On the evening of September 11, 2001, a day after moving from Boston to Brooklyn, I sat, guzzling bourbon, with strangers at a bar on Metropolitan Avenue, trading stories that were almost certainly false. These were the days before Twitter, of course, when rumors metastasized and took slightly longer to radiate. “Did you hear,” a thoroughly drunk and untrustworthy woman told me, “that they found explosives on the George Washington Bridge?” I had not, but who could doubt such a thing after having just watched the incineration of almost 3,000 people in lower Manhattan? And at the time, those estimates were much larger—possibly 6,000, could be 10,000.
The stakes seemed higher then, as the interminable wait for war against somebody began. And there wasn’t much griping about the countless reports that got it wrong. Simply deploy the “fog of war” cliché and keep pursuing the story. That instinct would change after the Iraq War.
On Wednesday, for 45 minutes, CNN viewers of were told that multiple sources had confirmed that a suspect in the Boston Marathon terror attack had been identified and taken into federal custody. The sources were wrong. The Associated Press followed suit, but it doesn’t have a cable channel, minimizing the humiliation. Likewise, The Boston Globe reported that the suspected perpetrator was caged and en route to federal court. Countless others reported variations on the story, with minor differences.
The reports were quickly challenged by NBC and other sources—and then gracelessly walked back by all who “broke” the story. The Internet, never short on moral outrage, collectively raised its pitchforks, offered lessons in journalism (on Twitter), and admonished CNN. On Wednesday it was cable’s last-place news network that would be the punching bag.
Three days in, it’s nearly impossible to keep track of who has been wrong about what. On Monday evening, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, citing unnamed sources, reported that additional bombs had been found on the marathon route. The AP, citing a “senior U.S. intelligence official,” likewise said, “Two more explosive devices have been found near the scene of the Boston marathon where two bombs detonated earlier.” On Wednesday a Los Angeles Times reporter tweeted that “feds have ID’d TWO suspects.” Interested in, yes, but not identified.
The situation was so thick with confusion that bum information was being transmitted by the authorities. The Boston Police Department misreported an attack on the JFK Library in Dorchester. (It was an unrelated fire.) Doctors told the family of one bombing fatality that their daughter was alive, though her friend, with whom she attended the race, had died. They discovered the horrible mistake when brought to their “daughter’s” hospital bed.
On top of bad reporting, there was general disgust at the injection of politics into the tragedy—Nicholas Kristof and Jennifer Rubin were the most frequently cited examples. But less commented on was the subterranean politicization of the attacks; egregious potshots at hated media outlets masquerading as outraged media criticism.
Getting the details of an unfolding terrorism drama wrong is understandable. But not checking easily checkable information isn’t.
When the New York Post reported that a Saudi man—a marathon spectator injured in the bomb blast—was being treated as a “suspect” and was under watchful eye of authorities at a local hospital, the Boston police seemed to deny the report, saying, “We haven’t been notified of any arrests or anyone apprehended.” (The Boston Globe reported that “a person of interest” was being question at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a story also denied by the Boston police.) For those paying attention, it was a nondenial denial. But no matter, because journalists and partisans—and even The Onion—jumped on the Post for reporting a “total falsehood.”
But later that day, NBC, CBS, and the Los Angeles Times all reported the same “falsehood,” also citing law-enforcement sources. On Tuesday The Washington Post published a piece headlined “Injured Saudi Is a Witness, Not a Suspect, in Boston Bombing,” producing another torrent of gleeful Post bashing (and becoming the site’s most read story of the day). But reading beyond the headline, the reader would see that while the young Saudi was indeed an innocent bystander, he only became a witness after authorities descended on his apartment Monday evening, clearing him of suspicion. One can quibble over the use of “suspect” or “person of interest”—and why suspicions fall on this particular spectator (we know that answer to that)—but no other victims had their apartments torn apart, so it’s fair to say authorities were wrongly suspicious.
The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson recounted an interview Fox News conducted with the Saudi nonsuspect’s roommate: “‘Let me go to school, dude,” the roommate said later in the day, covering his face with his hands and almost crying, as a Fox News producer followed him and asked him, again and again, if he was sure he hadn’t been living with a killer. Watch the tape and tell me if that’s what you see. An ordinary television interview—pushy, slightly repetitive questioning—is transformed online, with annoyance and exasperation rendered as “almost crying.” Well, you say, it sounds like something Fox News would do, so what’s the difference?
Isn’t the outrage here a bit selective and, under the banner of keeping journalists honest, a tad dishonest? The complaints about the New York Post transformed from a “made-up story knocked down by police” to a parsing of the words “suspect,” “potential suspect,” and “person of interest.” Other news agencies—like CBS, which on Tuesday reported that the Saudi was “no longer considered a suspect”—used the same language but were spared the bile.
The other story that clogged social media Monday also took aim at News Corp. and Rupert Murdoch. Erik Rush, a semiliterate “pundit” of no repute, tweeted that Saudis should be aggressively profiled at American airports. When challenged by a reader, he “sarcastically” (his claim) responded, “Yes, they’re evil. Let’s kill them all.” Everywhere one clicked, Rush was (rightfully) denounced. And it was a legitimate story because he was a “Fox News contributor.”
Media pundit Jim Romenesko called Rush “a regular on Fox News”; ThinkProgress used “contributor”; Esquire went with the vague “Fox News commentator”; Britain’s Independent newspaper did an entire story on the “frequent guest on Fox News.” Salon said, in a headline, that Rush was a “Fox guest” and, in the story’s body, an “occasional Fox News guest.” MSNBC’s Goldie Taylor identified him in a tweet as a “Fox News contributor,” a claim passed on by journalists at The Washington Post and The Atlantic. And so on.
But Rush writes for the conspiracy website WND.com and isn’t a “contributor” (a paid gig) or a “regular” on Fox News (Nexis shows that Rush has appeared as a guest five times in the last year). But this sounds right. When contacted by Fox News to retract the association, Salon obliged, as did, it seems, The Independent, which changed its headline.
Getting the details of an unfolding terrorism drama wrong is understandable—though, at this clip, unacceptable. But not checking easily checkable information isn’t understandable, regardless of whether your quarry is a practitioner of good journalism. Would it be too much to ask the finger-waggers and Twitter moralists to lead by example?