I have a strong dislike of the current fashion among America's decrepit and unreadable newspapers for "fact-checker" columns, because the practice attempts to cloak run-of-the-mill hacks in an aura of dispassionate authority that they do not, in fact, possess. Case in point: The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler, who has awarded "four Pinocchios" to Donald Trump, for claiming to recall seeing "thousands" of Jersey City Muslims celebrating on September 11th 2001. Mr Kessler wrote:
Trump says that he saw this with his own eyes on television and that it was well covered. But an extensive examination of news clips from that period turns up nothing. There were some reports of celebrations overseas, in Muslim countries, but nothing that we can find involving the Arab populations of New Jersey.
Kessler has spent the day re-writing and re-re-writing that confident assertion. As of now, that last sentence currently reads:
There were some reports of celebrations overseas, in Muslim countries, but nothing that we can find involving the Arab populations of New Jersey except for unconfirmed reports.
When Kessler says "nothing that we can find", he didn't have to search very hard. After a two-minute Google search, Powerline's John Hinderaker turned up the following:
In Jersey City, within hours of two jetliners' plowing into the World Trade Center, law enforcement authorities detained and questioned a number of people who were allegedly seen celebrating the attacks and holding tailgate-style parties on rooftops while they watched the devastation on the other side of the river.
What demented fringe conspiracist website would traffic in such nonsense? Well, in fact, it was Glenn Kessler's own newspaper, The Washington Post, which published the story on September 18th 2001. Is it an "unconfirmed report"? Well, Kessler's colleague, Post reporter Serge Kolvaleski, said in a 2003 email that he got the story from the Jersey City Police Department and "confirmed the JCPD's information via interviews of eyewitnesses of the celebration".
Was Kessler aware, while researching his "fact-check, that a Washington Post reporter had interviewed "eyewitnesses of the celebration"? As it is, a so-called "fact-checker" who claims "an extensive examination" turns up "nothing that we can find involving the Arab populations of New Jersey" was apparently ignorant of the fact that his own newspaper had carried such a story. Called on his omission by John Hinderaker, Mr Kessler turned defensive:
As John Hinderaker pointed out, the phrase "several people" does not occur in the Washington Post 2001 story, so Kessler is putting quotation marks round a non-quotation, which seems a rum thing for a fact-checker to do. One Pinocchio for you right there, Mister J-School Ethics! The Post says only that "a number of people" were detained and questioned. So now we're no longer arguing about whether there were even any reports of any New Jersey residents celebrating 9/11, but merely the number that were doing so.
Glenn Kessler's current version of his story now bears little relation to its original form, but John Hinderaker cuts to the chase:
@GlennKesslerWP Did you know about the 2001 Post article when you wrote your "fact check" or not?
Because, if you didn't, you're not much of a fact-checker.
Kessler has yet to respond.
A further Washington Post column, by Howard Kurtz on October 9th 2001, reminds us that, whether or not the story was on TV, it was widely reported on New York radio:
On Sept. 11, callers told New York radio stations WABC and WPLJ that some people in an Arabic section of Paterson, N.J., were celebrating the attacks.
Totally bogus, says city spokesman Bob Grant. He's so mad he has demanded transcripts from the Disney-owned stations and may demand equal time.
Grant is particularly steamed at WPLJ's "The Big Show With Scott and Todd," calling in to chide hosts Scott Shannon and Todd Pettengill. "They called me a moron and I called them mendacious," he says...
Curtis Sliwa, a WABC host also criticized by Grant, says callers told him of a celebration that "they felt was crazy, that was horrible, so we reported that based on the calls." Sliwa went to Paterson the next day and says people told him that the cheering was done by about a dozen bicycle-riding teenagers.
Paterson officials are "in total denial," says Sliwa. "They'd rather shoot the messenger."
Another obscure fringe hate-blog that referenced the "celebrations" was a site called The New York Times, reporting from Jersey City on September 30th 2001:
Since the F.B.I. raid, community relations in Jersey City -- which has a population of 240,000, 20 percent of whom are Arabs or of Arab descent -- have deteriorated, and Jersey City has become rife with rumors: about Muslim celebrations in the wake of the trade center attacks, about violence against Muslim residents, about who might have been involved in the terror, who might have harbored conspirators.
As "rumors" go, they were widespread. The San Francisco Chronicle, reporting from Jersey City on September 22nd 2001:
A few Muslims have been harassed around town by non-Muslims, and police detained several men seen "celebrating" the attack as the smoke first rose across the river. Folks are worried that things could get worse. On both sides.
So this Kessler fellow seems to have got everything wrong. He claimed to be unable to find any reports of "the Arab population of New Jersey" celebrating on September 11th 2001, whereas his own newspaper carried such a report, as did other prominent newspapers and broadcast outlets. Were there "thousands" celebrating? Probably not. But hundreds? There are those who saw such things and stand by what they saw today. And Mr Kessler's own colleague at the Post claims to have interviewed eyewitnesses.
More to the point, these reports rely not just on supposed eyewitnesses, but on a police record: persons were "detained and questioned". Kessler's colleague also spoke to the Jersey City Police Department, which Kessler apparently has not. If he'd like to, the chap to have a word with is Captain Edgar Martinez, who back in those days handled public relations for the JCPD. After all, if it's true that "police detained several men", there would be a record of it that Captain Martinez would be able to confirm. Judging from the comments of the Jersey City mayor, there's evidently some political pressure to make whatever happened disappear down the old memory hole, but I don't believe they'd outright lie to Glenn Kessler, would they?
The past is a foreign country, wrote L P Hartley*, and the immediate post-9/11 period was a very different land from today's America. Here, for example, is bigshot mainstream liberal Jonathan Alter writing in Newsweek (then owned by The Washington Post) that there were Muslim schoolchildren in the New York area who had prior knowledge of 9/11.
But the moment passed, and liberals stopped writing such stories, and then denied such stories had ever been written. And year on year more of the specifics of that day were disappeared - starting with the images of the men and women who hurled themselves from the upper floors of the Twin Towers for the chance to spend their final moments falling through clean, bright sky rather than in that hellish inferno. A soft-focus blur, a generalized sadness, a yellow ribbon or two is all that remains. Yet there were Muslims who cheered 9/11 in Oslo and in Yorkshire, and if like Donald Trump you live in New York City, you would have read and heard similar stories from your own neighborhood.
There are two competing narratives here. If you loathe Trump, the story is: Trump's suggestion of terrorist sympathizers among American Muslims is outrageous. But, if you're minded to support Trump, the story is: Obama's and Hillary's and Kerry's assertion that there are no terrorist sympathizers among Muslims is not only ludicrous but mendacious and deeply weird in its relentless insistence. Glenn Kessler's "fact-check" confirms the latter.
[*CORRECTED: I originally wrote "E M Forster", which is pretty bad of me, considering I once advised the Hartley estate over a dramatic adaptation of The Go Between.]