Millionaire Mort Zuckerman sounded like a man of the people last week in his Pulitzer victory speech to the Daily News staff. His paper had just won the prize for editorializing about sick 9/11 first responders, and as his employees sipped champagne, he proclaimed that the honor “reaffirms my belief that this paper fights for people who too often have no voice in this city.”
But the News journalist who does most of that fighting, especially on the 9/11 health issue, Juan Gonzalez, was conspicuously absent from both the party and the speeches. Gonzalez had been the first reporter in the city to deliver the radioactively controversial news in the fall of 2001 that the air near Ground Zero was far less safe than federal and local officials were saying.
City officials, trying to discredit Gonzalez’s scoop, called a press conference, at which Mayor Rudy Giuliani declared that “the problems created . . . are not health-threatening.” In the back channels, as Gonzalez himself later wrote in his book Fallout: The Environmental Consequences of the World Trade Center Collapse, “one of Giuliani’s deputy mayors called a top editor at the
News to complain.” The head of the New York City Partnership and Chamber of Commerce fired off a letter calling Gonzalez’s column “a sick Halloween prank.” EPA director Christie Whitman immediately wrote Zuckerman, accusing Gonzalez of trying to “alarm” people, and her complaint ran on the op-ed page days later. Its opening could scarcely have been more patronizing: “Those of us in government and the media share an obligation to provide members of the public, in a responsible and calm manner . . . ” Gonzalez’s attempts to follow up his scoop were met with the “obvious displeasure of the paper’s top editors,” who delayed and sometimes killed his columns, he wrote in his book. What stories he did get published were relegated to the back of the paper—”behind a refrigerator ad,” as his Democracy Now co-host Amy Goodman put it.
The scars from that battle still mark the newsroom and accounted for some of the “muted applause” during last week’s celebration, staffers say. After all, the irony was pretty stunning: The paper won one of journalism’s highest prizes for writing about illnesses that might have been prevented had the paper not bowed to government and corporate pressure in 2001 and instead kept Gonzalez’s prescient warnings in the public eye.
It’s impossible to say just how much of this irony the Pulitzer judges grasped when they awarded the News its prize. Joel Shufro, executive director of New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health—which is honoring both Gonzalez and the editorial team next month—says his organization’s letter to the Pulitzer board in support of the News editorial writers’ submission also mentioned Gonzalez’s reporting. “We cited Juan as acting in the face of political pressure,” he said. But the letter didn’t mention that much of this pressure came from within his own paper. Gonzalez didn’t name names when he wrote about the Giuliani administration’s private pressure on his editors, but then-editor Ed Kosner tells the Voice he has no memory of such phone calls. But Kosner does say, “Some people who were in positions of authority complained about it.”
Zuckerman says he stands firm on the way his paper handled the story in 2001. “We don’t regret the way the paper treated Juan’s stories,” he says. “We regret the way the EPA treated the facts.”
Editorial writer and winner Arthur Browne wasn’t even at the News in 2001 but is still more charitable—at least in his post-Pulitzer-celebration glow. “I do regret not mentioning Juan the other day,” Browne says. “There’s no reason not to.”
Reached at home, where he is on book leave, Gonzalez is clearly magnanimous, congratulating his colleagues and adding: “My only concern is that, if more journalists, not just at the News but in the rest of the New York media, had had the courage to follow the story back then, maybe there wouldn’t be as many people getting sick or dying now.”