The Boston bombings didn’t just explode on the runners and spectators, they exploded on the media. Among them CNN.
“I’m responsible, (but) I’m not racist,” John King defended himself on Twitter. That was after the backlash he got from reporting that the police had arrested “a dark-skinned male” in the wake of the bombing. The story turned out to be false, little helped by Wolf Blitzer earlier repeatedly praising his colleague’s report as an exclusive. Fox swiftly picked up on it, as did the Boston Globe.
A slew of reporters rushed to the Boston police station only to find out no one had been arrested, let alone a dark-skinned male. Jon Stewart called CNN “the human centipede of news” after it backtracked from its report. “It’s exclusive,” he said, “because it was completely f—ing wrong.”
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People put it this way: “The fact that this information was false is only part of the problem. Our concern is that CNN used an overly-broad, unhelpful and potentially racially inflammatory categorization to describe the potential suspect. History teaches us that too often people of color are unfairly targeted in the aftermath of acts of terrorism.”
As it turned out, the perpetrators were more light than dark, of Chechen origin. They were brothers, one of whom was killed after trading shots with police and the other captured. Their motive for their attack remains unknown. One of their uncles, furious at the shame they’ve given family and ethnicity, suggests they were “losers” who couldn’t fit and resented those that did.
I can imagine why even CNN would make that gaffe. Though it normally exudes journalistic excellence—its coverage of the US elections did so—it’s feeling the competition too. Not just from the other networks but from the social media too. That’s what’s been jacking up the ante of late. Twitter, Facebook, and accounts are getting there faster than the speed of, well, thought. That puts pressure on newspapers—which now constantly update their stories online—and TV to try to catch up with them, if not outdo them. No wonder Blitzer was beside himself thinking they had wrought a coup, or scoop.
It’s the new reality we’re living in: We’re a world that’s now governed by Facebook, Twitter, cell phones, and other tools of instant communication. Which is good and bad. The good is that very little now takes place that’s unseen or unreported. If spouses can be caught by their partners in acts of infidelity because of Facebook and cell phones, criminals can be caught by the authorities in acts of crime because of Facebook and cell phones. The bad is that very little now takes place that’s unseen but often wrongly interpreted. The new reality can also magnify biases and spread them with the speed of, well, thoughtlessness.
The culprits in the bombing were caught largely because of the social media. The FBI got the pictures of the Tsarnaev brothers in the first place from people who had contributed them, spectators who had taken shots of the Boston marathon with their cell phones. After the FBI released the photos, more people contributed their own pictures, improving the resolution of the images. The brothers had nowhere to turn to, they had nowhere to hide. That accounted for the speed with which they were caught.
But there was a huge downside to it too. Before the brothers were caught, several people were identified wrongly in the mainstream and social media as suspects. The first was a “Saudi national” who was running away from the blasts like everybody else. Police picked him up because he looked like, well, a Saudi national. Which he was, a 21-year-old Saudi studying English. The New York Post ran the story saying he was a suspect.
Another was a student from Brown University in Pennsylvania who had gone AWOL and whose name happened to be Sunil Tripathi. Reddit and 4chan users saw him with a backpack at the marathon and named him a suspect.
Yet another person named Mike Mulugeta was tweeted as a suspect by the hacker group Anonymous. It was picked up by others and re-tweeted 3,200 times.
And then there was Salah Eddin Barhoum. Barhoum is a 17-year-old track runner from Revere High School who arrived at the marathon late and had to settle for watching it at the end line. Next day, he found his and his friend’s, Yassine Zaime’s, photo splashed in Reddit with the caption “Bag men: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.” The pictures ended up in the Boston Post. Barhoum immediately went to the police station to clear his name. But not before—and after—getting all sorts of hate mail from strangers. “How could you do that?” one said. “Did you even think about the consequences?”
For days, Barhoum, who moved to America with his Moroccan parents and two sisters five years ago, feared for his life and was scared to go to school and to a bakery where he helps out. He still does, saying some people might still do him harm thinking he was somehow involved in the crime.
What they all have in common of course is a foreign-sounding name, which is not unlike the description, “a dark-skinned male.”
The point is simple. With the awesome power to communicate instantly today, you’d think media would exercise more restraint and prudence. But, no, the need to provide instant information as well encourages the opposite. With scary implications for a country whose Senate just rejected background checks on people who want to buy assault rifles, where self-styled patriots run around vowing to defend America—from what, or whom, they do not say—whose rightist and righteous elements are fanning a fear of immigrants. They don’t watch out and things like the Boston attacks will claim more victims.
Will have more dead.