BOB GARFIELD: Eric Lipton is on the metro staff of the New York Times. He was at the help station over on the west side of Manhattan when the city first gave out an official number of missing after the tragedy of September 11th. He looked over the lists and something literally didn't add up. Since the end of September he has written five articles about the discrepancy between the city's final death toll count and his own. Eric, welcome to the show.
ERIC LIPTON: Hello.
BOB GARFIELD: As you pointed out in one of those articles, objectively speaking, 3,000 dead is much, much better than 6,000 but emotionally many people are troubled by the lower numbers. Why?
ERIC LIPTON: I think that for a certain number of people it in some way suggests that the, that the whole September 11th was less severe-- or that perhaps it will not be recognized in history to the extent that, that they otherwise, you know, think it should be, and there are a few individuals as well who feel more insecure that there's not as many people who are in this collective grieving that they're in, and there, there's a certain part of human nature that once it grabs on to a number, you know, you get it into your mind that when someone wants to reduce it, you, you want to defend it.
BOB GARFIELD:But is there any evidence that people are citing the 5,000 dead or 6,000 dead numbers for more practical reasons -- for fundraising or for political purposes?
ERIC LIPTON: There's clearly a period of several weeks where the number of 5,000 in particular was being cited by military leaders, by U.S. officials. Colin Powell in his speech in Louisville, Kentucky about the Middle East used the 5,000 figure and at that time it was clear that it was about 3,900. The problem was that I don't think the word had gotten out to Washington to the full extent or across the media. At the same time Don Imus was saying 6,000. Then the, the 6,000 figure had gotten into sort of the conventional wisdom. It was part of the lingo, and, and there hadn't been this correction which I really think has now occurred.
BOB GARFIELD:There was a point at which the death toll was presumed to be higher than the number of deaths reported in the Battle of Antietam, so it was at some point deemed the bloodiest day in American history, but the numbers that you are reporting are actually below the death toll at Antietam. When September 11th finds its way into the history books will it matter whether it's the bloodiest day or not?
ERIC LIPTON: You know you and I are making these comparisons right now, but until last week I never knew how many people died in Antietam and I couldn't tell you how many people died at, at Pearl Harbor and, and that they significance of those events has to do with the - their context in history and, and particularly the turning points in history that they represent. The, the place of September 11th in history will be determined to a large extent by what kind of a turning point is this.
BOB GARFIELD: What about the reaction-- to your stories? Are you getting mail? Are you getting hate mail?
ERIC LIPTON:Not to the most recent two stories. There -the story that we wrote in late October when we asserted that the number could drop to as -to about 2,900 - at the time the number was about 4,600 -- after that story went out, it did cause a lot of anger among some people. Mayor Giuliani was upset at the story, and berated me at a, at a press conference, and--the - I got mail and I got e-mails, and people you know asked what was the purpose of the story and was I in some way trying to suggest that, that this was not a significant event. But I lived through this myself. I live in the West Village, and I watched the buildings fall down and it's the most dramatic moment of my life, and, and I, I spent a lot of time around Ground Zero in the days following the event, and I, I witnessed things that I never want to think about. But ultimately I, I knew that what we were doing was based on, on our assessment of, of reality and, and just kept that in mind.
BOB GARFIELD: Eric Lipton, thank you very much.
ERIC LIPTON: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Eric Lipton is a reporter from the metro staff of the New York Times.