Accused Plagiarist Slammed
Again for Article on 9/11 Commission
By Robert B. Bluey
April 29, 2004
(CNSNews.com) - The
author of a news report critical of the 9/11 Commission is being
slammed for allegedly committing numerous errors as well as defaming
the commission and its executive director.
It's not the first
time Gail Sheehy's work has been picked apart. A psychiatrist sued
her for plagiarism in 1976 for her "Passages" book, and she caused a
stir in 2000 when she opined that then-candidate George W. Bush
suffered from dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder.
the Art Science Research Laboratory, a New York-based group that
examines news articles for factual accuracy, has released a 65-page
report to CNSNews.com that highlights the apparent
distortions and false accusations about the 9/11 Commission
contained in Sheehy's Feb. 16 report in the New York
The nearly 5,000-word article, "Stewardess ID'd
Hijackers Early, Transcripts Show," was an instant hit among critics
of the Bush administration, appearing on weblogs as proof of a
conspiracy theory to cover up information about the terrorist
Rhonda Roland Shearer, director of the Art Science
Research Laboratory, said the inaccuracies in Sheehy's report caused
harm to the 9/11 Commission and its executive director, Philip
Zelikow. Shearer also cited concerns raised by the family of Betty
Ong, an attendant on American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into
the World Trade Center.
"To publicly accuse parties of
potential criminal wrongdoing is serious and damaging. That the
accusations were based on facts that were only later checked and
proven wrong is especially egregious," Shearer wrote in the report.
"The 9/11 Commission and specifically [Executive Director] Philip
Zelikow were defamed."
Shearer said two of the most egregious
errors related to the 9/11 Commission are Sheehy's contention that
Zelikow censored part of a phone call placed by Ong during the
hijacking and that he hid the content of a separate call made by Amy
Sweeney, a flight attendant on the same plane as Ong.
four paragraphs into the article, questions Zelikow's political
allegiance to President Bush as a premise for not disclosing
information to commissioners.
"Commissioners were unaware of
the crucial information given in an even more revealing phone call,
made by another heroic flight attendant on the same plane, Madeline
(Amy) Sweeney," Sheehy wrote.
"They were unaware because
their chief of staff, Philip Zelikow, chooses which evidence and
witnesses to bring to their attention. Mr. Zelikow, as a former
adviser to the pre-9/11 Bush administration, has a blatant
conflict," Sheehy added.
Bush asked Zelikow to oversee the
transition team for the National Security Council after the 2000
election. Then, shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks,
Zelikow was appointed to the president's Foreign Intelligence
But Sheehy's charge that Zelikow withheld
information troubles Shearer. She called it "laziness as well as
sloppiness" that Sheehy didn't conduct basic research, which would
have likely dramatically changed the premise of her story, according
"Facts in her article," Shearer said in the
report, "should have been subjected to a basic Lexis-Nexis or Google
search to check what already has been published by other
journalists. A simple search would have made transparent to Sheehy,
fact-checkers, or editors the truth that the [Ong] tape was only 4
minutes long. The details of Sweeney's call ... were essentially
disclosed in September 2001."
Because this information wasn't
hidden from commissioners, Shearer concluded, "Sheehy's reporting
created sensationalized non-existent events (such as the claim that
the 9/11 Commission openly hides information)."
Sheehy's publicist nor New York Observer Managing
Editor Tom McGeveran returned calls or e-mail messages from
CNSNews.com. Shearer also said her attempts to contact Sheehy
and the Observer were unsuccessful.
Shearer did supply
a copy of her report to the 9/11 Commission. Its spokesman, Al
Felzenberg, said he didn't want to comment specifically on Sheehy's
"As to the content of what anybody writes, it's up to
their editors and their audience to assess," Felzenberg said. "There
have been a lot of fiction writers around, there are a lot of good
journalists around, a lot of shoddy people around, but that's a
decision made by the people who read them."
defended Zelikow and the work of the commission. He said personal
attacks against either staff members or the commissioners were
disheartening and unwarranted.
Despite the problems that have
surfaced in Sheehy's Feb. 16 article, the Observer has
published three other stories by her since then. Shearer expressed
amazement that the Observer has failed to correct the errors,
especially in an era marked by the Jayson Blair's lies at the New
York Times and Jack Kelley's misrepresentations at USA
"If newspapers and journalists are doing the first
draft of history, they can't at the same time expect to have it
right," Shearer told CNSNews.com. "And so therefore, they
have to take responsibility to correct it."
It's not the
first time Shearer has taken on a high-profile author like Sheehy.
The Art Science Research Laboratory has also done extensive research
and documented errors in William Langewiesche's book, "American
Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center."
"In the case of
Sheehy's article," Shearer concludes in her report, "the public's
trust was violated by her sloppiness, distortions, unfairness,
sensationalism and incorrect accusations of serious wrongdoing.
Sadly, all these violations easily could have been avoided by the
fundamental journalistic step of testing and verifying facts
See Earlier Story:
Error-Prone Author Headlines New MoveOn.org
Book (May 31, 2004)
a news tip to Robert B. Bluey.
a Letter to the Editor about this