As the five-year anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the city and the nation are gearing up to memorialize the tragedy. The New York Daily News, meanwhile, has begun a hard-hitting editorial campaign lambasting the city in full-throated tabloid style for its poor handling of the health crisis emerging from the toxic air quality at Ground Zero. On July 23, the paper launched the campaign with a cover story (subscription required) under the banner headline, “Abandoned Heroes.”


According to Arthur Browne, the Daily News’s editorial page editor, the seeds for the campaign were planted back in January when the paper began investigating the issue after several first-responders died from respiratory diseases. Since 9/11 an estimated 12,000 people have reported lung-related health problems and a handful have died as a direct result.


In January, the Daily News published an editorial demanding an investigation into first-responder deaths due to respiratory illness. It followed up in February with another editorial calling for the city’s health department “to report publicly on patterns of illness, to analyze autopsies performed on first-responders who die … and to issue advisories to physicians about the best treatments for various ailments.” Despite these editorials, as well as pieces in the New York Post, the Village Voice, and the New York Times (subscription required), both the city and state governments continued to ignore the issue.


“It was clear that little or nothing was being done,” says Browne. “The more we reported, the more we saw how seriously people’s lives had been affected and how poorly government had responded.”


And so the Daily News decided to dedicate a series to the issue this summer.


In its first editorial of the campaign, the paper came out swinging with subheads like “The Big Lie” and “A Cauldron of Toxins.” It urged Mayor Bloomberg “to acknowledge that service after 9/11 did, in fact, cause fatalities,” and prescribed a long to-do list for Hizzoner. The next day, the paper published another editorial (subscription required), featured on the cover under the headline “Death Sentence,” that told the stories of four first-responders who died from respiratory illness, which their doctors claimed was the result of exposure to toxic particles in the air at Ground Zero.


Throughout late July and into August, the Daily News kept up the assault, publishing four more editorials and several news articles on the matter. But on August 11, Bloomberg refused to acquiesce. On his radio show he said the city needed “to make sure there is a connection” between the workers’ exposure to the air at Ground Zero and the respiratory diseases they contracted before taking action. Apparently, the wealth of scientific evidence and expert medical opinion cited in the Daily News articles was not proof enough for the mayor.


Three days later, however, the Daily News’s persistent jabbing finally knocked some sense into at least one New York official — Governor Pataki signed several bills (which Bloomberg had encouraged him to veto) that provide more comprehensive compensation to Ground Zero workers who are suffering from health problems related to poor air quality. And in what had to sound sweet to the ears of embattled reporters everywhere, Pataki acknowledged that his decision to sign the bills was a response to the tabloid’s “tremendous” editorial campaign.


So while we certainly expect to see an abundance of saccharine tributes to the victims and heroes of 9/11 splashed across the Daily News (and other papers) in the coming weeks, we tip our hat to the tabloid for work that embodies Joseph Pulitzer’s assertion that “the highest mission of the press is to render public service.”

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Bree Nordenson a former assistant editor of CJR.