updated November 20th, 2002




  Atlantic Monthly writer William Langewiesche's "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center" was one of the most praised pieces of post-9/11 journalism published this year. The story of the firefighters, rescue crews, city bureaucrats, engineers and construction workers who reduced the mountainous ruins of the towers to a hole in the ground in less than a year, now out in hardcover, was considered a virtual shoe-in for this year's Pulitzers.

  Published in three parts by The Atlantic (parts 1, 2, 3,) over the course of last summer and early fall, it was a mostly unabashed paean to the men and women who worked at Ground Zero, but contained allegations that crews working on the site had looted office buildings on the site in the weeks and months following the attack. Even more shocking was the story of a fire truck found buried deep in the rubble that, once pried open, reportedly revealed neat piles of jeans looted from a Gap store in the underground mall. It's this allegation in particular that brought out crowds of angry firefighters, and families of fire crews (different articles put the number anywhere from 100 to 150) who died in the collapse, to protest at a Manhattan book signing by the writer this week.

  A New York Newsday piece on the protests carefully qualifies its take on the conflict, allowing doubts about Langewiesche's work to surface, knowing too well that firefighters and supporters of the firefighters are probably more vociferous than they are numerous. "I'm not a truth squad as far as 9/11 goes," they quote Langewiesche as saying, after a statement that he did not personally fact-check everything he heard while he worked on the story. "I am a reporter. I was interested about what people really believed."

  The magazine that originally published his work stands behind the piece, and another Newsday piece has The Atlantic making a statement that the articles were thoroughly fact-checked, but there's an interesting equivocation in the statement: "While there is speculation within 'American Ground', it is open speculation, and in most cases it was included because it was the speculation that was active at the site."

  Phrases like "not a truth squad" and words like "speculation" don't ring with trustworthiness, especially when applied to journalists and their work. In the original article, Langewiesche recalls that the firefighters, embarassed by the discovery of the jeans, tried to explain it away by talking about them getting blown into the truck by the force of the tower's implosion, a scenario that Langewiesche pointedly ridicules. This time around, the firefighters have marshalled better arguments, stating in the NY Daily News that the clothes weren't from the Gap, but from another store, that they were found near, not in the truck, and that remains of members of the truck's crew were discovered near a Hurst prying tool, suggesting that they had died while trying to save lives. (Why the demotion of the incriminating jeans from brand name to generic works in the firefighters' favour is beyond me, but there it is.)

  In a piece on the ITV website, Peter Gorman of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association contemptuously attacks the logic behind Langewiesche's story: "For him to insinuate that a firefighter got off the truck on September 11th and told his captain, 'I'll be right with you Cap, let me go down and grab a couple pair of jeans and I'll be right back inside,' is disgusting." It's the kind of logic that will probably bring a lot of people around the the firefighters' side of the argument.

  Taken together, the articles on the firefighters' confrontation with Langewiesche and his book put the advantage firmly in the firemen's court. All it would take is for someone to draw parallels with Stephen Glass and other recent, notable, lapses in journalistic truth-telling to put Langewiesche and The Atlantic seriously on the defensive. It wouldn't be hard; Glass, and other abusers of the reader's trust of the media, were able to get their fabrications across by appealing to the prejudices and imaginations of editors and readers. Glass was able to hoodwink The New Republic's fact-checkers with a bit of effort, and one must assume that the fact-checkers at Harper's are as assiduous as at The Atlantic, Harper's longtime rival, but Glass got a real lulu across on Lewis Lapham's magazine, and readers such as yours truly, whose only thought when I read Glass' "expose" on phone psychics was envy that he'd made the obvious so compelling.

  I'm not suggesting that Langewiesche made up the story of the Gap jeans in the fire truck - trust me, I'm not - but when you read words like "speculation" and no firm, adamant confirmation that the writer was actually there when the truck was opened, you wonder whether it wasn't just a story that he, and his editors, and ultimately his readers (like myself) wanted to believe, because it seemed so true to some basic, pessimistic assumption about human nature, even in the face of tragedy and noble response.

  There was a rising resentment at the mantle of martyrdom assumed by NYC firefighters in the months after the attack, silently paralleling the flower and gift-covered memorials erected at fire stations all over Manhattan and the boroughs. Langewiesche makes it clear that this resentment was openly aired at Ground Zero, where rescue workers and their city supervisors seethed at what seemed like a firefighter preference toward recovering the remains of their own. A few blocks away, the rest of the world had made them the heroes of 9/11, while at the site of the attack they were considered obstinate, self-righteous, and increasingly difficult to control in a situation that constantly verged on chaos. Besides, nothing is more tiresome, even infuriating, to the average person than the spectacle of virtue, and any writer or editor would welcome an opportunity to go against conventional wisdom and tarnish the halo a bit. More than merely good journalism, it reads like good drama; a tragic flaw, a deserved retribution for the sins of pride and hubris.

  The truth probably lies somewhere between both sides - a pusillanimous kind of statement, I know, but truisms are usually banal - and it's entirely unlikely that it'll ever be known, as the only real witnesses are no longer around. The firefighters have done their job well, though, by casting a pall of reasonable doubt on Langewiesche's story that will attach itself, as nagging as a prominent footnote. There's every reason to believe that, given the American taste for litigiousness, this could end up in court, but it's unlikely that would result in anything but a better standard of living for a few lawyers.

  Some people might regard this as sad, even sordid, a dissolution of the sense of purpose and nobility that arose out of the attacks, and which at one point prompted otherwise intelligent people to pronounce the "death of irony". Far from it, I think this is inevitable, even healthy, since among the advantages western society has over the one imagined by, even lived in, the people who attacked us over a year ago is this disinclination to burnish and ennoble the mythic grievance, a wonderful tendency to mitigate, to criticize, to subvert and debunk and be skeptical. A society that so quickly and disinterestedly begins dismantling its heroes is one that will never wholeheartedly embrace any kind of physical or ideological tyranny. No fantasy of martyrdom or righteousness can evolve into theology here, and that's the way it should be, thank God. (Nov. 19th/2002)


2002 Rick McGinnis all rights reserved