Over the last few weeks, the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, has been widely denounced for supposedly calling on educators not to blame the Sept. 11 attacks on al-Qaida. But this is a manufactured falsehood created by a kind of assembly line for political myths. The story is familiar: A distorted claim is fed into the echo chamber, where it is increasingly twisted as it is repeated over and over until it becomes conventional wisdom.
The controversy was created by an Aug. 19 article on Page 1 of the Washington Times about a Web site created by the NEA's Health Information Network. The site was designed to help schools plan lessons for the first anniversary of Sept. 11. Under the headline "NEA delivers history lesson; Tells teachers not to cast 9/11 blame," reporter Ellen Sorokin claimed that the NEA "is suggesting to teachers that they be careful on the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks not to 'suggest any group is responsible' for the terrorist hijackings that killed more than 3,000 people."
Sorokin wrote that "suggested lesson plans compiled by the NEA recommend that teachers 'address the issue of blame factually,' noting: 'Blaming is especially difficult in terrorist situations because someone is at fault. In this country, we still believe that all people are innocent until solid, reliable evidence from our legal authorities proves otherwise.'" According to the story, the NEA simultaneously "takes a decidedly blame-America approach, urging educators to 'discuss historical instances of American intolerance,' so that the American public avoids 'repeating terrible mistakes.'" Quotes providing context from NEA health information network director Jerald Newberry are largely buried at the end of the piece.
Sorokin does concede that "the suggestions and lesson plans" that are the source of all of her quotes "were developed by Brian Lippincott, affiliated with the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the John F. Kennedy University in California," rather than the NEA. But she obscures the fact that every supposed NEA quote in her story is derived from a single lesson written by Lippincott that appears on the Kennedy University Web site, not the NEA's. The NEA did link to Lippincott's work as a suggested lesson plan. However, recommending someone else's work on an outside Web site does not mean that each word in the linked article represents the NEA's official position, and it is clearly unfair to state, as Sorokin did, that the NEA is "suggesting" something based on a few sentences that Lippincott wrote.
There are actually over 100 lesson plans and 60 outside links on the Remember Sept. 11 site, according to the NEA. The lessons are generally intended to help students cope with their feelings about the tragedy and to provide factual information on the attacks and the U.S. response. A wide range of outside resources are provided that cannot be easily stereotyped as "blame-America." These include links to the CIA, the proposed Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense; the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights and Pledge of Allegiance; and speeches by "great Americans" on "the foundations of our freedom, rights and responsibilities," including President Bush, Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln.
In addition, Sorokin's reporting of Lippincott's statements is intentionally deceptive. When she writes the NEA is "suggesting to teachers" that they not "'suggest any group is responsible' for the terrorist hijackings," she implies that Lippincott is advocating that teachers not blame al-Qaida for the terrorist attacks. This is not at all clear. In fact, he notes that "everyone wants the terrorists punished" and that "justice means punishing the real perpetrators." The lesson plan is intended to help prevent students or teachers from stereotyping Arab Americans or Muslims. The first item in his list of "Key Messages" is that "we must not act like [the terrorists] by lashing out at innocent people around us, or 'hating' them because of their origins." The second is similar: "Groups of people should not be judged by the actions of a few. It is wrong to condemn an entire group of people by association of religion, race, homeland, or even proximity." This continues throughout.
The key quotation in Sorokin's piece comes from the fourth tip for parents and teachers. Lippincott writes, "Address the issue of blame factually. Explore who and what may be to blame for this event. Use non-speculative terms. Do not suggest any group is responsible. Be careful to ensure students (e.g., Arab-American students,) do not assume blame in order to make classmates feel better. Blaming is especially difficult in terrorist situations because someone is at fault. However, explain that all Arab-Americans are not guilty by association or racial membership. Help kids resist the tendency to want to 'pin the blame' on someone close by. In this country, we still believe that all people are innocent until solid, reliable evidence from our legal authorities proves otherwise."
This passage is urging teachers to avoid stereotyping of a "group" like Arab-Americans and Muslims, not to let al-Qaida off the hook. Consider the last four sentences quoted above. In the Times article, Sorokin apparently drops the second and third (inexcusably, she fails even to include an ellipsis to indicate that there is a gap), avoiding the statement that "all Arab-Americans are not guilty by association or racial membership" and creating the implication that the final sentence is a statement about al-Qaida rather than the general legal principle that people are innocent until proven guilty.
It is this kind of unfair, deceptive paraphrasing and omission of context that is frequently used to create a new political myth. Read in context, the lesson plan is actually just a banal recitation of the need for tolerance.
Nevertheless, the echo chamber, voracious for fresh outrages, swung into action immediately after Sorokin's article was published. Matt Drudge ran a banner headline on the Drudge Report linking to Sorokin's story: "NEA TELLS TEACHERS NOT TO CAST 9/11 BLAME." Then the story was picked up on CNN's "Talkback Live." Newberry, appearing first, stated that the NEA has "more than 100 lesson plans ... center[ed] around patriotism, center[ed] around America's history and how this event fits into those events." He added, "The enemy here is Osama bin Laden. The enemy here is al-Qaida. And there are many plans how America is going to work together to take on that enemy." He also accused Sorokin of writing the story without having seen the site, saying "the site did not even become live until 8 this morning, and those articles were written yesterday."
Nonetheless, Sandy Rios of Concerned Women of America, who followed Newberry on "Talkback," said that, according to the NEA, "our kids are not able to blame al-Qaida or Osama bin Laden until they have had a trial." She then offered this twisted analogy: "We knew on Dec. 7, 1941, that the Japanese were responsible for the bombing of Pearl Harbor. We didn't wait until they went to court and a judge decided. And yet that is what the NEA is suggesting that teachers teach our children."
That night, on Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor," Bob Kuttner of the liberal American Prospect magazine knocked down the story as focusing on "[o]ne of the many hundreds of links" on the NEA site, calling it "the most dishonest piece of journalism I've read in years," "a completely trumped-up hoax of a charge" and a "malicious allegation." Rios, appearing as the other guest with substitute host John Gibson, nonetheless falsely claimed "[t]his is what the NEA says" before reading a quotation from Lippincott and pushing her Pearl Harbor analogy.
She wasn't the only person claiming Lippincott's piece represented the NEA's official position that night, however. On CNN's "Crossfire," co-host Tucker Carlson said, "The National Education Association has released its lesson plan for Sept. 11 suggestions for what teachers should teach their classes on the first anniversary of the tragedy. Among its directives, don't, quote, 'suggest any group is responsible for the attacks.'" And Sean Hannity, co-host of Fox News Channel's "Hannity and Colmes," repeated the same spin in a question to Newberry, who tried ineffectually to counter it.
At this point, myth proponents began to circulate even more unfair paraphrases of the original distortion. On "Talkback Live," Rios alleged that the NEA wants teachers to "talk about all the bad things that Americans have done to contribute to the Sept. 11 attacks." Then, the next day, Sorokin published a follow-up story in the Washington Times similarly claiming that the NEA "cites American intolerance as a reason for the attacks." Neither Rios nor Sorokin provided any evidence to support this claim, which is presumably a twisted paraphrase of another one of Lippincott's tips intended to promote tolerance: a discussion of "historical instances of American intolerance" such as "[i]nternment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor and the backlash against Arab Americans during the Gulf War." Somehow they twist a suggested lesson that is obviously intended to prevent an overreaction to the Sept. 11 attacks into the nonsensical claim that this means the NEA believes America is somehow responsible for the attacks taking place.
In an accompanying editorial that also ran on Aug. 20, the Washington Times refined the myth even further. "NEA staff have apparently busied themselves this summer preparing lesson plans cautioning teachers not to 'suggest any group is responsible' for the terrorist airliner hijackings," it lied. The Times then pummeled the NEA straw man it created, framing direct quotes from Lippincott as NEA creations with false phrases like "the NEA disgustingly lectures" and "the NEA urges teachers."
On Aug. 20, the Times spin was adopted by the Times of London, which wrote that the NEA "told teachers" and "said" things that Lippincott wrote. On "Crossfire" that night, Carlson called a Lippincott statement "a suggested guideline" from NEA. Co-host James Carville then asked Rios, appearing as a guest, if she had read what Lippincott wrote. She played dumb: "Mr. Brian Lippincott? I know about the curriculum. You mean, what it says in the curriculum?"
Soon, an even more misleading version of the original Washington Times spin began to circulate. This time, pundits and editorial boards harped on Sorokin's implication that the NEA does not believe al-Qaida is responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. Phyllis Schlafly, president of the conservative Eagle Forum, condemned "the idea that nobody is to blame for Sept. 11" to Canada's National Post. On Aug. 21, Investor's Business Daily wrote that one of "a new batch of Sept. 11 lesson plans put together" by the NEA "advises: 'Do not suggest any group is responsible,' and later seems to propose it's best not to blame anyone. The NEA's teaching plans, it seems, are a new variation of the left's old 'blame America first' theme. Sept. 11 was, of course, the work of a group." And the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle claimed that the NEA "calls for teachers to blame the attacks more on the United States and Western culture than on the actual perpetrators" and "doesn't even hold the perpetrators responsible."
On Aug. 22, feeding off its own spin, the Washington Times published a brazen Life section piece by Tom Knott that belittled the NEA along the same lines. According to Knott, the group is "still not sure who perpetrated the horror." "In the sanitized world of the NEA," he writes, "Osama Bin Laden probably merits a smiley face next to his mug." But, he generously concedes, "[a]t least the NEA left the one-armed man out of its Sept. 11 lesson plan."
Regional newspapers rushed to condemn the outrage du jour. The Cleveland Plain Dealer (8/21), Richmond Times-Dispatch (8/22), Denver Post (8/22), Columbus Dispatch (8/23) and Tallahassee Democrat columnist Bill Cotterell (8/22) all condemned the NEA, attributing Lippincott's quotations to the group. The Times-Dispatch was one of several to follow Sorokin's lead in pluralizing the smear from one lesson plan to many, claiming that the NEA "has put together lesson plans for the occasion that caution teachers not to 'suggest any group is responsible' for the terrorist attacks."
On Aug. 25, George Will correctly attributed the essay to Lippincott in his syndicated Washington Post column, but attacked the NEA as a "national menace" and "as frightening, in its way, as any foreign threat."
Even though there had been ample time to research the story and Kuttner had knocked it down on "O'Reilly" on Aug. 19, most pundits displayed little or no awareness that it was bogus. On CNN's "Late Edition" on the 25th, panel host Kate Snow repeated Sorokin's spin, saying that the NEA was "suggesting that teachers ... should avoid suggesting that any group is responsible, avoid placing blame for the terrorist assault." The panel went along with the premise -- New Republic editor Peter Beinart even bashed the NEA as embarrassing to liberals like him.
After repeated attempts to contain the controversy, the NEA issued an indirectly worded statement on Aug. 27. Rather than directly refuting the charges, it vaguely asserts that critics "have taken the material out of context" and are "using this national tragedy to attempt to score political points," giving little indication that the entire controversy has essentially been fabricated. It also at some point apparently removed links to Lippincott's lesson.
By last week, the controversy began to receive significant attention from the mainstream news media, with dutifully "objective" reports that fail to make clear that the controversy was manufactured appearing in the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. (Newberry was ultimately reduced to issuing the nasty accusation that the NEA's critics are frightened of diversity in the Times.) Finally, Op-Eds by Abraham Cooper and Harold Brackman in the Los Angeles Times and Mona Charen in the Baltimore Sun repeated the falsehood yet again.
Outside of the NEA, only a handful of mainstream critics have taken on this spin campaign. For a while, the lonely group consisted solely of Kuttner, Bob Somerby of the Daily Howler (see the Aug. 23, 26, 27 and 28 editions) and the Charleston Gazette. Most commentators and reporters have apparently been too lazy or cowardly to stand in the way of the steamroller of lies and distortions.
Luckily, however, this week Boston Globe contributor Cathy Young and New York Times education columnist Richard Rothstein have joined the ranks of the debunkers (though Rothstein mistakenly attributed Lippincott's words to the NEA Web site).
Even National Review, a leading conservative magazine, has conceded that Sorokin's case against the NEA is overstated. In an editorial published last week, N.R. argues that "the critics both overstate and understate their indictment," with the lesson plans revealing "modern liberal culture's shallowness" rather than "the NEA's lack of patriotism." The editors point out that the lessons come from a variety of outside sources, including the American Red Cross and PBS, that "there is not a lot of blame-America stuff" in them and the site includes "links to America's founding documents," though "the mood is mildly adversarial toward Americans, who are assumed to be constantly on the verge of committing ethnic pogroms."
Sorokin's article was not the first Washington Times piece to use a misleading, out-of-context quotation to generate a media myth. Joseph Curl did the same thing last November in a story suggesting that President Clinton blamed slavery and U.S. treatment of Native Americans for the Sept. 11 attacks. As my Spinsanity co-editor Bryan Keefer showed, Curl's story stripped a few fragmentary quotes out of context from a long speech to construct this fiction, when in context Clinton's statements were unremarkable -- so much so that the Associated Press account of the speech did not even mention them. However, Curl's story ran under the explosive headline "Clinton calls terror a U.S. debt to past," and from there it spread like wildfire, spawning vague and even more inaccurate second-order paraphrases that in turn generated ever more vitriolic denunciations. The myth continues to reverberate, recently turning up in Hannity's new book "Let Freedom Ring."
Unfortunately, there are few brakes on the spread of these myths, which play so effectively on the preconceptions of the public. Partisans have strong incentives to create and refine them in order to generate media attention and damage their political enemies. And the vast ranks of pundits and talk shows desperately need compelling material to fill airtime and column inches. In their rush to churn out content, many uncritically spread reports that later turn out to be distortions and lies. And when sober-minded people point out the truth, the myth mongers are rarely held accountable or forced to issue corrections. As a result, debunked stories are dredged back up and repeated all the time. Until we can correctly remember the past, it seems, we will be plagued with further distortions of it.