The big NEA-Sept. 11 lie, cont'd.

Blaming the NEA for preaching tolerance toward al-Qaida is too much fun for conservatives to stop. Even if it isn't true.

By Brendan Nyhan

Published September 18, 2002 10:03PM (EDT)

The myth (previously debunked here) that the National Educational Association told teachers not to blame Sept. 11 on al-Qaida continues to unravel. It's now clear that Washington Times reporter Ellen Sorokin based her original myth-creating article on a preliminary NEA Web site that clearly wasn't complete, misconstruing quotations from a recommended sample essay allegedly written by a professor named Brian Lippincott and attributing them to the NEA. Even worse, the essay in question, published by the National Association of School Psychologists on Sept. 15, 2001, was meant to preach tolerance toward Arab and Muslim Americans -- not al-Qaida. And Lippincott, contrary to what has been widely reported, did not even write it. Yet the myth still continues to spread in Op-Ed columns, on TV and even in a comic strip.

In July, the NEA Health Information Network began soliciting lesson plans and ideas for a Web site to help teachers prepare for the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Five lesson plans were linked as examples on one of the interim pages set up until the site was ready. The main interim page, which contained three of the five lessons, also included this proviso: "The examples listed below are to provide you with ideas of what is being submitted by your colleagues. These are just samples and are not necessarily representative of the scope and educational value of our work-in-progress site."

Even though the site was not ready, one of the example lessons -- "Tips for Parents and Schools Regarding the Anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001" -- drew criticism from conservatives in an Aug. 13 article by Lawrence Monahan of the conservative Cybercast News Service. Monahan was quite clear, however, that the lesson, credited to Bryan Lippincott, a professor of psychology at the John F. Kennedy University in California, appeared on an outside site and its words were not those of the NEA.

On Aug. 19, however, Sorokin wrote a Washington Times story attributing quotations from the lesson plan to the NEA. Her story began, "The National Education Association 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." In context, however, the "do not suggest any group is responsible" quotation is clearly urging teachers to promote tolerance toward groups such as Arabs and Muslim Americans.

At the time Sorokin wrote the story, she could only see the pre-release Web site, which had just five lesson plans. Yet her story implied that she had access to the whole Web site. Even worse, Jerald Newberry, director of the NEA Health Information Network, said he believes she did not even ask him about the lesson plan when she interviewed him on Aug. 16.

It also turns out that Lippincott did not write the essay in question. On Sept. 15, 2001, the National Association of School Psychologists released a guide for teachers on promoting tolerance in the wake of the attacks. According to Keith McConnell, dean of the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at John F. Kennedy, Lippincott was using the material with his students and, in a misunderstanding, the university communications department thought he had written it and posted it under his name (with a title suggesting it was a guide to dealing with the anniversary). After the NASP contacted the university, McConnell said, the university quickly took down the essay and apologized for the mistake. Also, a link to the material was never taken down from the NEA Web site during the controversy, as had been reported, though the NEA did switch the link to direct visitors to the original NASP guide after it found out about the confusion.

This explains why the lesson plan is vague about the attackers and states that the terrorists acted "without the sanctions of any nation" -- at the time it was written, little conclusive information was available about the perpetrators (President Bush named Osama bin Laden as the "prime suspect" in the attacks for the first time on the morning of the 15th).

When I tried to raise some of these issues with Washington Times managing editor Francis Coombs, he would only say, "We stand behind the story as reported and written."

Since Sorokin's Aug. 19 article, the NEA myth has been picked up, repeated and further distorted by a number of pundits and reporters. Though it has been discredited in several media outlets by now, two prominent conservatives are still actively spreading it.

In his Sept. 9 column for U.S. News and World Report, columnist John Leo wrote, "'Do not suggest that any group is responsible' for the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon, says the NEA's 'Remember Sept. 11' Web site." Then, a few sentences later, he admits that "the no-group-is-responsible text comes from a link to an outside site," not the NEA's, and offers the feeble defense that "the link is clearly presented as part of NEA's recommended treatment of 9/11." Appearing on CNN's "Lou Dobbs Moneyline" on Sept. 4 to discuss the column, Leo spread the smear that the NEA believes America deserved to be attacked, using extremely vague language to make this grave charge with no evidence. It's "always hanging in the background that somehow America invited this somehow," he said, "as if you got punched by a stranger on the street. It's somehow it's your fault for making more money or being more successful. And I think that's the aura of the NEA's philosophy." Then, in his newest column, Leo went after the NEA without providing any sort of context, slamming its "strange reluctance" to "identify the attackers (hint: Radical Muslim extremists did it)."

In reality, however, the NEA has identified the terrorists several times. Chase told the NEA board of directors on Oct. 5, 2001, for example, that "the terrorists attacked America because they despise our way of life ... they despise our values. We will defeat this enemy not by arms and law alone, but also by holding fast to the values that define us as Americans." Newberry, appearing on CNN's "Talkback Live," Aug. 19, said, "The enemy here is Osama bin Laden. The enemy here is al-Qaida." And in Chase's letter to the Washington Times on Aug. 20, the NEA president said, "We stand by our belief that the entire Muslim community cannot be held responsible for the actions of Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda terrorists."

But perhaps worst have been the attacks on the NEA in the nationally syndicated comic strip "Mallard Fillmore," written by Bruce Tinsley. In a series of typically glib and aggressive strips last week, Tinsley attributed the NASP quotes to the NEA twice (with a footnote each time citing Sorokin's original story), called the NEA a "sick joke," portrayed Chase as saying "we told teachers to stress 'historical intolerance' instead of blaming others for the attacks," and satirized a teacher's using the NEA guidelines as handing out additional lessons called "Nazis ... Bad guys or just misunderstood?" and "Cancer ... Why it's America's fault."

In reality, however, the "sick joke" is the one being played on us.

Brendan Nyhan

Brendan Nyhan is a political scientist currently serving as a RWJ Scholar in Health Policy Research at the University of Michigan.

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