The New York Daily News has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for an editorial series on the medical fallout from the 9/11 attacks. But in some circles, the Pulitzer award was as noteworthy for whom it did not mention: Daily News columnist and Democracy Now! co-host Juan Gonzalez. Gonzalez was the first reporter to question government officials’ insistence that the air around Ground Zero was safe and wrote a series of groundbreaking exposes on the issue. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Recently the New York Daily News was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for an editorial series on the medical fallout from the 9/11 attacks. In its five-month series, “9/11: The Forgotten Victim,” the Daily News looked at how more than 12,000 people have fallen ill from the contaminated air around Ground Zero. But in some circles, the Pulitzer award was as noteworthy for whom it did not mention: Daily News columnist and Democracy Now! co-host Juan Gonzalez.
Juan was the first reporter to question government officials insistence that the air around Ground Zero was safe. While most of his media colleagues bought the official line that 9/11 had posed no contamination threat, Juan continued to pursue the story. He was criticized by New York City and other government officials, who even called the Daily News to complain. Juan’s editors responded by relegating his columns to the back pages or even killing them.
The Village Voice reported this week that this background was not lost on several Daily News staffers. According to the Voice, the announcement of the Pulitzer Prize was met with “muted applause” in the newsroom. The irony, the Voice reports, is “stunning. The [Daily News] won one of journalism’s highest prizes for writing about illnesses that might have been prevented had [it] not bowed to government and corporate pressure in 2001 and instead kept Gonzalez’s prescient warnings in the public eye.”
Joining me here in our firehouse studio is Keach Hagey. She covered this story for the Village Voice, where she’s a staff reporter. Her piece is called “Dishonorable Non-Mention.” We’re also joined by the Joel Kupferman. He is executive director of the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project. He is with the National Lawyers Guild. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!
Keach, talk about what you found this week just after the Pulitzers announced the award for the New York Daily News editorial board, but not for the leading columnist who did the pioneering pieces right after 2001—Juan Gonzalez.
KEACH HAGEY: Well, people sort of sipped their champagne with mixed emotions, at lease some of them, at the Daily News. Those who were there in the newsroom at the time in 2001, when Juan was struggling to get his pieces into the paper, people at the Daily News watched Juan be pushed down by some of the editors there and watched the city officials apply pressure to the publisher and editors of the paper.
AMY GOODMAN: The publisher being?
KEACH HAGEY: Mort Zuckerman. In fact, Christie Whitman from the Environmental Protection Agency wrote Mort —
AMY GOODMAN: The former governor of New Jersey.
KEACH HAGEY: Indeed. Wrote Mort Zuckerman a letter right after one of Juan’s big pieces saying that the air was not safe around Ground Zero, and, you know, that letter found its way into the op-ed pages days later with very few edits. And, you know, from there on out, it was really hard for Juan to get his message in the front of the paper where it really mattered, where it could have maybe helped save lives.
AMY GOODMAN: The letter that she wrote said exactly what?
KEACH HAGEY: It accused Juan of trying to alarm people. You know, it said that the government and the media have a responsibility to say things in a calm manner, basically asking him to stop putting this dangerous news that the air was not safe right front and center.
AMY GOODMAN: Joel Kupferman, talk about who you were representing after the attacks, your investigation, and Juan’s significance in the reporting at the time.
JOEL KUPFERMAN: My office is located downtown, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center, and I basically represented all the workers down there, all the residents and the people that grew up in that neighborhood. It was unbelievably dark and dusty. And what we did is we went down, and we took samples right near the World Trade Center. And results that we came up with were shocking, were 5 percent asbestos and 90 percent fiberglas. And we wanted to get that news out, and the one person that we believed that could understand how significant that story was was Juan Gonzalez.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Juan Gonzalez, in his own words. He spoke about his reporting on the 9/11 health fallout at a Democracy Now! event we had here in New York on the anniversary of September 11, last year.
JUAN GONZALEZ: As I began to write those stories — I must have written 10, 12, 15 columns over the following weeks and months — the attack that came down on the Daily News was astounding. I mean, it was really — and I’ve been in the business a long time. I’ve been in the mainstream media, corporate media now for 30 years, and I had never seen the kind of attack that came down on our newspaper.
The day after the biggest story that we wrote on October 26, the regional director of EPA held a press conference calling it the worst kind of story that could possibly be written. The head — Kathryn Wylde, who runs the Partnership for New York City, the major business group in the city, published a letter to the editor calling it irresponsible journalism and a sick Hollywood prank. Christie Whitman personally contacted the publisher of the Daily News, Mort Zuckerman, and the editor-in-chief, and requested the chance to rebut my articles, and she was given the opportunity a few days later to write an op-ed piece basically attempting to discredit the articles. One of Rudy Giuliani’s deputy mayors called the newspaper vociferously attacking its coverage. One of the great ironies is that that deputy mayor is now claiming that he is sick from exposure to 9/11 toxins. It’s one of the great ironies that he was the one who made the call to try to stop the stories. And it went on and on.
And I would like to say that the newspaper was valiant and continued to press forward with the truth, but things don’t always work out that way. There was enormous pressure inside the paper to stop the coverage, that maybe we were wrong. My immediate supervisor, the metropolitan editor of the newspaper who backed me completely and who wanted to start a whole investigative team to look further into the problems, he formed the investigative team, and within a week he was fired and the investigative team was disbanded — I’m sorry, not fired, he was demoted. He was demoted from metropolitan editor, and the investigative team was disbanded.
And the paper did continue to publish the other columns that I wrote, only, I think, to some degree, because I basically told them — I said, “Well, you run the newspaper. You decide what you’re going to print, but I decide as a columnist what I’m going to write. So, because I think this is so important and because I think 15 to 20 years from now, if we don’t do something about this, we’re going to be facing with thousands of thousands of people dying, I’m going to keep writing these columns and you can decide what you’re going to do with them.” So they did continue to write them, but they put them further back. No more front pages. But they did run them, and I have to say that compared to all of the other media in the city at the time, the Daily News was the only one that at least paid some attention on a regular basis to the complaints and the concerns of thousands of people in Lower Manhattan over what was happening to them.
AMY GOODMAN: Juan Gonzalez. Joel Kupferman, what difference would it have made if these pieces got constant support and front-page placement in the New York Daily News?
JOEL KUPFERMAN: A lot less people would be sick today. Doctors would know how to treat people today. And even back then, people would have taken a lot more precautions of what they were wearing when they went back down there. And people wouldn’t have moved back into that area. Students wouldn’t go back to their schools. And there would be a lot less people being sick.
And also I think it’s very important to point out that they said Juan’s statement was alarming. It wasn’t false. They kept on just using —
AMY GOODMAN: Alarmist.
JOEL KUPFERMAN: It was alarmist. They didn’t say he was sending false news. They just said he was sending alarming news.
AMY GOODMAN: Keach, the issue of the team that was put together for this editorial board campaign — they did bring in a reporter, right? Heidi Evans.
KEACH HAGEY: Yes, they did.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, they could have brought in Juan Gonzalez into this, the New York Daily News, as well, to be a part of this campaign who did the original pioneering breakthrough journalism right after 9/11.
KEACH HAGEY: It’s true. He’s an expert on this topic, absolutely. And, in fact, he is being recognized. The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health is recognizing both the editorial team and Juan later this month, which just shows you that there is an understanding out there in the world that both of their contributions were really important.
AMY GOODMAN: Joel Kupferman, as you did the research after 2001, the attacks, how hard was it to get these stories placed, and the significance of the business and real estate community here trying to bring people back to, well, right where we are right now, within the evacuation zone, just blocks from Ground Zero?
JOEL KUPFERMAN: Other than the Daily News and the BBC and the Italian press, it was most difficult. We gave reams and reams of information to many, many papers and networks, and they just looked the other away. They didn’t look at all the data that actually showed how serious the situation was, and they just went along with the EPA headlines.
AMY GOODMAN: Joel Kupferman and Keach Hagey, I want to thank you both for being with us. Keach Hagey is a staff reporter at the Village Voice. Joel Kupferman with the National Lawyers Guild and the New York Environment Law and Justice Project. Juan Gonzalez not only did the series of pieces in the New York Daily News, but he also wrote a book at the time called Fallout: The Environmental Consequences of the World Trade Center Collapse.