Aug
01
2007

Times Reporter Responds on Firefighters

New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt has sent out an email response (which appears in full below) to FAIR activists who responded to a FAIR action alert (7/13/07) about a report calling a firefighters' union video critical of Republican presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani "factually questionable." But the reply, which mainly provides the self-justification of Times reporter Marc Santora, has factual problems of its own.

Santora singled out two examples to back up the "factually questionable" line—more or less restating what he originally wrote:

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.

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—a device designed to boost the radio signal from the lobby to the higher floors of the WTC.

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. (The repeater system and the subsequent failures are discussed on pages 297-301.)

On its face, the description of Santora's complaint does not seem to justify the intensity of his condemnation. Does the fact that the firefighters "highlighted" 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"?

The investigative record further weakens Santora's case.

Santora had originally reported that "most experts" believe the "central problem" was the performance of signal-boosting repeaters inside the World Trade Center towers. But Santora cites four pages of the 9/11 Commission report as his only evidence; while there are parts of the report critical of those signal-boosters, the report's judgment is hardly as definitive as Santora claims. (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.) At one point the Commission report refers to how the firefighters' communication "became more limited and sporadic" in one tower "because of the limited effectiveness of FDNY radios in high-rises." Later on, the report also noted that the repeater channels were being used in the South Tower. And in his testimony to the commission, Port Authority official Alan Reiss said that "it appears the repeater system functioned as intended for those who utilized it on September 11."

If one is claiming that "most experts" have agreed on something, then other evidence is necessary—particularly from researchers with scientific or engineering expertise. The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) conducted a sweeping review of the World Trade Center, and found serious problems with radio communications at the WTC—but not necessarily because the repeaters had failed. As their report noted, radio communication inside both towers using the repeaters was recorded during the rescue efforts. There were problems documented with the hand-held radios, but it is not at all clear that the repeater system was at fault. (Much of the report discusses the overlapping signals and the systemic problem of handling so much radio traffic at once.) As FAIR pointed out in the alert, the New York Times had already reported on the NIST evaluation (4/4/05), noting the "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."

Hoyt also writes:

"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."

That controversy was widely reported—including in the New York Times (11/3/01), which reported on the reduction in search efforts described in the video:

Officials for the two unions that represent uniformed firefighters said this latest reduction set off feelings of hurt and betrayal among many firefighters. They felt that the city was treating hallowed ground as just another construction site, the officials said; that the mayor wanted the site tidied up by December 31, when his tenure ends; 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.

As FAIR pointed out in the original alert, calling political statements "factually questionable" is a rarity in the media. It would be a good thing for the Times to examine the various claims of political figures and to correct inaccurate statements; for example, the paper has recently allowed (7/12/07, 7/20/07) George W. Bush to claim that a proposal to allow his tax cuts to expire would amount to the "largest tax increase in history." That claim is clearly misleading and inaccurate (the Times pointed this out at the end of a story three months ago—4/20/07), but the Times reporters covering Bush did not feel the need to set the record straight—let alone warn readers of Bush's untrustworthiness in the very first paragraphs of those articles.

In the case of the firefighters' criticism of Rudolph Giuliani, a very different standard is being applied. Hoyt's failure to address this double standard is disappointing.

Hoyt's full response to FAIR activists:

Dear Reader,

Thank you for writing about a Times article, published on July 12, that described as "factually questionable" parts of a video assailing former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

The support for the term "factually questionable" was in the final two paragraphs of the article. The first of those paragraphs said that, while the video focused on hand-held radios used by firefighters on 9/11, "most experts" said the real problem was the failure of a device meant to boost radio signals so that they could be heard on the high floors of the World Trade Center. The second paragraph said that the accusation that Giuliani was more interested in recovering gold stored in a basement vault than in finding the remains of the dead was "widely dismissed by people who closely monitored the cleanup."

I asked Marc Santora, the reporter who wrote the story, for more information to back up the assertion that the video was in part "factually questionable." This is some of what he had to say on the issue of the radios:

..

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.

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 - a device designed to boost the radio signal from the lobby to the higher floors of the WTC.

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. (The repeater system and the subsequent failures are discussed on pages 297 -301)

Here is why. The hand-held radios used by both the Police and the FDNY are not designed to transmit through steel and concrete and also can transmit a limited amount of data. The police, years ago, installed "repeaters" throughout the city because they frequently need to be in communication with their headquarters, giving them a sophisticated and functioning network. Firefighters, on the other hand, traditionally did not have to communicate with headquarters.

The Port Authority, not the city, took the lead in installing a "repeater" in the WTC. (page 283 of the 9/11 Commission report)

Therefore, to lay the failure to communicate squarely at the feet of the Mayor is not quite fair.

(A major criticism raised by the commission - and the one that could reflect poorly on the mayor - was the failure of the various city emergency agencies, including the police and fire department, to communicate with each other. The video does not touch on this topic.)

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.

..

Sincerely,

Clark Hoyt

Note: The public editor's opinions are his own and do not represent those of The New York Times.