lives of thousands. "This was as difficult an environmental health assignment as you can get," says Eric A. Goldstein, who tracks air-quality issues as head of the Natural Resources Defense Council's New York Urban Program. The subject was extremely complex, but it also was politically delicate. "How far should the media go in highlighting facts that raise uncomfortable ambiguities on health issues at a time when America seemed to be under attack?" For both reasons, says Goldstein, who followed government response and related news accounts, "it took a while [for the media] to get their bearings."
Jonathan Bennett of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a coalition of labor unions and worker safety activists, also tracked the coverage; he has been e-mailing news stories and government documents to more than 300 reporters since shortly after September 11. "A lot of important information hasn't been well communicated to the people who needed to have it," says Bennett. "The media in New York have not been particularly interested."
That view is shared by Alyssa Katz, editor of City Limits, a nonprofit magazine about New York City affairs. On 9/11, she watched as a giant plume of smoke passed over her Brooklyn house. "The whole neighborhood was raining paper and dust." As the months passed and health complaints among New Yorkers mounted, she thought her colleagues were missing an obvious story. Asked by an editor at The American Prospect to analyze the coverage for the magazine, her late-February article pulled no punches. "If government officials hoped to minimize fears that lower Manhattan was no longer a safe place to live or work, they had plenty of help from New York's media." The exception, she wrote, was Juan Gonzalez at the Daily News.
Public health experts also found in-depth coverage of the subject lacking. Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, chairman of the department of community and preventive medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, says he found the New York Times' coverage initially to be soft. "In the early weeks, they were awfully reassuring. Their first reaction was to dismiss the possibility of asbestos."
"Reporters have to be sophisticated thinking through the motives of government officials," he adds. "Why did Christie Whitman say on day two that there was no asbestos hazards, a position at variance with her own agency's data?"
Landrigan, who was often interviewed on the health risks, thinks the Times' coverage improved as debate grew over the safety of returning to contaminated apartments. "Serious mistakes were made" in the haste to get people back into their homes, he believes. The premature return--and bungled advice from the city of New York on proper decontamination of those homes--might result in a few additional cases of cancer, he says. Otherwise, Landrigan believes, the risk of long-term health problems for those living and working in lower Manhattan is not high, "but it's not zero, either."
Clearly, everyone was maneuvering through uncharted territory. That includes environmental experts, public health authorities, government leaders and, of course, journalists.
"We have no precedent to turn to, no scientific model," says Newsday's prize-winning science and medical writer Laurie Garrett. Even so, she says, the subject is "a damn big story" that the media have been slow to pursue.
The New York Times' metro environment reporter Kirk Johnson agrees with Garrett on one point: "No one had ever been anywhere like this before." As a result, he says, "there's no huge base of knowledge to fall back on." For example, will short-term exposures like those that occurred near the World Trade Center produce health problems years later? No one knows.
Johnson says one principle dictated the Times' coverage--"To make sure we knew what we were talking about."
From the outset, the Times relied heavily on statements from federal authorities.
Three days after 9/11, the paper offered this assessment: "[T]ests of air and the dust coating parts of Lower Manhattan appeared to support the official view expressed by city, state and federal health and environmental officials: that health problems from pollution would not be one of the legacies of the attacks. Tests of air samples taken downwind of the smoldering rubble...disclosed no harmful levels of asbestos, lead or toxic organic compounds, officials of the federal Environmental Protection Agency said yesterday."
That was what the experts--and the Times--continued to repeat long afterward.
Trouble was, months after the terrorist attacks, thousands of lower Manhattan residents and workers were hacking and wheezing; their homes and offices were loaded with powdery residues; private testing of building interiors showed worrisome amounts of asbestos; and they just weren't buying that line--no matter how many times they heard it. "There was a real disconnect between what government was saying and what a lot of people were experiencing," says the NRDC's Goldstein.
Consider stories published over three days in 2002. On September 29, Kirk Johnson transported Times readers back a half-century to a six-day air-pollution siege in Manhattan that bore an uncanny resemblance to conditions immediately after the terrorist attacks. "A dry, wheezing, watery-eyed cough became common," he wrote. "Smoke and haze drifted across the region."
Johnson's anecdotal lead that Sunday was intended to illustrate "how little science knew" about the health effects of air pollution on New Yorkers in the 1950s. "If air pollution victims in 1953 were in the dark because they couldn't know," wrote Johnson, "some Manhattan residents now are perhaps just as in the dark because of what they cannot accept."
The next day, Newsday launched a two-part series, starting with "City Struggles to Contend with Widespread WTC Cough," written by Garrett. (Delthia Ricks wrote the other story, "Assessing the Scope of WTC Ailments.") Although both articles were full of caveats about what science didn't know about the cause of the respiratory afflictions, they provided fascinating insights into the chemistry of the dust and its impact on the human lung. Garrett also reported that the EPA's air-testing program, designed to measure asbestos levels or other toxins, "may be inappropriately focused." Microscopic bits of glass may pose a far greater health hazard than the experts originally believed, she wrote.
The Times and Newsday stories are just one example of widespread disparities in tone and substance. A review of nearly 200 news stories written about health implications for those near Ground Zero reveals other significant differences--and some major lapses. On occasion, reporters forgot journalism's First Commandment: If it doesn't ring true, figure out why. Often, they didn't recognize another commandment, inherent to the World Trade Center health stories: Some questions have no immediate answers, and that's news, too.
About 10 days after the World Trade Center attacks, the Daily News' Juan Gonzalez got a phone call from Joel Kupferman, head of the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project, a shoestring public-interest firm.
Kupferman told Gonzalez he had had dust samples from near Ground Zero analyzed by two private companies. The tests showed levels of asbestos up to five times higher than federal safety guidelines. They also detected significant amounts of fiberglass. At the time, federal and city officials were urging residents and workers to return to their homes and offices near Ground Zero. Schools in the neighborhood were set to reopen. Was Gonzalez interested?
Kupferman's information confirmed Gonzalez's suspicions. "My gut instincts told me the [EPA] statements just couldn't be based on any kind of accurate assessment," he says. "I wanted to look a little more." So did Kupferman; he filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the EPA's testing data.
On September 28, Gonzalez detailed Kupferman's findings in a column headlined "Health Hazards in Air Worry Trade Center Workers." Five days later, the EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration began posting outdoor air-quality measurements around lower Manhattan on their Web sites. In a press release, Whitman said: "Our data show that contaminant levels are low or nonexistent, and are generally confined to the Trade Center site. There is no need for concern among the general public...." By then, tens of thousands of Financial District workers and thousands more residents had returned to their dust-filled offices and homes.
By October 9, when Gonzalez again took up the asbestos topic, the Times, Newsweek, the Associated Press and the Daily News (in its news columns) had also tackled rising public concerns about air quality. The AP and the Daily News quoted federal officials saying the levels of asbestos and other contaminants near Ground Zero posed no health risks. Newsweek, however, reported there was "more asbestos at [the] disaster site than previously revealed," according to an independent air-quality testing firm. The magazine raised the prospect that the EPA was using less-sophisticated testing equipment than the private contractors and thus was not detecting pulverized fibers prevalent at Ground Zero.
The Times' Susan Saulny and Andrew C. Revkin, a health-science reporter, wrote on October 6: "The Environmental Protection Agency has tested the air in Lower Manhattan more than 1,000 times and has concluded that it does not show dangerous levels of contamination." However, they added, "The intense fear of contaminated air has spread throughout downtown and taken on a life of its own, despite repeated assurances by the authorities, becoming one of the more unexpected and unmanageable side effects of the trade center disaster."
Gonzalez's October 9 column picked up on Newsweek's lead. "Asbestos contamination inside buildings near the World Trade Center site may be far worse than government officials have reported...," he wrote. By now, he had the results of the same private toxicology tests Newsweek cited. Those tests were performed for the owner of two office buildings near Ground Zero, and the private monitors were finding asbestos the feds were missing. According to EPA spokeswoman Mary Mears, those tests involved vacuuming fibers out of carpets; there is no requirement for the EPA to perform this level of extraction. All health guidelines, the agency notes, are based on ambient air levels of asbestos.
"Even as they were reassuring the public," Gonzalez told his readers, "EPA officials distributed respirators late last week to their employees in the Federal Building...a few blocks from the Trade Center site."
Two days later, the Times published "Air Quality: Contaminants Below Levels for Long-Term Concerns," by Johnson and Revkin. Independent air tests commissioned by the Times concluded that "outdoor street level air in the vicinity of the trade center site does not contain poisons or toxic substances, especially lead and asbestos, in levels sufficient to raise long-term public health concern." Those findings "essentially mirrored" EPA findings, the paper reported.
The newspaper decided to do its own testing, Johnson said later, because "we had so many people calling me and the Times saying they didn't believe what the government [or anyone else] was reporting."
However, he adds, "I don't know that that reassured anybody."
Throughout his reporting, Johnson says, he tried to clearly differentiate the two groups at risk: those at Ground Zero and those a short distance away. "The scientific evidence does support a cautiously optimistic outcome for the vast majority of people who were not exposed for extended periods at Ground Zero," says Johnson. "That is a wholly separate thing from Ground Zero.... [And] that's where journalism has gotten in trouble on this." (Gonzalez also wrote about both areas, and made distinctions.)
At the Daily News in late October, Gonzalez was eyeing 800 pages of raw data, the response to Joel Kupferman's FOIA request. The numbers showed high levels of contaminants--PCBs, benzene, lead and chromium--at monitoring sites around lower Manhattan, as well as at Ground Zero. Kupferman was itchy to get the data out to the public; Gonzalez wanted more time to assess the numbers, which seemed at odds with everything the EPA was saying.
Uncertain what to do, Gonzalez sought advice from his boss, then-Metro Editor Richard Pienciak, who as an AP reporter had covered the Three Mile Island accident and many environmental and pollution issues. Pienciak reviewed the reams of data and helped Gonzalez make sense of the significance of the numbers.
Gonzalez led the October 26 Daily News with a column on the high readings documented in the FOIA results. The headline: "Toxic Nightmare at Disaster Site."
"That unleashed a firestorm," says Gonzalez, who adds, "I wasn't too happy with the headline. It was a little too tabloidy."
EPA and city officials immediately attacked the column as irresponsible and a misinterpretation of testing data. Five days later, the News published an op-ed article by the EPA's Whitman defending her agency and saying the high readings cited by Gonzalez were taken out of context.
As the controversy flared, Gonzalez says he felt the heat from inside, too. "From that day on, the whole attitude toward the story changed. I did several more columns, but every one of them was highly scrutinized." He was assigned to a variety of editors.
Edward Kosner, editor in chief at the Daily News, says the change of editors and closer scrutiny were warranted because of the "investigative" nature of Gonzalez's columns, especially in light of complaints from City Hall and the EPA. "At the same time they were beefing, we wanted to make sure that our stories were as double-riveted as they could be."
Did he have concerns about Gonzalez's take on the data? "Maybe more interpretation was put on those readings than perhaps they deserved," he says. "Maybe [the high readings] were temporary spikes," and not reflective of general conditions--the point made by Whitman in her op-ed. In the end, however, Kosner's view of the column was reflected in its placement. "It was a good story. That's why we put it on page one."
Gonzalez stuck with the subject, learning as he went. "There are no federal safety levels for most of these contaminants," he says. "The EPA tried to portray that they had the situation under control, when the reality was, they didn't."
The agency should have leveled with people about possible risks, he says, "and let them make up their own minds. When you tell people there's nothing to worry about and [that] everything is OK, you're lying to them. To me, that was the big problem."
The same day Daily News readers were greeted by the "Toxic Nightmare" column, New York Times readers saw this story: "Air quality in Lower Manhattan has gradually improved since the early days.... But at certain times, under certain conditions--usually for brief periods--the bad air still returns.... [M]ost people need not worry."
At the Times, which won four Pulitzers for its terrorism coverage, reporters Johnson and Revkin worked their sources to better understand the complexities. "It came down to what we know and what we don't know," says Revkin. "Many times in situations like this, leaders, elected officials and the media try to portray things we don't know. We were, I think, bending over backwards to be sure we were reporting a risk only if we knew it, whereas others, I feel rather strongly, were flipping it the other way."
Asked for an example, Revkin cites the Daily News. "Some of the headlines were unnecessarily alarmist and not supported by the facts."
Gonzalez has his own assessment of the competition's coverage. "The Times was and has continued to be total apologists for the EPA on just about everything."
Somewhere in the middle lurked some great, unwritten stories. Yes, as the Times repeatedly reported, air quality in lower Manhattan met federal health and environmental standards. In reality, however, those standards had no track record; they had been hastily cobbled together after 9/11 by scientists estimating the levels of risk. That whole process cried out for detailed coverage.
Yes, Gonzalez had a lot of frightening numbers from indoor and outdoor air measurements, and made the most of the conflicts between that data and official statements. But for people deciding whether to return or stay away, the numbers meant little without more explanation.
In the end, readers must have wondered if the two newspapers were covering the same event.
The NRDC's Eric Goldstein thinks most of the media were slow to ask hard questions. "The early pronouncements by the EPA administrator [that the air was safe] determined much of the way the media thought about this issue for months," he says.
He also believes the media and government officials underestimated how sophisticated the public can be. "Most Americans can accept some uncertainty on complex health issues," says Goldstein. "But they really get distressed when they sense government agencies aren't leveling with them or are trying to manage the news."
Many came to suspect that the official line of touting the good news was rooted in a desire by government and media bosses to get life, and the city's battered economy, back to normal. The EPA's Mears says: "The goal was to get the city back to normal, but it was never at the expense of the health of the people of New York. I never heard any conversation 'We have to reopen downtown; the hell with the [monitoring] information.' If our monitors had shown anything of concern, we surely would not have pushed for a reopened Manhattan."
Did the hometown media share that same craving? Newsday's Laurie Garrett thinks they might have.
"Every media outlet in town took a huge hit financially," she says. "It's hard for any news organization that's based on advertising revenues to resist a certain level of boosterism for the community that's the base of their advertising. Did that directly affect editorial policy at Newsday? I didn't see it happen, and I never had anybody say to me they were thinking that way."
Another, subtler, force might also have been at work: reporters' own hunger for life pre-9/11.
"For many of us living in New York, there was a psychological effect. Either we became very fearful, or we became New York-proud, defiant and angry," says Garrett. "I think it would be naïve in the extreme to think that our reporting would have been unaffected by that experience."
Garrett sees another problem in the media's coverage: The good guy/bad guy paradigm didn't fit. "The longer you follow the World Trade Center [health] story, you realize you can't point to the EPA and say these guys were terrible and negligent. It doesn't play out in that obvious fashion," she says. "You can't point to the activists and say, 'You guys are taking advantage of this catastrophe.'... Everybody is equally misfocused.
"We just aren't good in the media where there's no clear enemy but rather just a disturbing finding. Uncertainty is something reporters don't like to deal with."
In mid-January 2002, the out-of-town media jumped on the story. What had been largely a local issue now moved to the national stage, as reporters from St. Louis and Los Angeles detailed the fears and doubts afflicting many residents of lower Manhattan and highlighted the conflicting assessments of environmental risks. Some in New York welcomed the newcomers' arrival. But it also fed suspicions that the hometown media had taken a walk on the story.
"It was really people from out of town who were doing the best stories," says Marilena Christodoulou, then-president of the Stuyvesant High School Parents' Association, which at the time was locked in a bitter battle with the city's Board of Education over cleanup at the prestigious school near the World Trade Center. The school reopened a month after 9/11. "That gives you the impression that somehow there had been pressure put on the editors of the New York newspapers to keep it quiet--some misplaced patriotic interests or something."
The Los Angeles Times' Josh Getlin wrote of New Yorkers' brewing distrust of official claims on air quality, especially as attention turned to indoor pollution levels in homes and schools.
With a headline that screamed tabloid (except for its length), the St. Louis Post-Dispatch told Sunday readers: "NY Officials Underestimate Danger; 1 in 10 people exposed could be at risk of death, researchers say; Health authorities still insist that nearby homes, offices are safe; Hidden dangers lurk in the dust."
Andrew Schneider's 2,800-word January 13 article noted that government teams were using 20-year-old testing methods to assess asbestos levels. Private testing performed for labor unions, tenant groups, contractors and others used more sophisticated equipment and found dangerously high levels of asbestos inside buildings yet to be decontaminated, he wrote. Schneider quoted one of the EPA's own about the implications. "For every asbestos fiber EPA detected, the new methods used by the outside experts found nine," said Cate Jenkins, a senior EPA chemist in Washington, who became something of a media celebrity for her outspokenness. "This is too important a difference to be ignored if you really care about the health of the public."
Schneider contrasted the EPA's performance in lower Manhattan to its actions in Libby, Montana, where asbestos contamination led the EPA to declare the town a Superfund site in 2002 and institute extensive decontamination efforts to rid homes and the community of the fibers. In New York, the EPA wanted no part of indoor testing or cleanups--for the moment, at least.
About three weeks later, Schneider reported that some dust from the trade center was "as caustic as liquid drain cleaner." The alkaline dust burns moist tissue such as throats, eyes and nasal passages, and could explain the rash of respiratory problems afflicting New Yorkers, he wrote. Early warnings from the U.S. Geological Survey about the dust's toxicity had been ignored by other federal agencies, Schneider reported.
As they had with Gonzalez's column, EPA officials criticized Schneider's stories, saying he misrepresented the data and sensationalized the health implications. "I was disturbed and frustrated," says spokeswoman Bonnie Bellow, who complained to Schneider's editors.
On February 8, the New York Times' Kirk Johnson also addressed at length the uncertainty plaguing lower Manhattan, profiling 5-year-old Phoebe Kaufman and her parents, who worried about returning home amid conflicting reports on health risks. "There's no one to turn to" for information, said Phoebe's mother, Elizabeth Berger.
"This being New York, the diversity of conclusions is boundless," wrote Johnson. "Some people see downtown as a toxic nightmare, a kind of Manhattan Love Canal that has permanently poisoned the area's buildings and apartments with asbestos or chemicals. Others believe the risks are overblown or nonexistent."
Johnson described the "war of data and interpretation," with residents caught in the backwash of conflicting claims about air quality and safety. Pronouncements of air safety have not been disproved by the more than 10,000 samples gathered by the EPA, he wrote, but added that some residents and physicians distrust those findings. "[N]o answer seems certain, scientifically airtight, or obvious."
In early May, amid growing political and public pressure, the EPA reversed itself and announced it would lead the effort to test and clean an estimated 30,000 apartments in lower Manhattan. The EPA's Bellow explained the about-face: "It was certainly not a political decision. It was a decision based on a combination of looking at the science and the public need, and need includes people's concerns."
The day after the EPA's announcement, a Wall Street Journal story proclaimed "Buck-Passing Delayed EPA in 9/11 Cleanup." Reporter Jim Carlton's account began: "What took the Environmental Protection Agency eight months to assume responsibility for potential asbestos problems in homes in lower Manhattan...?" Carlton described how federal officials handed over responsibility to the city, which in turn delegated testing and cleanup to building owners and residents. He also provided new details about discrepancies in test results when electron microscopes were used to analyze dust versus the older method recommended by city health officials.
Over the next several months, preliminary research results began to document (but not explain) illnesses afflicting not only rescue workers but others outside Ground Zero. Studies found elevated rates of physical and emotional symptoms among faculty and staff at Stuyvesant High School, for example. Dozens of other inquiries are under way, and long-term health monitoring programs are being organized.
In late August, Newsday's Garrett raised a new question about those potentially at risk. Satellite photos taken on 9/11 by NASA showed a plume of dust engulfing Brooklyn. Garrett wrote that despite this, federal attention has focused only on lower Manhattan. Brooklyn's 2.4 million residents could also be in danger, she noted.
By the time the one-year anniversary stories began appearing last fall, the "toxic legacy" of the World Trade Center disaster was a prominent theme. The L.A. Times' Maggie Farley wrote that a "toxic cocktail containing many times the legal maximum levels of cancer-causing agents lingers everywhere." Newsweek observed that "the health impact on workers at the site and on lower Manhattan residents remains largely unknown."
The New York Times wrote about the impending publication of two medical studies documenting cases of "respiratory disability" among New York City firefighters in a September 10 story. The article described the potential forced early retirements of as many as 500 firefighters who had been exposed to dense clouds of dust, smoke and fumes at the World Trade Center.
In an article published in The American Prospect in late October, Laurie Garrett explored a theme that has been largely ignored by other media. "Health and environmental activists have focused their fears on the enemies they know," Garrett wrote, "asbestos and PCBs." Early results from the EPA's indoor testing show only 1 percent of the samples exceeded federal limits for regulated pollutants, she wrote.
But what if real threats lie in contamination by other enemies--chemicals and particulates for which there are no standards?
"The most immediate and inescapable lesson...is that the regulatory framework in which environmental problems are addressed in the United States is probably too narrowly conceived to be useful in the face of events of the scale and complexity of the 9-11 disaster," Garrett wrote.
The same can be said of the journalistic framework. On some issues, no amount of interviews or digging will produce a conclusion. Is the uncertainty any less newsworthy than facts? Absolutely not--but only if readers know that the reporter has done the requisite research and still has come up empty.
Environmental officials got into trouble in the aftermath of 9/11 by providing assurances that later rang hollow in the public's ear. The media's credibility also was jeopardized because what people were reading bore little resemblance to what they were seeing with their own eyes. Here was a case where the public would far rather accept uncertainty than palliatives.
Ask the reporters who have followed the health issue for their predictions on how the story will end, and the responses are as diverse as the coverage.
"I think it's going to fade away," predicts the Times' Andrew Revkin.
Andrew Schneider disagrees. "This is a story that has to be followed." If the post-9/11 health debate teaches us anything, Schneider says, it is that "things have changed. The regulations, unfortunately, have not."
Who will be proven right?
Says Garrett: "We won't know the answer for a couple of decades."