On Tuesday, Oct. 15, North Point Press, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, shipped out copies of American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center , by journalist William Langewiesche, an account of the cleanup at Ground Zero by the only reporter granted unrestricted access to the site. The book was originally a three-part piece in The Atlantic Monthly which, with its unusual level of detail and ambition, made for early Pulitzer buzz. The book will be The New York Times Book Review’s cover review on Sunday, Oct. 20, after which Mr. Langewiesche will embark on a 15-city book tour.
But just in time to complicate the publication of this otherwise highly praised book, an unlikely protester named Rhonda Roland Shearer has appeared. Ms. Shearer, a 48-year-old artist and the widow of the Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, is on a personal crusade to debunk Mr. Langewiesche’s reportage, derail his Pulitzer hopes, and see the book recalled and destroyed.
“Let him go back and do his research,” Ms. Shearer told The Observer two days before the book’s on-sale date. Ms. Shearer, who is also putting together a book of her own tentatively called All Gave Some; Some Gave All: WTC Unwrapped by the People Who Actually Ran Ground Zero , which is being represented by Kay McCauley of the Pimlico Agency, said her book would be a “definitive account” and a “corrective” to Mr. Langewiesche’s work, and that all proceeds would be donated to W.T.C. causes.
In the last two weeks, Ms. Shearer said, she has sent both Farrar, Straus and Giroux and The Atlantic Monthly a 33-page blow-by-blow rebuttal of 56 facts and statements in the three-part magazine article that was the basis of the book. In it, the authors of the rebuttal-Ms. Shearer and a group of New York City firemen, Port Authority and NYPD officers, construction workers and family members of the victims-write: “Throughout his articles, Mr. Langewiesche continuously uses slanderous innuendo to denigrate uniformed rescue personnel and construction workers. Such statements are libelous.”
Cullen Murphy, the managing editor of The Atlantic Monthly , said that he has received parts one and two of the three-part response. In an e-mail statement, he told The Observer that the magazine “stands by William Langewiesche and his articles,” saying that American Ground is “an inspirational story, but somehow it is being misread as a vendetta against those who worked at the site of the tragedy.”
Mr. Langewiesche declined to comment directly on Ms. Shearer’s charges, saying, “I never met her. I don’t know anything about her,” but defended his research: “Everything in there-and I mean every word-is fact-checked.”
Becky Saletan, the editorial director of North Point Press, said she was informed in early September that Ms. Shearer had complaints about American Ground . But Ms. Saletan added that she had not yet received the 33-page rebuttal. “It was news to me that there was any move afoot to get the book recalled and destroyed,” she said.
She noted that Jeffrey Goldberg’s forthcoming review in the Times Book Review calls the book “truth unclouded by sentiment.” Of the book’s author, she added, “I know his sourcing is impeccable.”
Ms. Shearer, who did not lose any family members in the attacks, said that her efforts have the support of Marian Fontana, who lost her husband, firefighter David Fontana, in the disaster and now heads a powerful constituency of family groups. The chief of operations of the FDNY, Salvatore Cassano, has also expressed support, Ms. Shearer said. “The family members are thinking of how they could do a lawsuit,” Ms. Shearer said. “Everybody hopes that this will just go away in retraction, apology and book-shredding.” Reached for comment, Chief Cassano said, “There were a lot of statements that the author made that have no substantial background to them.”
In the last year, family groups like the one headed by Ms. Fontana have had a powerful influence over the politics surrounding the efforts at Ground Zero. In early October, after a 13-month battle, the victims’ families succeeding in limiting allotted office space. One month before, they won the right to sue the Port Authority for safety conditions in the World Trade Center without losing roughly $1.5 million per family in federal aid, which put restrictions on their rights to sue anyone but the terrorists.
Now, with Ms. Shearer leading the way, some of these same constituencies hope to control how the story of the W.T.C. disaster is told.
Ms. Shearer herself has an unusual pedigree: She’s a scholar of the postmodern artist Marcel Duchamp. In 1998, her Duchamp-focused organization, Art Science Research Lab Inc., famously brought forth controversial forensic evidence that Mr. Duchamp’s “Ready-mades” were in fact made by him and not found objects, as he had claimed.
In the months after Sept. 11, Ms. Shearer became deeply involved in aid work at Ground Zero, distributing, by her tally, more than $2 million in equipment and spending the following nine months assisting workers at the site “until the trucks rolled out on June 24.” In the process, she said, she became emotionally involved in the lives of the workers and their families. “It’s upsetting, because I see what it does to these men,” she said. “How could this guy say these things?”
On July 2 she formed the W.T.C. Living History Project, which seeks to create a definitive account of what went on at Ground Zero through the voices of those who were there-specifically, the hundreds of city workers and volunteers. The organization’s mission statement asks, “Would not this historical account be closer to the ‘truth’ than any told by minor players, journalists, hangers-on or political figure-heads?”
On Sept. 10, Ms. Shearer contacted Mr. Murphy of The Atlantic Monthly to let him know of her problems with the article. She said Mr. Murphy was receptive to her claims and that, “as it turned out, they got lots of letters from others. He immediately promised me a 500-word response. He was persuaded by some of the responses.”
In his e-mail to The Observer , Mr. Murphy said that the magazine had no doubts about Mr. Langewiesche’s research. “The magazine’s fact checkers,” he wrote, “spent five months interviewing Mr. Langewiesche’s sources, confirming quotations, and checking various kinds of data with city and other officials; and have gone over it all yet again. In the four months since the series began publication, none of the many individuals Langewiesche profiled has called his account into question.”
Mr. Murphy declined to respond to specific allegations in Ms. Shearer’s documents.
Ms. Shearer objects to a number of specific facts in Mr. Langewiesche’s articles, some of which could be construed as quibbling. Others, however, point to large factual holes; still others illustrate what Ms. Shearer characterizes as Mr. Langewiesche’s “impressionism.” She calls into question, for instance, his description of “tribalism” within the FDNY and NYPD, which she says “is inaccurate at best and a slur at worst, evoking the same type of generalizations made of African-Americans as ignorant, physical, primitive laborers (‘jungle bunnies’) whose bravery could only be instinctive or normal, not of a superior kind.”
Ms. Shearer also disputes a passage in which Mr. Langewiesche writes that the “looks of knowing self-sacrifice in the firemen’s eyes” seen by those evacuating the building were more likely looks of “extreme fatigue.”
But Ms. Shearer and her supporters focus much of their anger on statements in part three of The Atlantic series, entitled “The Dance of the Dinosaurs.” There, Mr. Langewiesche reports that last autumn, a fire truck was unearthed from the rubble that was loaded with brand-new blue jeans, and it appeared that its crew had spent the time in which the first tower was burning stealing blue jeans from the Gap and loading them into the cab of their truck. The article reads: “It was hard to avoid the conclusion that the looting had begun even before the first tower fell, and that while hundreds of doomed firemen had climbed through the wounded buildings, this particular crew had been engaged in something else entirely.”
Ms. Shearer says the excavation of the truck in question took place at night, not in the afternoon, as Mr. Langewiesche reported, and that the jeans found near and around a fire truck were actually Structure brand, and that they’d been blown around the cab of the truck and were not neatly stacked, as Mr. Langewiesche had it.
“They didn’t even fact-check with the Gap. They weren’t even in the south tower. That’s how pathetic he is,” Ms. Shearer said.
She said she plans on posting the full 30-page response to the article on the Web site of her organization, Art Science Research Lab Inc., on Wednesday, Oct. 16.
For his part, Mr. Langewiesche, a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly , has stellar journalistic credentials. In May, he won a National Magazine Award for his investigative piece, “The Crash of Egypt Air 990.” His reputation and that of the magazine earned him the trust of Kenneth Holden, commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction, which managed excavation at the site and got him into the W.T.C. zone. According to an article and interview with Mr. Langewiesche on the Atlantic Web site. Mr. Holden was “an avid reader of [the magazine] and a fan of Langewiesche’s writing in particular.”
Mr. Shearer said Mr. Langewiesche reliance on the DDC, colored his account of the events. “The DDC hated the Fire Department,” she said. “He doesn’t give the balance of the other side.”
What does Ms. Shearer hope will happen to Mr. Langewiesche? “I hope [the magazine] will deal with this internally,” she said. “Now that it’s all come out, that there is misconduct, that they’ll do the right thing.”
The “right thing,” she said, was to dismiss Mr. Langewiesche from The Atlantic Monthly . She said that if the proper response was not met with, the group may pursue legal action.
Ms. Shearer left this week for Alexandria, Egypt, to take part in the opening of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a recreation of the first-century B.C. historical library. (Her late husband was a trustee.) Ms. Shearer said she planned on adding her research and documents from the W.T.C. Living History Project to the library.
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