Not So Media Savvy

| September 27, 2001
While the rest of the country mourns, members of the media are still out in force, trying to meet deadlines and beat the competition. It's a crass job but somebody's got to do it. In the rush to get the story out, reporters often have to rely largely on information gleaned from ordinary people who are simultaneously shocked by what happened and reveling in their glimpse of fame. The news is then colored not just by what these people know, but by their reaction to the people who are asking the questions. The result can be truth that's tinted with exaggeration and reports that are somewhat off base.

First, this disclosure before I go on about the media circus that set up its big tent around anyone involved with the terrorists or their actions: I was right there selling peanuts. In my capacity as a freelance journalist for National Magazine X, I visited and spoke with people who had met two of the men suspected of flying into the World Trade Center. I camped out on their doorsteps and I called them at odd hours, probably disturbing their dinner. And I'm not sorry. I'm a journalist and that's what we do.

One of my assignments was to join in the media mob that was talking to Huffman Aviation School owner Rudi Dekkers. At about 2:30 a.m. on the Wednesday after the attacks, the FBI confiscated Dekkers' student files from his office. They were interested in two men in particular: Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi.

To give some context for just how much media attention Dekkers got in those initial days of the investigation there's this: A Lexis Nexis (online news archive) search of the major news publications comes up with 76 hits on Dekkers' name. This does not include his appearances on most major network news programs, radio shows, and news outlets that don't have articles archived on Lexis Nexis. He did a lot of talking.

Would it be reasonable to expect Dekkers to give the same information to every news outlet? Perhaps. But that was not the case. On Wednesday, he told some reporters, including me, that his interaction with the two suspects came from a couple of brief conversations when he passed them in the halls. His employees had dealt with their enrollment. By Sunday's reports, Dekkers served up anecdotes about the two men, telling a reporter, "He sat right there last year when he came to talk to me about taking lessons here."

Maybe he was misquoted. Maybe he really was beginning to remember things about the suspect that he didn't recall before. Or maybe the incessant media coverage and the pressure of being the center of such attention shaped his story a lot more than his brain ever could, said USF gerontology professor Cathy McEvoy. She lectures about memory in her classroom and cautions students that recall can be tricky.

"Most people don't remember a whole lot of details about people that we meet in passing," she said. We just don't pay that much attention unless the interaction itself was extraordinary. When Dekkers bumped into Atta and Al-Shehhi, they were just ordinary students to him. But finding out extraordinary information about them later could have reshaped his recollections, said McEvoy. Learning that his two students were suspected terrorists may have caused Dekkers to view his rather benign interactions with them as something more ominous.

Another factor that can affect memory is stress, said McEvoy. And there's nothing like the pressure of morphing from a small town businessman into a highly sought-after interview subject.

When I arrived at the flight school, the parking lot was packed with news trucks from all the major networks. Reporters from all the big newspapers and magazines were hanging out in his lobby. Some were watching the story unfold on the TV in the reception area; others were standing outside smoking and trying to chat up employees.

Before I could get an audience with Dekkers, the receptionist needed to know which media outlet I was with. I got the distinct impression that the prominence of the publication dictated how long I'd have to wait. With Peter Jennings' people on the phone and reporters from The New York Times and the Washington Post skulking around, I was just one of the crowd. I spent the down time trying to find out what the other skulkers knew that I didn't (nothing) and finding out if any employees knew the two men (they didn't).

Then the man of the hour emerged. Dekkers, 45, speaks with a clipped Dutch accent and a tone that suggests he's used to barking out orders. When he was informed that yet more reporters were waiting to speak to him, he plucked a small group of us from the waiting area and led us to a gazebo outside, saying he'd be right out. We gave him about five minutes before going back in after him. He was inside giving a phone interview. One of his staffers set up a press conference in what looked like a classroom.

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