Sep 1 2011

Gullible Reporters, Sick Responders

Relaying offical assurances about unsafe air at Ground Zero

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons / 9/11 Photos

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons / 9/11 Photos

“Not Enough Evidence to Link 9/11 and Cancer, a Federal Report Says.” The New York Times headline (7/27/11) delivered a devastating blow to many Ground Zero first responders, as well as to New Yorkers who lived and worked near the long-smoldering wreckage.

After years of fighting for federal compensation to cover illnesses resulting from exposure to the toxic dust and fumes released by the destruction of the towers, the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act was finally passed in 2010 and took effect in 2011 (thanks in no small part to the Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart, who helped shame filibustering Republicans into relenting).

But there was a catch: Cancer wouldn’t be covered unless a federal review could show peer-reviewed scientific evidence that links Ground Zero to cancers. The problem is, very few peer-reviewed studies have actually been conducted–and because cancer is so widespread in the U.S. population, it’s a more difficult connection to prove.

The evidence will be reviewed again periodically, so hopefully the story doesn’t end here. But it’s worth looking at how it all began.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the government repeatedly emphasized there would be no long-term health risks to those working on clean-up and those who lived in apartments coated with the dust of the pulverized towers and breathed the fumes that still wafted through their neighborhoods for months after 9/11. And with a few important exceptions, the major New York newspapers repeated those reassurances with barely a hint of skepticism, dismissing the urgent fears of residents and the troubling studies that began to emerge (Extra!, 11-12/06).

With little testing completed in the first few days, the media quickly fell in line with official pronouncements. “Monitors Say Health Risk From Smoke Is Very Small,” the New York Times (9/14/01) reported; “Tests: Dust Not a Danger Here,” declared Newsday (9/14/01).

A New York Post article (9/18/01) advised readers that the “best remedy” for their coughs and respiratory problems was simply “to drink lots of water.” In “Dust Is a Problem, but the Risk Seems Small” (9/18/01), the New York Times passed along the official recommendation to clean apartments with mops and wet rags.

Shortly after the Daily News (20/2001-09-20_say_asbestos_fear_exaggerated.html” title=””>9/20/01) featured an environmental consultant’s claim that, as the headline blared, “Asbestos Fears [Are] Exaggerated,” Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez (9/28/01) began reporting independent testing that actually showed worryingly high levels of asbestos. The Times (10/11/01) then did its own testing–and patronizingly announced that its research “suggests strongly that emotion and anxiety have elevated concerns about the air far beyond the levels shared by most scientists and public health experts.”

Despite the fact that the Times‘ testing company couldn’t detect the small particles other independent tests had found, the reporters concluded with reassuring words from a chemistry professor: “This is a tough thing that people in New York are dealing with. But we’re talking here about a short-term, temporary problem.”

Even when an unpublished EPA test was uncovered that showed dioxins, benzene and PCBs were being released, “sometimes at levels far exceeding federal standards” (Daily News, 10/26/01), the Times‘ initial response (11/2/01) was to ignore those results and instead pass along a city environmental official’s startling claim “that although workers at the site were still required to wear respirators and other protective gear, the data suggest that even an unprotected worker would not experience long-term health risks from the levels of poisons that had been detected.”

“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,” said former New York Times environmental reporter Andrew Revkin. (American Journalism Review, 1-2/03). “I think [the 9/11 health story is] going to fade away.”

It wasn’t until nearly three years after September 11, when the paper put reporter Anthony dePalma on the environmental beat, that the Times began publishing more critical coverage of the health effects of Ground Zero. By then, of course, it was too late to help any of those who had worked tirelessly on the Trade Center cleanup or had continued about their daily lives in the midst of the dust and fumes–lulled by the media outlets that had relayed official assurances without scrutiny.