Turning Questions into Conspiracies

Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting
Friday, Apr 16, 2004
Link to Original

In its eagerness to find a lighter side to the September 11 commission hearings, the New York Times ended up trampling on the news.

In a “Reporter’s Notebook” feature in the Times’ April 15 edition, reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote a series of what might be called human interest items on the hearings: A former FBI director doesn’t know how to type; the audience chuckled at Janet Reno’s being flummoxed by an acronym. The last item, however, presented a legitimate question about pre-September 11 warnings as a joke.

“It wouldn’t be a Washington investigation without conspiracy theorists,” the item began, signaling that what was to follow shouldn’t be taken seriously. Stolberg continued:

“So it was no accident on Tuesday that one commissioner, Richard Ben-Veniste, asked Attorney General John Ashcroft about reports that he stopped flying on commercial aircraft before the attacks. Mr. Ashcroft was only too glad to set the record straight, saying he ‘never ceased to use commercial aircraft for my personal travel.’

“Mr. Ben-Veniste was pleased, too. ‘By putting that in the public domain,’ he said on Wednesday, ‘I think we can at least take the step toward reducing the number of conspiracy theories, of which there are many.'”

The short concludes with a description of “an elderly man carrying an overstuffed satchel” full of documents, whom Ben-Veniste smiles at politely—apparently illustrating the attitude readers are supposed to take toward those who peddle “conspiracy theories.”

The problem with placing this item in the “Reporter’s Notebook” section, and framing it as a cute example of the kooky things some people believe, is that Ashcroft’s avoiding commercial flights before September 11 is not a conspiracy theory, but a documented fact. On July 26, 2001– about six weeks before September 11– Dan Rather introduced a CBS Evening News segment with a question: “Why is the attorney general of the United States doing all his air travel by specially chartered jet at taxpayer expense?” CBS’s Jim Stewart attempted an answer:

“In response to inquiries from CBS News over why Ashcroft was traveling exclusively by leased jet aircraft instead of commercial airlines, the Justice Department cited what it called a threat assessment by the FBI, and said Ashcroft has been advised to travel only by private jet for the remainder of his term. ‘There was a threat assessment and there are guidelines. He is acting under the guidelines,’ an FBI spokesman said. Neither the FBI nor the Justice Department, however, would identify what the threat was, when it was detected or who made it.”

Ashcroft himself appeared on camera in that segment, explaining, “You know, I don’t do threat assessments myself, and I rely on those whose responsibility it is to in the law enforcement community, particularly the FBI.” Asked if he knew anything more about the threat, Ashcroft said, “I think it’s–frankly, I don’t. That’s the answer.”

Contrary to the impression you would have gotten from the New York Times’ item, Ashcroft when asked at the hearings did not simply deny that he had stopped flying on commercial planes. After saying that he continued using commercial airlines for *personal* travel, he acknowledged that he had stopped using such flights for official business, in response to a threat assessment:

“The assessment made by the security team and the Department of Justice was made early in the year. It was not related to a terrorism threat as a threat to the nation. It was related to an assessment of the security for the attorney general, given his responsibilities and the job that he undertakes. And it related to the maintenance of arms and other things by individuals who travel with the attorney general. And it was their assessment that we would be best served to use government aircraft.”

In other words, what the Times depicted as a “conspiracy theory”– that Ashcroft “stopped flying on commercial aircraft before the attacks”– is actually true, although he may not have flown exclusively on non-commercial flights. Ashcroft’s claim that this remarkable decision had nothing to do with a terrorism threat is something that a skeptical reporter might want to investigate. The New York Times, however, saw it a comical anecdote– the joke being that some people think that there are still unexplained mysteries about September 11.