Saturday, September 10, 2011

There Were Heroes of 9-11 -- And Then There Were These Characters ...

There were the heroes of 9-11, including the firemen who ran into the burning buildings with their colleagues who would be doomed (343 of them, including the paramedics) -- in part because Rudy Giuliani and his high-school-dropout police commissioner Bernie Kerik failed to prepare for that second, most devastating attack on the World Trade Center (the first was in 1993), even to the extent of ensuring that the Police Department and Fire Department had radios that actually worked across department boundaries.

The heroes we have read about.

But let's not forget some of the more loathsome characters of 9/11.

There was of course Giuliani, mayor of New York and putative urban hero of 9/11, who managed to cloak himself in the ashes of the catastrophe while afterward nimbly sidestepping serious charges of neglect and misfeasance. For example, even though there had been a previous terrorist bombing at the World Trade Center in 1993, Giuliani subsequently had the city's grandiose new emergency command center built at what was demonstrably a terrorist target -- yes, he had it built at the World Trade Center.

The command center was a swell set-up, too, till the 9/11 attacks rendered it totally useless in a crisis. As Wayne Barrett wrote in the Village Voice:

"Giuliani's office [in the bunker] had a humidor for cigars and mementos from City Hall, including a fire horn, police hats and fire hats, as well as monogrammed towels in his bathroom. His suite was bulletproofed and he visited it often, even on weekends, bringing his girlfriend Judi Nathan there long before the relationship surfaced. He had his own elevator."

Well, he did till the place was destroyed along with the rest of the World Trade Center on 9/11, that is.

Rudy's police commissioner, Kerik, also had a love-nest (as the tabloids say) with 9/11 connections. It was a two-bedroom apartment in the riverside Battery Park City complex, overlooking the World Trade Center ruins. The apartment had been donated for the use of exhausted police and rescue workers at the scene, but was instead requisitioned by Kerik for his personal use. As the Times put it, "Mr. Kerik and Judith Regan engaged in an extramarital affair there." Regan, of course, was the celebrity editor who had published Kerik's best-selling autobiography in 2001.

Giuliani "ran his administration as if terrorist threats simply did not exist, too distracted by pet projects and turf wars to attend to vital precautions," as Wayne Barrett and Don Collins argued in their book "Grand Illusion: The Untold Story of Rudy Giuliani and 9/11".

Kerik, meanwhile, later created a big mess after President Bush sent him, at Giuliani's recommendation, to war-torn Iraq in a high-level post as czar in charge of rebuilding the Iraqi police forces, where he was an utter failure. Even Senator John McCain, no stranger himself to reckless personnel choices, denounced the Giuliani-led appointment of Kerik to the crucial Iraq job as "irresponsible." Here's a link.

Kerik later had to withdraw his nomination as Bush's Homeland Security secretary (another Giuliani special) when it became clear that his claimed record for probity was, well, in some dispute.

Still, Kerik's audacity remains invincible. Here's a link, to the Special 9-11 Edition of the right-wing blog Newsmax, in which Kerik regales readers with his recollections of 9/11. Hilariously, Newsmax published this palaver without mentioning that Kerik wrote the piece from a prison cell, where he is currently serving a four-year sentence for fraud.

(Incidentally, Newsmax provides a box to opt for purchasing its commemorative edition with Kerik's thoughtful essay. "Yes, send me my 9/11 Tenth Anniversary Commemorative Set plus my free three-month subscription to Newsmax magazine for the special limited price of just $69.95. I realize this is a savings of almost $80 off the list price.")

Elsewhere, in a blog post headlined "The Years of Shame," Paul Krugman cuts through the anniversary sentimentality and notes that the calamity of 9/11 was exploited by shameless opportunists -- "fake heroes" who "raced to cash in on the horror." He cites among these "fake heroes" Giuliani (who I note was a Vietnam draft-dodger), not to overlook those other phony warriors George W. Bush (AWOL from the National Guard during Vietnam, as I can't help recalling) and Dick Cheney (a five-time Vietnam draft dodger).

Along with these titans, I'm also remembering today one of the piss-ants of 9/11 hypocrisy, a journalist called William Langewiesche.

In 2002, Langewiesche (pronounced Langa-VEE-sha) wrote a lengthy and widely acclaimed account in three installments in the Atlantic Monthly magazine, later published as a book. A much-discussed section of that dramatic account accused New York City firemen of looting blue jeans from a destroyed store during the immediate response at the World Trade Center site -- somehow finding the time to boost the jeans from a destroyed shop amid the sheer terror at the scene, with bodies falling from the sky and debris raining down even before the second tower collapsed. (The firemen accused of looting by Langewiesche all died at the scene, the Fire Department later pointed out.)

What a stunning, sensational charge, full of drama! What a story!

O.K., so the story turned out not to be true -- but still, what a swell narrative! And the narrative, as Langewiesche, his editors and his defenders in the media have argued, is what was important -- not the inconvenient details of the actual truth; not the pesky requirement that someone writing journalism needs to attend to the not-inconsequential matters of accuracy and fairness.

The Langewiesche case bears some 10th anniversary scrutiny, because the author of those calumnies has managed to avoid a reckoning while papering over his malfeasance. He's off scott-free with the passage of time, much like the repellant Al Sharpton has managed to overcome the fallout from the Tawana Brawley criminal hoax that he helped perpetuate, basically by brazening it out over the decades while his critics got weary and just faded away as those who vaguely recalled the hysteria of the case merely shrugged and said, "Well, there must have been something to the charges." (There wasn't.)

George Black, a journalist and author, was among a group of outraged critics who argued that the ugly incident of looting by firemen at the World Trade Center site that Langewiesche described in his Atlantic article, and in his book, could not have happened. Repeat: Could not have happened.

In a 2003 article, New York Times reporter David Carr wrote that Black sent his report debunking the looting incident to Langewiesche's publisher, and charged that Langewiesche had "passed off demonstrably unfounded rumor as plain fact, with a reckless disregard for both elementary procedures of verification and the likely harm his reporting would cause."

Incidentally, all of the firefighters on Ladder 4, the group Langewiesche clearly referred to in his looting charges, died that day at the site.

Carr wrote that Langewiesche "chose not to rebut Mr. Black's critique because, he said, it indicts him for assertions he believes he did not make. But Mr. Langewiesche acknowledges now, as he has since the uproar began, that he did not himself witness the scene, and instead relied on the testimony of others who said they had been present. (Italics are mine)

"'I was not writing about any particular company,' he said in the interview. 'I was writing about an incident that occurred on the pile. I purposely did not name a fire company. It is like two objects sailing past each other. He is arguing about something that I am not arguing about.'"

Langewiesche easily shifts gears, claiming that the looting incident was merely something he had heard about, neither witnessing it nor even bothering to investigate its veracity. Carr's story quotes Langewiesche: "'The people who told this to me were extremely reliable and had shown themselves to be people without any agenda,' Mr. Langewiesche said. 'These people cannot, because of the political climate over this issue, go on the record. They have seen what happened to me.'"

Ah, of course, Langewiesche was a victim.

According to Carr, Rebecca Saletan, the editorial director of North Point Press, which had published Langewiesche's book with the incident, "'American Ground," said that the passage concerning the truck and the allegedly looted jeans from a store near the site would be "amended" in the paperback version of the book.

Like other Langewiesche defenders, Saletan airily dismissed the charges. "He will both clarify his meaning in the text and discuss in the afterword some aspects of the controversy surrounding the passage," Saletan told Carr. (I would have asked her to explain why she signed off on those passages in the first place. On the other hand, Saletan did tell Mediabistro in 2005: "I'm a big champion of nonfiction, which I believe can be every bit as original and creative as fiction." Italics mine.)

Many others in the media, typically journalists who can only imagine what good street reporting must be like, took the same dismissive stance in defense of Langewiesche. For example, Bob McManus, in Rupert Murdoch’s mightily subsidized New York Post, smugly asserted that Langewiesche "writes about the dirty little secret of the firefighting trade: The tendency of material objects to go missing after the fires are out … "

McManus repeated Langewiesche's unsubstantiated assertions that at the hellish catastrophe of Ground Zero, "The looting was shadowy, widespread and unsurprising . . . it started in the shopping complex, with the innocuous filching of cigarettes and soda pop, and expanded into more ambitious acquisitions . . . Firemen were said to prefer watches from the Tourneau store [and] policemen to opt for kitchen appliances. ... (Italics mine.)

"Then came the morning that yet another crushed fire truck was recovered from the South Tower wreckage: "[When] the hulk of the fire truck appeared, rather than containing bodies . . . its crew cab was filled with dozens of new pairs of jeans from The Gap, a Trade Center store . . . It was hard to avoid the conclusion that the looting had begun even before the first tower fell, and that while hundreds of doomed firefighters had climbed through the wounded building, this particular crew had been engaged in something else entirely ..."

Now, just a minute there, Scoop, regarding that passage above that I italicized. I have worked as a reporter and editor at four major newspapers, among them the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Wall Street Journal, and at any one of them, a reporter who tried to use the phrase "It was hard to avoid the conclusion ..." to cover for a crappy failure of solid street reporting, including failure to seek comment, would end up with a city editor's boot up his butt. (It would be hard to conclude otherwise.)

But Langewiesche got away with it, despite his ridiculous dissembling. In a 2002 interview on NPR's "Talk of the Nation" with Neal Conan, he said of the charges that he had asserted as true something that he could not have known to be true:

"... It didn't bother me at all. It didn't surprise me that people in the Fire Department were doing this [looting], or the Police Department or the construction workers. I mean, everybody was - every group, not everybody -- but every group was to some degree involved in .. I mean, there were individuals in those groups. Does that reflect on those groups as a whole? No, it does not. Does it reflect on the actual effectiveness or the meaning of the response, or does it characterize what went on in the private world of the World Trade Center? No, it does not."

And he went on, "It is, again, my job to call it like it is. And I don't participate in, you know, public relations blather about, you know, heroism and such things when there's no call for it. I mean, this is a straightforward piece of writing about a straightforward subject, and so this did occur. As I say in the piece itself, I don't think it was very important. And it didn't disturb me at all, because I never bought into the sort of the heroic thing and I think very few people at the World Trade Center site did. In fact, I doubt whether many Americans actually did either. I think a lot of that's just a facade; you know, you have to say this stuff."

In November 2002, the New York fire commissioner, Nicholas Scoppetta, got nowhere by writing a letter of protest about the Langewiesche journalism to the Atlantic Monthly magazine. It's useful to review Scoppetta's letter, which said:

"... Langewiesche attempts to substantiate unfounded myths — about the Fire Department, about the rescue operation, about what “really” happened at the World Trade Center— as cold hard facts. And repeatedly, he fails.

"Most preposterous and saddening of all these attempts is his 'jeans' story, in which Langewiesche definitively 'concludes' that firefighters responding to the scene of the World Trade Center chose to loot jeans and stuff them into the cab of their truck rather than help save lives from the burning buildings. It’s an unfounded accusation that unfortunately sets the tone for Langewiesche’s unabashed — and undeserved — attack on the Fire Department.

"Did it not occur to The Atlantic to extensively check the veracity of Langewiesche’s utterly absurd 'conclusion' that jeans were stolen and placed into a fire truck before the South Tower fell, or his equally ridiculous assertion that firefighters were careless about civilian recoveries because they thought themselves 'worthier'? Did anyone at The Atlantic even think twice about printing and in turn endorsing conclusions so preposterous and entirely inconsistent with the facts? I have trouble believing that The Atlantic adequately fact-checked Langewiesche’s piece when substantial evidence and other first-hand accounts of the very same incident lead to significantly different conclusions.

"The evidence which made it 'hard to avoid the conclusion that … while hundreds of doomed firefighters had climbed through the wounded building, this particular crew had been engaged in something else entirely' is questionable at best. Langewiesche cites as evidence the removal of a ladder truck from deep within the rubble of the South Tower; when 'the hulk of the truck appeared, rather than containing bodies … its crew cab was filled with dozens of new pairs of jeans from the Gap, a Trade Center store.' That is the evidence upon which Langewiesche bases his absurd conclusion, and yet the facts of the day point to a very different, far more logical conclusion.

"It is a fact that the men from that truck — Ladder 4 — were actually doing their jobs that day, for the bodies of Ladder 4 members were found near a South Tower elevator along with a Hurst tool that they, in their last moments of life, were using to extract the victims trapped inside. It is a fact that Ladder 4, which was parked at street level near the command center established by the South Tower, was recovered from the B5 Level of the South Tower Parking Lot, well below street level. It’s a fact that the lower floors of the South Tower were occupied by commercial space, and that the force of the building’s collapse spread debris from those commercial spaces — which included stores that sold pairs of jeans — throughout the larger pile of rubble. And it is a fact that other vehicles caught within the collapse were also found with commercial debris blown inside them from the force of the falling building.

"There are at least five eyewitnesses to the recovery of Ladder 4 that attest to the accuracy of these facts and dispute Langewiesche’s version. They include an FDNY recovery team leader, a grappler operator, a member of Local 14 working at the site, and two other FDNY members — a firefighter and a Battalion Chief — also working that night tour. Langewiesche was perhaps unaware of, or chose to disregard these facts. In this one instance of misrepresentation and inaccurate conclusion, Langewiesche clouds the credibility of his larger narrative.

"I find it equally disappointing that, in light of this evidence, The Atlantic has acknowledged neither Langewiesche’s specific errors nor the larger problem of dubious credibility that plagues all three parts of American Ground. Rather than hold up the high standards of ethical journalism, The Atlantic, too, has instead chosen to propagate unsubstantiated myths."

Meanwhile, around the same time, in another interview on NPR's "Talk of the Nation" with Neal Conan, Langewiesche had said, "... I never identified anybody, in my effort not to point fingers, because, for one thing, I also am not a muckraker, you know?" Of course, any good muckraker (and Langewiesche and his media admirers don't seem to understand that muckraking is a respected tradition in journalism), knows that it's very wrong to make up facts to pipe a story line.

Oh yeah, I know about characters like Langewiesche.

How do I know? Well, I've been around the track a couple of times as a reporter, columnist, city editor and national editor. It also so happens that I have personal experience of the curious reporting methods of William Langewiesche.

Frankly, I'm fairly worn out on the subject of the Brazil mid-air collision that I and six others survived over the Amazon in September 2006. The business jet I was riding in on an assignment had inexplicably collided at 37,000 feet with a Brazilian 737, which went down in the jungle, killing all 154 aboard, while we managed an emergency landing in a badly damaged jet 25 minutes later at an airstrip.

I do know the following for a fact about Langewiesche, because he wrote about that disaster. I know for a fact that he makes things up and does not check out assertions, even when witnesses are available.

In a lengthy January 2009 article on the Brazil crash in Vanity Fair, "The Devil at 37,000 Feet," Langewiesche blithely reconstructed the scene during those 25 harrowing minutes on the damaged business jet -- without making the slightest attempt to check out its veracity with me, the only one of the seven survivors who was free to talk about the crash, and who was in fact writing openly about it.

In his fantastical narrative set on the jet after the collision, Langewiesche puts motives and thoughts in my head, and "guesses" at things I might have said on the plane, but did not. He ridicules me for allegedly planning to write a favorable review of the newly delivered business jet -- which was not part of my assignment in Brazil for Business Jet Traveler magazine. In creating this fiction, he asserts that said favorable review by me would likely play naively into the corporate strategies of the villains who sell expensive business jets to the rich and despoil our environment with their trade.

He then uses the occasion to denounce the private-aviation industry that he suggests I was a stooge for. But Langewiesche never discloses to Vanity Fair readers that he, himself, is a private-aviation pilot with his own private plane, and furthermore is the son of the late Wolfgang Langewiesche, who was a prominent figure in the history of private aviation, and a former test-pilot for Cessna. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that some daddy issues might be involved. Wot! Damn, that boot hurts, chief!

Langewiesche neglects to note that the story I did write about that horrific flight appeared on the front page of the New York Times, rather than in a trade magazine, and my account is at variance in several key points to his later account. He neglects to note that he did not talk to me for this Vanity Fair wonder of creative nonfiction, and made no attempt to do so.

And oh, he found it difficult to avoid the conclusion that Business Jet Traveler -- which was, of course, represented by me in that instant, shared the "blame" for the deaths of those 154 people.

It was classic Langewiesche. In the Vanity Fair article he wrote, "Certainly blame should be assigned, some to individuals directly involved, some to cultures in aviation and beyond. You can include the Brazilian generals who insist on militarizing Air Traffic Control, and the sort of software engineers who make even digital cameras tedious to figure out. You can include the corrupted tax structures that allow airplanes as questionable as the Legacy to be built, sold, and flown. You can even include Business Jet Traveler for wanting to ride along. But assigning blame can only go so far."

Well, those italicized words probably warranted a libel suit, some knowledgeable people advised me. But I let it go. Vanity Fair, whose editors were unable to explain to me why Langeqiesche would have been allowed to make such assertions without checking them out, without indicating why he had not talked to me before making them, instead printed a letter from me objecting to Langewiesche's gross negligence.

For me, the takeaway was simple. As a journalist, it's a useful learning experience to actually be written about (not to mention to be accused of sharing blame for 154 deaths) by an unscrupulous reporter too craven to chance a confrontation. Whoa, after all these years, I can fully see what the media is capable of at its worst; how asses get covered by the worst of them, while the best lack the conviction to object.

But for the firemen, police officers, rescue workers and construction crews of 9/11 it's a different thing, because the history of those terrible days and months at the smoking, stinking ruins matters enormously to a great many people-- and Langewiesche has never been held to account for his gross disservice to that history.

For anyone seriously interested in the matter, here's a Web site,, that does what this Langewiesche character does not. It checks the facts and presents them honestly.


1 comment:

James said...


Why does that not apply?