Sep 1 2007

Swift-Boating ‘America’s Mayor’?

Hometown paper rushes to defend Giuliani

When the International Association of Fire Fighters, the nation’s largest firefighters union, released a video challenging the portrayal of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as a hero of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, there were scattered media references to a possible re-run of the Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry during the 2004 campaign. But while media seemed eager to provide a platform for the Swift Boat vets’ false claims (Extra!, 11-12/05), the media reaction to the firefighters was nearly the opposite—particularly at the New York Times, where reporter Marc Santora hurried to put out the anti-Giuliani fire in a July 12 story whose lead called the video “at times factually questionable.”

But besides quoting Giuliani partisans—who predictably differed with the firefighters—Santora offered little evidence that the video was “factually questionable”; in fact, that phrase could more plausibly be applied to Santora’s story. The reporter challenged the video’s claim that the Giuliani administration’s failure to provide proper radios led to firefighters’ deaths on September 11, when they couldn’t hear orders to evacuate the towers. (New York City had been trying to replace the radios since their poor performance during the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, just before Giuliani first took office—Extra!, 5-6/07.)

In an attempt to shoot down this charge, Santora wrote that

there is no dispute . . . that there were communications failures on September 11. But the video highlights the hand-held radios, whereas the central problem, most experts agree, was the failure of a device meant to boost the signal so that it could reach the high floors of the towers.

So who are the “most experts” that back Santora’s claim? The 9/11 Commission report determined that the signal boosters had actually worked (though not necessarily consistently) in the aftermath of the attacks. And the New York Times (4/4/05) had previously reported that the National Institute of Standards and Technology investigation found that the boosters were not the problem, writing that the NIST “report also found that the World Trade Center’s high rise communication repeater was working properly, a finding that contradicts claims by some rescue workers.”

The only other example for Santora’s claim that the video was “factually questionable” was his assertion that the video “implies” that Giuliani was “more concerned about securing some $200 million in gold stored in a basement vault at the World Trade Center than in recovering the remains of the dead.” Santora called this “an accusation widely dismissed by people who closely monitored the cleanup.” The question of what Giuliani was “more concerned about” would seem to be a matter of opinion, not fact, but the factual observations made in the video about the timing of the scale-back of search efforts and the recovery of the gold were accurate.

As FAIR noted in an action alert (7/13/07), it was very unusual for the New York Times to introduce a political statement like the firefighters’ video by labeling it “factually questionable”; the paper could actually do a great deal more to investigate and when necessary rebut political claims. But when political arguments are dismissed with dubious references to the opinions of unnamed “experts” and “people,” the Times appears less interested in keeping the political debate honest than in doing damage control for a favored, locally based politician.

Several weeks later (8/1/07), Times public editor Clark Hoyt responded to FAIR’s alert by granting Santora a chance to further explain himself. But his response more or less reiterated his original argument, writing that the “most glaringly ‘factually questionable’ material in the video was the highlighting of the hand-held radios as the key component in firefighters’ failure to communicate.” Santora went on:

That simply is not true. The 9/11 Commission said that at the heart of the failure to communicate was the failure of the repeater. While it is true that newer, better radios might have made some difference, the 9/11 Commission placed the emphasis on the failure of the repeater.

Santora’s defense does not seem to justify the intensity of his condemnation. Does the fact that the firefighters “highlight[ed]” a different problem than the one on which the Commission “placed the emphasis” really constitute “glaringly factually questionable material”? Particularly with the concession that “it’s true that newer, better, radios might have made some difference”?

Nonetheless, since Santora originally argued that “most experts” were on his side, one would think he would have better documentation—especially since the Commission report is not nearly as definitive as he is suggesting. For example, Port Authority official Alan Reiss testified before the commission that “it appears the repeater system functioned as intended for those who utilized it on September 11.” (It’s also worth noting that the chairs of the 9/11 Commission admitted that they were too soft on Giuliani, calling his questioning a “low point”—New York Times, 8/6/06.)

On the other charge, Hoyt wrote, “On the issue of the gold, Santora said that he knows of no evidence that this charge was raised by the firefighters’ union, which sponsored the video, during the time when there was controversy over how long to continue searching the rubble for remains.”

This betrayed an unfamiliarity with the issue at hand; that controversy was widely reported—including in the New York Times (11/3/01), which reported at the time on the reduction in search efforts described in the video, citing union officials who believed that “city officials seem to care more about removing the hoards of gold and silver underneath the trade center than they do about removing human remains.”

Thus, the video made points the Times reporter was simply not familiar with—hardly adequate grounds to deem them inaccurate.

Despite the fact that Giuliani’s campaign is more or less defined by his September 11 experience, the firefighters’ criticism failed to have much effect on the campaign; one can imagine the Times’ dismissive attitude played no small role. Even where the issue did get attention, it was framed as a story about how adept Giuliani’s advisers were in blunting the video’s impact.

A roundtable on NBC’s Meet the Press (7/15/07) didn’t waste a breath talking about the substance of the debate over Giuliani’s 9/11 management. Democratic strategist Robert Shrum commented that Giuliani “had to fight back. He had a tough week,” and TV faux liberal Al Hunt added: “I think every time this issue is joined, even from critics, Rudy wins. If the issue is 9/11, people think Rudy is the hero. That, I think, is good for Rudy.”

For the sake of political balance, GOP strategist Mike Murphy labeled Giuliani’s response “great,” while conservative columnist Robert Novak was less certain, saying that Giuliani mishandled the situation by referencing the Swift Boats in a negative context. (Republican activists believe they did a great service in criticizing Kerry.)

The national media, of course, served the GOP cause in 2004 by granting the Swift Boats so much airtime to attack what at the time had seemed like one of Kerry’s strengths as a candidate, his military service. The media’s double standard in the treatment of the firefighters’ criticism of Giuliani—which is based on actual evidence—could end up being just as useful to the Republicans in 2008.