Sunday, August 15, 2004

The most effective — and insidious — propaganda is the sort that becomes accepted wisdom or common knowledge without ever being subjected to the scrutiny and indignity of public debate or discussion. Somehow it subtly permeates the upper strata of the cultural and media elites before manifesting itself as a national truism.

The most current — and flagrant — example of this phenomenon is the virtually unquestioned assertion that the “9/11 families” oppose President Bush. This September 11 shibboleth has many variants, but its force first became apparent to me in March — when the Bush-Cheney campaign released a television commercial that had the most fleeting image of the flag-draped remains of a firefighter being removed from Ground Zero.

The now notorious commercial was released the morning of March 4. Immediately, and continuing through the day, news shows were lit up with reports of “9/11 family members” objecting to what they said was the president’s shameful exploitation of this national tragedy. Only a few names of objecting families were actually given, and I recognized these to be individuals who had strongly opposed Mr. Bush for some time.

I also knew that, at least until now, these people had in no way been representative of the relatives of September 11 victims that I knew. And I speak with some authority, because well more than 100 friends, neighbors and constituents of mine were murdered at the World Trade Center. They were firefighters, cops and financial-services workers. As I tried to help these families through their grief, I had paid no attention to their politics. But I certainly picked up that many of them had come to admire Mr. Bush greatly.

This anecdotal impression was reinforced that evening, when I began receiving angry phone calls from many September 11 families. But these were not the “9/11 families” the media were highlighting. These were the families who believed the ad was not only appropriate but necessary. They were furious and frustrated that the media wouldn’t listen to them. And they were families with no history of involvement in Republican politics.

For instance, there was Jim Boyle, a lifelong Democrat and two-time president of the Fire Department of New York’s Uniformed Firefighters Association, who had headed “Firefighters for McGovern.” Jim’s son, firefighter Michael Boyle, was killed on September 11. There was retired FDNY Capt. John Viggiano, who lost two sons — Joseph, a police officer, and John, a firefighter. There was firefighter Ken Haskell, who had two brothers — Tom, a battalion chief, and Tim, a firefighter — who were killed in the Twin Towers. And retired firefighter Bernie Heeran, whose son Charles was killed in his office at Cantor Fitzgerald. Then there was Debra Burlingame, a Democrat, whose brother Charles had been the pilot of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.

I put these family members in touch with print reporters who took their calls, politely listened to them and then either ignored them or buried their quotes in the next day’s papers. Frustrated by this media stonewall, Mr. Boyle hastily penned an open “Letter to America,” which stated in part:

“In the last several days a few of the voices of September 11th have been critical of President Bush’s campaign advertisements that, in a respectful way, recall the incredible challenges we all faced. These few voices do not speak for us. In the November election we will have a clear choice laid before the American people. President Bush is rightly offering us that choice and the images of September 11th, although painful, are fundamental to that choice.”

Though Mr. Boyle had only hours to author the letter and make his phone calls, more than 30 family members readily signed on. The media gave the letter some coverage that weekend, but within days reverted to form and would report as historical fact how the Bush campaign had been hit with a firestorm of protest from the “9/11 families.”

Just three weeks later, Richard Clarke insinuated himself onto the national scene, becoming the overnight darling of the anti-Bush crowd, as he implied that Mr. Bush was to blame for September 11. Again the media cited the September 11 families who supported Mr. Clarke. All of this coincided with the release of Mr. Clarke’s book.

And again, Mr. Boyle, whose band of September 11 relatives had grown far beyond the anti-Bush September 11 families coronated by the media, issued another “Letter to America.” Comparing Mr. Clarke to such exploiters of September 11 as shop looters and filers of bogus insurance claims, the letter accused Mr. Clarke of “politicizing 9/11 and further dividing America.” Again the media acknowledged this anti-Clarke letter but still saw the anti-Bush relatives as the real “September 11 families.” This media bias continues unabated.

I have no quarrel with September 11 family members who oppose Mr. Bush. That’s certainly their right in a free society. What I do resent is the media’s lionizing these families, who I believe to be a distinct minority, at the expense of the many more September 11 family members who so strongly support the president. Very frankly, it is time for those in the media who are so ardently anti-Bush to cease their political profiteering from the tragedy of September 11.

Rep. Peter King, New York Republican, is a member of the Homeland Security Committee.

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