When the Boston Marathon Bombings occurred, I immediately knew two things were going to happen. First, people were going to mouth off and engage in passive-aggressive yet incendiary speculation about the Tea Party. The Tea Party is anathema to my political, social and moral beliefs but even I tensed as people pointed out the links between Tax Day and Patriot Day, both happening on April 15th, and the Tea Party. And when I say people, I mean liberal pundits, and I was not disappointed. Michael Moore and David Axelrod were the two whose comments I found the most ridiculous (I didn’t mind Chris Matthews mentioning that most domestic terrorists in the USA are from the extreme right wing because it’s an accurate statement based on actual evidence – this just wasn’t the right time to bring it up). We live in a world of pundits. Everyone with a little bit of knowledge and access to a television camera offers instant opinions based on very little fact and we pay them to do it. It used to be that pundits were experts, but perhaps we now need to rethink their value because when the truth matters the most they seem to do more harm than good. When Moore and Axelrod postulated about the Tea Party, there was zero proof of anything other than that two bombs went off and that people were gravely injured. Their speculation about who was to blame was irresponsible.
The response to this was equally as tiresome. With no small amount of disgust, I noticed the sanctimonious and oh-so-offended tones of those on the right, so sorely aggrieved that anyone would think the right wing responsible for bombings, as if Tim McVeigh, Eric Rudolph and Ted Kaczynski did not exist. But all of that’s beside the point. I advise all people who were not injured in the attack or who are not close to someone injured in the attack to pull up their socks and stop making this terrible tragedy all about them and their sense of continual victimization.
The second thing I knew would happen was that Alex Jones would declare it a false flag operation launched against innocent citizens by a government so craven it would kill its own in order to erode our civil rights. His bloviating performance during the Sandy Hook shooting caused many like me to expect the worst from him and on cue, just like the barking seal he is, he began to perform for the paranoid types who make up the core of his support. Grass is green, sky is blue, blood is on the ground, and Alex Jones is pandering to the delusions of the crowd. It must be Monday.
But even though pundits are loosely considered journalists in this country, I was not prepared for the utter failure of not just the journalists in the USA, but journalists worldwide, to cover the bombings in a professional manner. I expect pundits to act like fools – it’s what they are paid to do. I expect Alex Jones to concoct improbable conspiracies and pass them off as news – it is what he is paid to do. But I did not expect mainstream media, supposedly run by trained journalists, to go so very wrong as they adopted the instant idiocy of punditry and the Infowars tactic to treat every rumor as fact. I know we are a society wherein we demand instant news and that CNN, the New York Post and other “legitimate” news sources were just trying to give us what we want, but the fact that legitimate news media decided to use the same metrics as Reddit to determine the factual worthiness of information they received is distressing and cannot be excused just because people want instant news.
I posit the complete news failures we witnessed and are still witnessing happened because the mainstream media and pundits followed the examples set by conspiracy-mongers like Alex Jones. The mainstream media failed to follow some of the most basic rules of journalism in their reporting of the Boston Marathon Bombings and acted as if they, hubs of world news, needed to behave like people on message boards, reporting every tiny bit of information before vetting it, giving as much credence to chatter on a police radio as they did to actual news releases from the Boston police and the FBI. It is nothing short of knee-slappingly hilarious that after such a failure of basic reporting ethics and rules, the mainstream media tried to blame social media sites like Reddit for muddying the waters as members worked over every detail of the bombings, coming to good conclusions, bad conclusions and outright crazy conclusions. In a world where proper journalism matters, the mutterings on message boards mean nothing. The media blaming Reddit for their failures and the harms they caused is pathetic and sniveling. Whether or not we like the idea that people gather on social media sites to engage in armchair sleuthing, it happens and will continue to happen. Armchair sleuths are not the problem. Mainstream media who give credence to armchair sleuths are the problem, but, as we will see, just reading the Find Boston Bombers subReddit was hardly the whole of the media failure.
Early on, the news reports went terribly awry. On Wednesday, April 17, CNN, Fox News, AP, and The Boston Globe all went live with stories that an arrest had been made (if I recall correctly, The Boston Globe actually said that the suspect was in a cage being taken to a federal court). After reading accounts of how CNN handled themselves after other networks and news agencies questioned the validity of their story (Huffington Post has a good breakdown of the debacle), it’s pretty clear now why CNN was mocked the most for this failure in reporting. When CNN began to experience pushback, they got weaselly. They stated that perhaps, just maybe, the story would look different in an hour, which asks the question of why on earth they went with it in the first place if just an hour could show a whole different scenario. Then talking heads on CNN began to engage in lawyer ball, making statements to the effect that even if there had been no arrest, that did not mean that the police had not taken someone into custody without arresting him.
CNN was so irritated that HuffPo criticized their coverage that a “spokesperson” sent HuffPo the following statement (taken from the article I linked to above and emphasis mine):
“CNN had three credible sources on both local and federal levels. Based on this information we reported our findings. As soon as our sources came to us with new information we adjusted our reporting.”
Three whole sources, huh? Really? Because that seems unlikely given that CNN later said that their federal sources “misunderstood.” The jist of the denial is that CNN’s “credible sources” couldn’t tell the difference between being told that law enforcement felt like they were closing in on identifying the suspects and being told a suspect had been arrested. That’s a huge misunderstanding. It’s the sort of misunderstanding that almost beggars belief.
And when we consider CNN‘s John King said outright that law enforcement was searching for a “dark-skinned male” when no such search was occurring, it’s hard to see how CNN could have screwed things up any worse than they already did. Because unless CNN‘s “credible sources” were punking them, it defies any notion of good faith that in such an uneasy time CNN would risk inflaming anti-Muslim sentiment until they knew, above and beyond what some hazy insiders speaking without risk of being identified had to say, that the bombers were indeed dark-skinned men.
But then again, other pundits and talking heads didn’t even bother to wait for hazy sources before they began to speak of the Tea Party because the bombings occurred on Patriot Day and Tax Day. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised.
If this had been the only problem in the reporting of the Boston Marathon bombings, it would have been enough. But no, it’s just the beginning. I’m not even going to be able to handle all the smaller reporting problems, like claims that a Saudi national injured in the attack had been taken into custody and stories from The Wall Street Journal about additional bombs on the marathon routes. Were I to discuss every rumor that was printed as legitimate news, this essay would be three times as long. So let us now discuss user-generated content on social media sites and how, evidently, Reddit is the devil and major news agencies had no way of knowing that reporting such content as fact was, in some sense, misguided.
That’s going to take a while because that which is utterly ridiculous often takes a while to explain.
You see, and I must explain that this is speculation on my part and you need to throw some grains of salt, even though Reddit’s formal apology says that the New York Post did not obtain their information about the men with backpacks from Reddit, their sorry explanations of where they got the information just don’t pass any reasonable source test. The New York Post website went live with an article wherein they claimed “authorities” were sending out pictures of the two men with backpacks. According to the New York Post, they received an e-mail that said:
“The attached photos are being circulated in an attempt to identify the individuals highlighted therein,” said an e-mail obtained by The Post. “Feel free to pass this around to any of your fellow agents elsewhere.”
This is horrible – the New York Post doesn’t even bother to say where they got the e-mail. Did any other news agency get it? Did they verify the message come from a legitimate source? Did any of that matter? Evidently not because they ran a picture of the two men, who were never considered suspects anywhere but online message boards, on the cover of their print paper.
It gets worse from there because in the online Post article I quote above, within a paragraph after they assert they got an e-mail they were encouraged to pass along, they go on to say:
Authorities know the names of the two men, but do not have enough evidence to make an arrest for Monday’s attack, which killed three and wounded 176, the sources said.
It was not immediately clear if the men in the law-enforcement photos are the same men in the surveillance videos.
What fresh nonsense is this? Seriously, what is happening here? It very much looks like the Post has a basic understanding that those two men with backpacks in the pictures they splashed all over their website and their paper may not be the men observed depositing the backpacks. If that is the case, why on earth did they publish this article until they knew for sure that the two men, a coach and his student, were either the two men in the surveillance tape or were being sought separately? This article caused a high school track student to become so afraid for his safety that he went to the police himself to explain he was not the bomber. This article itself is complete refutation of the claim that Reddit shoulders the burden of the blame for spurring on witch hunts.
Moreover, based on nothing but disgust for how all of this went down, I find it hard to believe the Post really received such an e-mail at all. Either that or the FBI needs to clean house because one of their own spent the entire investigation punking major news sources to the point that their reporting was no different than what one sees on most conspiracy theory sites.
To repeat myself, if the above were all that went so very wrong with the mass media reporting in this case, it would be enough. But now we come to Sunil Tripathi and Mike Mulugeta. Less is known about Mike Mulugeta (though I personally witnessed one fringe news source link to a Twitter account of a Mike Mulugeta, a teenaged boy of Somali descent, and claim he had to be the dead Suspect #1 because he had a quote from Winston Churchill talking about how making enemies comes from taking a stand – that accusation has since been deleted, thankfully). But Sunil Tripathi is a student from Brown University who went missing in March of this year. He bears a slight resemblance to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and in a thread on the Find Boston Bombers, a sub-Reddit created specifically for people who wanted to pore over the pictures and find clues, Tripathi’s name came up as a potential suspect. The speculation took legs from there.
I have no idea if Tripathi and Mulugeta’s names were really uttered on police radio in Boston. I have not read a single person who puts a name behind the statement and says, “Yeah, I was the one who heard it!” So it’s hard to know if it really happened or if a joker or overzealous clue hunter made it up. Regardless, it is hard to understand how a statement of something heard on police radio reported without a verifiable source on Reddit became the basis of actual news stories, but that is exactly what happened. Infowars still has their article about Tripathi online, and that article credits 4chan for discovering Tripathi’s supposed identity as Suspect #2. Even more interesting, the Infowars article also links to news sources who had “verified” the police had in fact said over the radio that Tripathi was Suspect #2. One of the links goes to Business Insider and all references to Tripathi have been scrubbed from the article. I have to wonder how many reputable news sources, posting garbage in the middle of the American night, scrubbed all signs from their sites as soon as they realized they had gotten things so terribly wrong. (Just after publishing this article online, Infowars removed their article that I link to above, so you’ll just have to take with a grain of salt what I say I read, including the link to Business Insider.)
Reddit has apologized for their role in misidentifying the Boston Bombers even though they were hardly the only site devoted to user-generated content to say that Sunil Tripathi and Mike Mulugeta were mentioned on the police radio in Boston. 4chan, as mentioned above, indicated that Tripathi and Mulugeta had been involved in the shoot-out, Mulugeta being Suspect #1, who was announced dead. Though I see how apologizing to the Tripathi family for the harm the speculation caused them is the right thing to do, I wonder if any of the mainstream press who dragged Sunil’s name through the mud did the same? I don’t think Reddit (or any other similar site) has anything to apologize for because the site’s content is user-generated and as a result cannot be considered journalistic reporting delivered with an expectation of accuracy. Moreover, having read and read about this, I cannot see how it is that anyone separates those Reddit inspired to go on a witch hunt and harassment campaign from those who were similarly inspired by the New York Post and the International Business Times.
This is the crux of what is wrong. How can mainstream media sources impugn user-generated content on social media sites as being the reason so many people were willing to engage in witch hunts when they themselves reported that user-generated content as fact?
Slate, of all places, got it right. In many ways Reddit did actually behave more responsibly than the mainstream media. Though I heartily disagree that a site created entirely from user-generated content can actually be considered part of journalistic media, unless one radically redefines what journalistic media entails, Reddit did many things right. The moderators removed incendiary content, people listened as calmer heads called out for reason. There were posts there that can only be considered lunatic and people definitely went too far in their insistence that they had cracked the case, but let’s think about this for a moment: if Reddit did something so terrible they needed to apologize, why on earth did the mainstream media give credence to the content Reddit generated about the bombing and use it without verifying it?
The moment that the mainstream media validated the findings of Redditors, the real damage was done. Any fool can say any idiotic thing on a social media site, but when the mass media, journalists trained to ferret out facts and confirm information, take user-generated content and present it as truth, I assert the mass media are the ones who have done the most damage. As Andrew Leonard said in his article for Salon:
In the grand scheme of things, what the New York Post did is far, far worse than anything that I’ve seen in Find Boston Bombers. If the editors at the Post had devoted just five minutes to the kind of self-reflection that is pulsing through Reddit right now, they would have realized that what they were doing was unconscionable. The only logical explanation for the New York Post to prominently display the images of two young men who had a darker “skin tone” than other potential “suspects” is the worst kind of fear-mongering racism. Not to put too fine a point on it: It’s evil.
Again, I think it is extremely misguided to call Reddit or any other site wherein the content is user-generated and subject to no form of vetting part of the mainstream media, but like Leonard, I believe the media are the ones who should shoulder the bulk of the blame for their reporting failures.
Here’s one of many self-serving condemnations of Reddit. In an article that I cannot call anything but ridiculous, the International Business Times condemn Reddit’s untrained and overenthusiastic sleuths for creating a mob mentality and for identifying the wrong people in their attempts to find the bombers. The article at no time mentions that IBT India was one of the first online news sources to take Reddit’s bad information and run with it as if it had been verified in any manner.
I was reading about the bombings on my cell phone at around 3:00 a.m. on Friday, April 19th. In an article on the Daily Mail’s website (and though the Daily Mail is the last place you should go for newsworthy information, they had a very good selection of photographs from the bombing), people in the comments said that Sunil Tripathi had been verified by the Boston police as Suspect #2. I immediately began a search on this information and found the second name, Mike Mulugeta. A search on Mike’s name landed me on IBT, which was the first link on Google for a search for Mike Mulugeta as a Boston Marathon Bombing suspect.
The article said that Boston police had confirmed that Sunil and Mike were the Boston Bombers who had been wreaking havoc in Watertown, oddly using different spellings for Sunil’s last name throughout the article. I remember clearly feeling strange because Sunil’s name had come up already and having compared his pictures to the young man in the pictures the FBI had released as their main persons of interest, he had only the most tenuous resemblance to Suspect #2. His mole, his hair length and the bone structure in his face made it clear he could not have been Suspect #2. But IBT was saying that the Boston police had identified him (completely misrepresenting the “identification” via chatter on a police scanner). How could that be?
I kept checking news sources until 6:00 a.m., when I finally fell asleep. When I woke later, the Tsarnaevs were finally named in all news sources and everyone was whining about Reddit causing a witch hunt. It wasn’t Reddit who so confused me. Reddit is not a trusted purveyor of the news. IBT is, and they took mutterings online from unidentified sources, allegedly gleaned from some anonymous cop overheard on a police radio scanner, and ran with it. And now they are just another voice of unearned outrage against Reddit for causing the Tripathi family pain.
This is what Alex Jones does. He publishes rumors and innuendo as if they are fact. He does this because he says he has no faith in the mainstream media because they do not report all the facts, that they hide important information from the American people. And for reasons known only to them – incompetence, eagerness to get a scoop, fear of being left behind, sheer laziness as they took speculation for fact – the mainstream media reported as if Infowars was now the journalistic standard. When they got called on it, they blamed Reddit for engaging in a witch hunt, as if a group of regular citizens offering opinions online carried the same weight as fact-based journalism one expects to see from CNN, the International Business Times, the AP, and the New York Post.
This disgusting lack of ethics where facts are concerned will just keep going on. The world’s answer to a question no one asked, Alan Dershowitz, is currently blithely talking nonsense, making damn sure the lack of integrity in the information given to the American public continues onward. A big fan of torturing Muslims, Dershowitz is making claims backed by nothing but the rabid squirrels running circles in his mind. As Charles Pierce reports in Esquire:
Alan Dershowitz was just on CNN saying that it is very unlikely that Dzhokar Tsarnaev will come to trial because he will either cut a deal to save his life by “giving up information on other members of a cell,” or because he will waive a trial and accept a death penalty because he wants to be a martyr for jihad. Dershowitz is, of course, talking straight out of his arse here. There is no evidence available that the younger Tsarnaev is connected to a “cell,” nor is there anything in his background that indicates he was willing to die for any cause. He tried to get away so frantically that he ran over his own brother. The complaint is barely unsealed, and already the commentary on this case has completely gone to the zoo.
If only we were in a zoo. I guarantee you even skunks would be repelled by reporting that stinks this much. We expect rumor as fact from Infowars. We expect Alex Jones to say all kinds of ridiculous things. We don’t expect it from respected news providers, like the AP and CNN. We don’t need pointless speculation from pundits. We need real news. We need information based on fact.
Because of the sickeningly poor performance by the news outlets during the Boston Marathon bombing coverage, I will no longer pay attention to any news story that includes the phrase “unidentified sources.” Until a person with a name and a position involved in the case say something, the major news agencies have left me with no choice but to ignore the bulk of what they choose to publish and until they retreat from the Alex Jones method of gathering news – reporting rumor and innuendo as fact – I urge others to be as strict with them. It’s funny, in a way, that by following the lead of Alex Jones the media has now shown themselves to be as unreliable and useless as Jones himself sees them. Well done.