The Haze Over 43rd Street

Will the New York Times ever own up to the failures of its early ground zero health coverage?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has finally joined the urgent campaign to get Washington to care for the responders who helped New Yorkers after the Sept. 11 attacks," read the New York Times editorial page on March 2. Funny to hear the folks on 43rd Street chide the mayor for his late entrance when the paper just got its own thinking straight on the matter. After faulting the mayor for once being skeptical of ground zero illnesses, the editorial high-fived its own foundation for recently pledging aid to sick responders. But a look back at the Times' own coverage shows how the paper had long been as skittish as the mayor about making the WTC-illness connection.

"The persistent pall of smoke wafting from the remains of the World Trade Center poses a very small, and steadily diminishing, risk to the public," reported the Times' Andrew Revkin on the front page three days after the attacks. In a story free of community voices, he uncritically relayed the Environmental Protection Agency's line that "health problems from pollution would not be one of the legacies of the attacks."

That turned out to be false. Yet the Times's most prominent recent statement on the topic was not an exposé on the bureaucratic quagmire that unhealthy responders are now in. Instead, it was a February 13, 2007, front-page takedown of the Daily News' coverage of NYPD officer Cesar Borja, who became a poster boy for 9/11 illnesses when he fell sick with a lung disease after working near ground zero. Sewell Chan and Al Baker used Freedom of Information Act requests to show Borja had not been working near the WTC site until months after his family originally claimed.

The Times aggressively pursued the Daily News' coverage of Cesar Borja (above). The E.P.A's 2001 assurances should have received the same scrutiny.
courtesy New York Daily News
The Times aggressively pursued the Daily News' coverage of Cesar Borja (above). The E.P.A's 2001 assurances should have received the same scrutiny.

The next day, a New York Post editorial delivered the punch the Times pulled. "There is also no substantial reason to believe that [Borja] was sickened by conditions at ground zero, or that he was harmed by government negligence," declared the paper.

"There will be those people who will use [the Borja story] against the effort to get appropriate resources," said Micki Siegel de Hernandez of the Communication Workers of America, which represents many workers affected by the dust.

Chan and Baker's story earned kudos in the media world and will likely deflate the News' Pulitzer application for its 2006 editorial series on sick 9/11 responders. But it further galled downtown residents and activists, who say the Times was the leading mouthpiece for the EPA's initial all-clear message. "The Times just took hook, line, and sinker the information that the government agencies were offering," said Joel Kupferman, head of the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project.

The Daily News was one of the few city papers that questioned the agencies early on. When the NYELJP conducted tests showing higher levels of asbestos than the EPA had reported, News columnist Juan Gonzalez broke the story on September 28, 2001. A month later, he reported on the results of a massive FOIA request by Kupferman, documents that showed the EPA itself had collected evidence that the air was more toxic than it told the city.

Many papers repeated the EPA's assurances, but when people began to complain that the dust was making them sick, the Times was alone in virtually ridiculing them. "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," wrote Revkin and Susan Saulny on October 6, 2001. Susan Edgerley the Times' deputy metro editor at the time, defended the paper's skepticism: "Our coverage was responsible and careful, and we worked hard to learn what we could and what we couldn't know."

The Times' failure to challenge the EPA more forcefully has led to calls for a mea culpa from the paper in the mold of its 2004 apology for failing to question the government's trumped-up case for the Iraq invasion. The Times' public editor, Byron Calame, says don't hold your breath. "I haven't looked into the Times' coverage of 9/11 airborne toxicity because studies haven't come to my attention that clearly linked the air quality to illnesses, specified the number of people affected, and sorted out such factors as the genetic makeup of people," he wrote in an e-mail.

Mount Sinai Medical Center released a report last September that Times reporter Anthony DePalma wrote would "erase any lingering doubts about the connection" between the dust and disease. It was this document that spurred the New York Times Company Foundation to set aside $1 million last week to help treat sick but uninsured 9/11 responders.

"What, the fires kept burning for four months?" said Jack Rosenthal, a lifelong Timesman who became president of the foundation in 2000. "I don't think any reasonable person has any doubt that the respiratory effects were real and related."

So what responsibility does the foundation's namesake have for perpetuating the dangerous early belief that the air was safe?

"If we carried stories, it was because [EPA head] Christine Whitman and Rudy Giuliani made these announcements," Rosenthal said. "I don't know how the paper can be faulted for doing any more than reporting."

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