The night of September 11 passed in Paterson without unusual incident; in fact, crime in the city was sharply down.
The morning of September 12, things began to reel out of control.
Beginning late in the afternoon of the 12th and continuing, reports came of celebrations by Islamic groups. From the best information city officials had, CNN and other stations aired a two- or three-year old tape from Nablus on the West Bank of Palestine showing Arabs celebrating and then, by the magic of mass communications, Paterson was mentioned as home to a large number of Middle Eastern people and presto — Paterson Muslims were celebrating.
Area radio and TV reported “rioting” in the streets of Paterson, when in fact the streets in the Middle Eastern neighborhoods were not only quiet, but deserted: people feared for themselves and their children, so they hid.
On the 12th, calls came from both outraged citizens and the media asking for comment and interviews concerning the celebrations in Paterson. We knew nothing about anything of the kind and then I took a ride to the area to check with the cops. The area was tranquil, not just quiet, and most of the shops owned by Middle Easterners were closed. A friend who owned a Halal butcher shop on South Broadway confirmed that nothing was going on. He said he was closing his shop, getting his kids out of school, and going home. It all made sense as soon as he said it. The Middle Eastern community of Paterson was frightened and was going to stay out of harm’s way for as long as it took for things to get back to normal. They certainly weren’t celebrating; they were fully aware of the “American” nature and were going to hide.
The calls continued unabated.
I kept asking the callers for the source of their information and finally found out that the talk radio shock jocks were letting callers on the air with totally fabricated information. I called the stations and was told that the radio stations had no responsibility to validate the listeners’ comments.
Now the rumors began to escalate. The deputy mayor of Jersey City called who said that we could have an extra 250 cops if we needed them. ” Why would we need extra cops?” I asked. “Don’t you guys have fighting in the streets?” he said. “No, it’s all quiet,”
The mayor said he had gotten a call from the governor asking what help we needed. He told me to find the source of these fabricated reports and to stop them.
Mayors get that way sometimes. They are very fond of having instructions followed.
Scott and Todd in the Morning on WPLJ-FM put “Marge” on the air. “Marge” said she worked at the County Administration Building and had personally seen the celebrations take place on Broadway from her office window. One small problem with her observation: The County Administration Building is on Ward Street. Broadway is six full city blocks away — and parallel to Ward — Superman’s x-ray vision would have failed.
But, more importantly, the hosts refused to screen callers.
A thought was that these calls were part of the terrorists’ campaign. What better way to foster the goals of the terror-mongers than to get Americans fighting Americans in the streets? Disinformation is always part of war and deception as commonplace as bullets.
On September 11 the national news media, having confirmed information about terrorists hi-jacking four aircraft and three crashing into major urban areas, told their audiences where the Commander-in-Chief was, where the Vice President was, and where other high-ranking American officials were located. This information was being broadcast on NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, and other national outlets with more than 1,000 commercial flights, not to mention thousands of private aircraft, still in the air.
It is no stretch at all to picture three or four more hijacked craft aiming for either the middle school in Florida where the President was or for Air Force One.
What we have done is turn our airwaves over to people who feel they have no civic responsibility whatsoever and there can be deadly danger in doing so.
The New York Times, New York Daily News, New York Post, Newark Star Ledger, Bergen Record, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and AP all sent reporters to check out the rumors and all concluded that there was no substance to them. Their reports at least reached a large segment of the news reading public, but unfortunately, TV news producers weren’t among them. TV and radio reports of the “celebrations” continued unabated. The electronic media sent no one, depending on rumors for their coverage.
What was created was a long-standing myth. Years later a character working for the White House on West Wing was about to have his security clearance revoked because of alleged contacts with terrorists. Where was he from? Paterson.
Bob Grant is the former principle spokesman and emergency communications director for the city of Paterson, NJ. He served from January 1997 until July 1, 2002.