For 9/11 conspiracy theorists, the anniversary of the attacks functions as a PR peg for spreading their version of what happened that day. WNYC's Beth Fertig is taking special note this year, after discovering that her reporting from September 11, 2001 is being used as evidence on conspiracy theorist websites and literature.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And, I'm Bob Garfield. Friday marked the eighth anniversary of the attacks of September 11th, offering the so called 9/11 “truthers” yet another opportunity to advance their case that the U.S. government was behind the destruction of the World Trade Center. Some even believe bombs were planted inside the towers. Actor and truther Charlie Sheen requested an interview with President Obama. Then he wrote a 20 minute transcript of how he imagined that interview might go. Sheen explained to fellow truther Alex Jones that he wanted to put his case on the record, even if he had to invent Obama’s answers.
CHARLIE SHEEN: I wanted to create a public document specifically rooted in fact. If anybody dares question that, I [LAUGHS] would encourage those people to scrutinize it, to research it. The truth is unchanging, Alex, as we [LAUGHS] both know.
BOB GARFIELD: The truthers claim they glean their facts largely from the mainstream media, but, as often happens with evidence gathered in support of a strongly held conviction, many of those news reports are taken out of context. WNYC reporter Beth Fertig got a taste of that when her eyewitness account of the World Trade Center attacks was adopted and adapted by the truthers. Here’s a recording of her at the scene of the attacks, trying to describe to a WNYC host what she had just witnessed.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Did it indeed sound like an explosion or perhaps the sound of collapsing building material? Can you differentiate?
BETH FERTIG: It did, it did. You know in those scenes when they tear down a building and, you know, a building that’s been planned to come down and you hear that planned explosion sound? It almost sounded like that.
BETH FERTIG: It was my description of watching the first tower go down.
BOB GARFIELD: WNYC’s Beth Fertig.
BETH FERTIG: In my mind it resembled a controlled demolition and that it went down so perfectly that part of my brain was wondering if it actually was a controlled demolition because I thought, you know, in this weird little fantasy of mine, oh, my God, maybe they got everyone out and now they're bringing the building down in a safe way. You know, it was nuts of me to even think that, but at that moment you don't know what’s happening. You know, I just saw the building go down and was wondering - how could that happen?
BOB GARFIELD: But others seized upon that observation. How have they exploited your analogy?
BETH FERTIG: It was really strange to find this out because I didn't know about it until fairly recently. I wrote a book about the public schools, which is what I normally write about, the New York City public schools, and I was searching on the Amazon.com website to see if the book had been listed yet. And I saw my name listed in a whole bunch of other books. Some of them were these journalism books that I had written essays for about 9/11, what it was like covering the event, but then I saw these two others that I'd never heard about. One was called Abuse Your Illusions: The Disinformation Guide to Media Mirages and Establishment Lies, and the other was called Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11: A Call To Reflection and Action. And they were using that description that I gave as looking like a controlled demolition to say, ah ha, it really was a controlled demolition.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, I once sat in my old Volkswagen and sat on a yellow jacket and got stung, and imagined for an instant that somehow someone had put a snake in my car.
BETH FERTIG: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: It was a combination of pain and paranoia. And in any event, I did find a dead bee, and that quickly put snake thoughts out of my mind forever. But
BETH FERTIG: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: it’s as though years later someone would print a book saying, yes, people are putting snakes in your car. Here’s Bob Garfield’s experience to prove it.
BETH FERTIG: Yeah, later this year, after I discovered this just by coincidence, somebody wrote to me from, I think he was in Australia, and he was looking into these conspiracy theories. And he said, I want to ask you about that description that you gave. And I said, look, you know, don't use this for attribution or anything, but I'm just going to tell you, it was just a metaphor. I was saying this is what it looked like. And he kept writing to me and writing to me, and I said, look, just enough already.
BOB GARFIELD: As you report now, do you think about how the words in your scripts could be edited and spliced so as to support some viewpoint that you want no association with whatsoever?
BETH FERTIG: I couldn't think that way. If I thought that way, I wouldn't be able to do my job. You know, I'd always be, like, what iffing, you know? If somebody wants to seize on a quote that I've used, you know, go ahead. It’s out there. And these conspiracy theorists, they can do whatever they want. My work is public work. I just feel badly that it’s been twisted to further their agenda, an agenda that I wouldn't want to be associated with, because my job is to look into things and report them fairly.
BOB GARFIELD: So it seems to me that we have discovered the difference between conspiracy theorists and reporters. Both methodically assemble facts and both may actually enter a story with a notion or a premise. The reporter will assemble all the facts and use that to try to flesh out the truth. A conspiracy theorist only keeps the facts that support his or her theory. Is that what it comes down to?
BETH FERTIG: [LAUGHS] I don't know. I would like to think that I and my colleagues in the mainstream media, or whatever you want to call us, look into the facts and we report them accurately. But then we're sometimes accused of having an agenda. People will say, oh, you only used this quote. You took it out of context. So maybe the lines aren't so neat as you describe them, Bob, but I do think that there is a difference in terms of the conspiracy theorists having an agenda and then finding quotes that are going to back up their arguments, which is what they did with my words.
BOB GARFIELD: Beth Fertig is a reporter for WNYC and a contributor to NPR. Beth, thank you.
BETH FERTIG: Thanks.
BOB GARFIELD: That book that she wrote is titled Why cant U teach me 2 read: Three Students and a Mayor Put Our Schools to the Test.