On the strange tenacity of the ‘New York Post’

The Post jumps on a Saudi 'suspect' and a 12-person death toll. ()
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There is one set of facts everyone has been waiting for, or chasing, since the explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon yesterday: Who committed this evil, and why?

Media organizations seeking to be the first to answer those questions have cultivated shadow cabinets of sources willing to offer bits of information about the ongoing investigation in exchange for their own anonymity.

Of course, that anonymity means that what the sources say is open to interpretation, if not downright suspicion. And it's one reason that however many anonymous "law enforcement" sources are feeding you information, you must carefully calibrate what you relay to the public.

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It's important to remember that much "information" released even through official channels in the moments immediately following an event like this are provisional, if not downright false. Remember the first Boston Police Department briefing, in which a fire at the Kennedy library was characterized as having been related to a "device"?

This is unavoidable, of course: as facts change, and mysteries are cleared up, even the official line takes a few detours here and there. It doesn't do to get too hung up on this. Yesterday, after a statement released by the Boston Marathon announced that two "bombs" had exploded near the finish line, MSNBC conducted a lively conversation about whether the Marathon spokespeople were giving verified information about the cause of the explosions—which MSNBC had until then been unwilling to call "bombs"—or had merely drawn the same conclusions any uninformed TV-watcher who saw video of the explosions was likely to draw. A lively but unnecessary conversation, really.

All of that is to be taken for granted. But when your local newspaper makes use of a back channel of unnamed law-enforcement "officials" and "sources" leaking information about the ongoing investigation that contradicts every other report and official statement being offered to the public, in an attempt to get ahead of the story, it goes a bit beyond the regular chaos of newsgathering in the wake of disaster.

That's what the New York Post did yesterday, with, actually, mixed results. It's important first and foremost to remember that we are talking about the Post; raging at the Post for being reckless is about as productive as raging at a pro-wrestling heel for cheating. We know that the Post will always go with the bloodiest, most incendiary possible lead that can be justified by the most minor authority.

And so the paper's early count of those who had died in the explosions, at 12, remained constant through much of last night, even as official figures, and the rest of the media, put the number at two, then three.

The Post doesn't like getting it wrong. So much so that they will keep riding the bucking horse of falseness until it positively throws them over.

Today, here's the Post on the death toll from yesterday's bombings:

The official death toll remained at three, but a law-enforcement source told The Post it could be as high as 12.

One witness told The New York Times there appeared to be 10 to 12 fatalities, including “women, children, finishers.” The wounds appeared to be “lower torso — the type of stuff you see from someone exploding out,” he said.

Well, with more than a dozen of the victims presently listed in critical condition, the Post could yet turn out to be right on this. We hope not; what the Post hopes, one hopes, is to be proven wrong, not right here. At any rate, don't count on the paper to change its "unofficial" death toll until it is absolutely impossible not to.

More troubling is the "newsbreak" from yesterday afternoon that police had apprehended a 20-year-old Saudi national and student as a "suspect" in the case,* a newsbreak also attributed to unnamed sources. The claim was denied over and over again yesterday afternoon; today, the Post takes refuge in some really nice semantics.

The Saudi citizen is characterized by the Post this morning as a "potential suspect," which is not a technical, legal term.

Unable to absolutely confirm that a raid on an apartment in Revere witnessed by Post and other reporters was a raid on the same gentleman's home, but having interviewed his roommate, the Post exhibits exquisite caution in telling its readers only that "federal and state law enforcement agents raided an apartment in a building in the Saudi man’s hometown of Revere, Mass."

It has since been confirmed that the Saudi in question was being treated at the hospital for his wounds and treated by police as a witness, that he gave his consent for a search of his apartment to police, and that the apartment in Revere the Post was watching was in fact his. One example of such confirmation comes from The Washington Post, in which the information is also attributed to an anonymous law enforcement source, but gets a bit of backup from the Saudi embassy, which is in a position to demand details from law enforcement on the whys and wherefores of the detention of its nationals.

The Post successfully identified someone who was being interviewed by police, though it's not clear that this person was ever more "interesting" than any of the hundreds of other "witnesses" interviewed by police in the hospital yesterday afternoon. We did not see headlines anywhere saying "42-year-old Falmouth housewife interviewed by authorities," because, while someone fitting that description very well might have been questioned, so would hundreds of others who also have ages and hometowns.

When this unnamed 20-year-old Saudi is cleared of any wrongdoing, as all reports seem to suggest he will be, expect the Post to change nothing about its earlier articles. Simply, they will advertise another shocking turn in the case. "Law enforcement sources: Saudi student cleared in Boston bombings." It might even be an "exclusive."

- T.M.

* A reader writes in to say that she was watching the iterations of the Post reporting carefully yesterday and does not think the paper ever used the word "arrest," as I claimed in an earlier version of this article they had. This doesn't square with notes I took yesterday, but I didn't keep a screenshot; so I'm leaving it at "apprehended" in case I had it wrong in my notes.

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In other news...

Meet the reporters who finished the Boston Marathon and then whipped out their notebooks and got to work. [The Huffington Post]

Here are yesterday's traffic numbers for bostonglobe.com. [Fishbowl NY]

The Wall Street Journal's longstanding semi-snub from the Pulitzer board. [W.W.D.]

In which Gawker's John Cook shreds BuzzFeed's McKay Coppins. [Gawker]

NPR hacked by the "Syrian Electronic Army"? [The Hollywood Reporter]

Quote of the day...

These are all the same challenges that breaking-news outlets like CNN face, but they have teams of seasoned editors to make those decisions (and still often get them wrong — perhaps even as wrong as Twitter does). Twitter has nothing but a short attention span, a hair trigger and a couple of buttons that say “tweet” and “retweet,” and they are all too easy to push. Should more people think twice before they click them? Undoubtedly. Will they? Probably not.

Mathew Ingram

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