By Robert B. Bluey
CNSNews.com Staff Writer
April 29, 2004
(CNSNews.com) – The author of a news report critical of the 9/11 Commission is being slammed for allegedly committing numerous errors as well as defaming the commission and its executive director.
It’s not the first time Gail Sheehy’s work has been picked apart. A psychiatrist sued her for plagiarism in 1976 for her “Passages” book, and she caused a stir in 2000 when she opined that then-candidate George W. Bush suffered from dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder.
Now, the Art Science Research Laboratory, a New York-based group that examines news articles for factual accuracy, has released a 65-page report to CNSNews.com that highlights the apparent distortions and false accusations about the 9/11 Commission contained in Sheehy’s Feb. 16 report in the New York Observer.
The nearly 5,000-word article, “Stewardess ID’d Hijackers Early, Transcripts Show,” was an instant hit among critics of the Bush administration, appearing on weblogs as proof of a conspiracy theory to cover up information about the terrorist attacks.
Rhonda Roland Shearer, director of the Art Science Research Laboratory, said the inaccuracies in Sheehy’s report caused harm to the 9/11 Commission and its executive director, Philip Zelikow. Shearer also cited concerns raised by the family of Betty Ong, an attendant on American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the World Trade Center.
“To publicly accuse parties of potential criminal wrongdoing is serious and damaging. That the accusations were based on facts that were only later checked and proven wrong is especially egregious,” Shearer wrote in the report. “The 9/11 Commission and specifically [Executive Director] Philip Zelikow were defamed.”
Shearer said two of the most egregious errors related to the 9/11 Commission are Sheehy’s contention that Zelikow censored part of a phone call placed by Ong during the hijacking and that he hid the content of a separate call made by Amy Sweeney, a flight attendant on the same plane as Ong.
Sheehy, four paragraphs into the article, questions Zelikow’s political allegiance to President Bush as a premise for not disclosing information to commissioners.
“Commissioners were unaware of the crucial information given in an even more revealing phone call, made by another heroic flight attendant on the same plane, Madeline (Amy) Sweeney,” Sheehy wrote.
“They were unaware because their chief of staff, Philip Zelikow, chooses which evidence and witnesses to bring to their attention. Mr. Zelikow, as a former adviser to the pre-9/11 Bush administration, has a blatant conflict,” Sheehy added.
Bush asked Zelikow to oversee the transition team for the National Security Council after the 2000 election. Then, shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Zelikow was appointed to the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.
But Sheehy’s charge that Zelikow withheld information troubles Shearer. She called it “laziness as well as sloppiness” that Sheehy didn’t conduct basic research, which would have likely dramatically changed the premise of her story, according to Shearer.
“Facts in her article,” Shearer said in the report, “should have been subjected to a basic Lexis-Nexis or Google search to check what already has been published by other journalists. A simple search would have made transparent to Sheehy, fact-checkers, or editors the truth that the [Ong] tape was only 4 minutes long. The details of Sweeney’s call … were essentially disclosed in September 2001.”
Because this information wasn’t hidden from commissioners, Shearer concluded, “Sheehy’s reporting created sensationalized non-existent events (such as the claim that the 9/11 Commission openly hides information).”
Neither Sheehy’s publicist nor New York Observer Managing Editor Tom McGeveran returned calls or e-mail messages from CNSNews.com. Shearer also said her attempts to contact Sheehy and the Observer were unsuccessful.
Shearer did supply a copy of her report to the 9/11 Commission. Its spokesman, Al Felzenberg, said he didn’t want to comment specifically on Sheehy’s story.
“As to the content of what anybody writes, it’s up to their editors and their audience to assess,” Felzenberg said. “There have been a lot of fiction writers around, there are a lot of good journalists around, a lot of shoddy people around, but that’s a decision made by the people who read them.”
Felzenberg defended Zelikow and the work of the commission. He said personal attacks against either staff members or the commissioners were disheartening and unwarranted.
Despite the problems that have surfaced in Sheehy’s Feb. 16 article, the Observer has published three other stories by her since then. Shearer expressed amazement that the Observer has failed to correct the errors, especially in an era marked by the Jayson Blair’s lies at the New York Times and Jack Kelley’s misrepresentations at USA Today.
“If newspapers and journalists are doing the first draft of history, they can’t at the same time expect to have it right,” Shearer told CNSNews.com. “And so therefore, they have to take responsibility to correct it.”
It’s not the first time Shearer has taken on a high-profile author like Sheehy. The Art Science Research Laboratory has also done extensive research and documented errors in William Langewiesche’s book, “American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center.”
“In the case of Sheehy’s article,” Shearer concludes in her report, “the public’s trust was violated by her sloppiness, distortions, unfairness, sensationalism and incorrect accusations of serious wrongdoing. Sadly, all these violations easily could have been avoided by the fundamental journalistic step of testing and verifying facts before publication.”
See Earlier Story:
Error-Prone Author Headlines New MoveOn.org Book (May 31, 2004)