Media coverage of Boston Bombers—good, bad and ugly

Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Old and new media, ranging from traditional “shoe-leather reporting” in newspapers such as the Boston Globe and from veteran TV reporters, to social media, surveillance cameras and cell phone images, were on full display in the coverage of the dramatic events that unfolded in Boston last week. What lessons can we derive from the riveting, minute-by-minute coverage of the bombings that killed three and wounded more than 170 near the finish line at the Boston Marathon, through the shoot-out with the suspected Tsarnaev brothers, to the dramatic capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Watertown, Mass.?

First, the good news: Many mainstream media outlets covering the story struck a balance in reporting the dramatic and horrific events as they unfolded in “real time.” They managed to do their jobs and still cooperate with the first responders and law enforcement officials as they attempted to deal with the immediate emergencies and conduct a methodical investigation into the terroristic crime, which ultimately led to the death of 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the capture of his 19-year-old surviving brother. The media also was extremely helpful in disseminating the FBI-released photos of the suspects and in advising Bostonians to comply with the request by officials that they remain in their homes until the situation was resolved.  

On the other hand, there were very serious and hurtful errors in the news coverage.  Perhaps the most egregious and irresponsible was the front page of the New York Post on Thursday, April 13, which under a headline screaming “BAG MEN,” featured a photo of two unnamed young men with backpacks. A sub-headline read:  “Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.”  It turns out the men in the photo had absolutely nothing to do with the bombings.  

The same newspaper also reported that a “Saudi American national” was a “suspect” in the bombings.  He was not. Back in 1981, when Frank Reynolds was anchoring the coverage of the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan for ABC television, a young reporter breathlessly called in a report that James Brady, the President’s Press Secretary, died at the hospital of the wounds he suffered at the scene. Minutes later, the reporter called back and said he had “made a terrible mistake.  Brady did not die; he is in serious but stable condition at the hospital.”  Veteran newsman Reynolds turned visibly red and told the young reporter: “Let’s get the facts nailed down.  This man has a wife and a family.”

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In addition, there were some equally irresponsible speculations and comments made by various pundits from the left and right that did not contribute constructively to story. Right-wing radio talk show host Mark Steyn, sitting in for Rush Limbaugh, predicted, almost hopefully, that the suspect or suspects would be Muslim extremists—which ultimately seems to have been a correct “call.” Others on the left were not only speculating that they would be right-wing extremists, but in some cases were openly hoping so. John King, on CNN reported, inaccurately, that officials had detained a “dark-skinned male.”

This latter misreporting on CNN recalls the inaccurate description of the shooter in the Aurora movie theater mass murders as a member of the Tea Party.   It turns out that there was a much older man in the Tea Party with the same name as the suspect in that case.    

The major example of this type of negligent and ill-advised “rooting” that the suspects conform to certain stereotypes so that one side or the other could score “points” was an opinion piece by columnist David Sirota in Salon headlined, “Let’s hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American.”

Sirota’s “reasoning” is based on the hope that if this were the case, there would be no collective blaming of the entire Muslim community for the latest terrorist act carried out by Islamic extremists. Some on the right, especially on talk radio and Fox News, seemed to be hoping that the suspects would indeed be Muslims to reinforce their own stereotypes.

Tom Brokaw, usually the voice of sober reason, made an unhelpful observation on “Meet the Press” that perhaps the United States should “look at our use of drone strikes,” which he said fomented hatred among young Muslims in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. At that time, there was no indication that the two brothers suspected in the Boston bombing were in any way influenced by the drone strikes on Islamic extremists.

The very idea that journalists would publically “root” for suspects to be of a certain ideological persuasion so that it would bolster these journalists own biases is a sad commentary on just how poisoned our political and ideological discourse has become in America.

Suspects are who they are—period. A reporter should be able to accurately discuss their Islamic extremist influences without fear of being branded an “Islamaphobe.” Still, we should take pains not to libel or slander the entire Muslim community based on the acts of a few fanatics with access to lethal weapons. At the same time, we must not attempt to minimize or shade facts just to accommodate an ideological position.

I can recall in the immediate aftermath of the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald, the suspected assassin of President John F. Kennedy, that many in my family were relieved when his religious identity was confirmed as Lutheran. “Thank God he’s not Jewish,” so many of them said. Two days after his arrest, Lee Harvey Oswald was gunned down at the Dallas City Jail by—you guessed it—Jack Ruby, who was born Jacob Rubenstein, and was in fact Jewish.

Facts are facts and are the stuff of good journalism of the kind exemplified by the late Walter Cronkite, who covered the JFK assassination for CBS. While other media outlets were rushing to report that Kennedy had died before the facts could be confirmed, Cronkite held fast until he could intone, “We have a report now, apparently official, that President John F. Kennedy died at Parkland Hospital of injuries he suffered in a shooting during his motorcade this afternoon in Dallas. He was 46 years old.” Only then did Cronkite allow some of the tears that welled up in his eyes, to start to flow. He had done his job and went to press only when he was sure of the facts.

May the legacy left by Cronkite, along with his senior colleague Edward R. Murrow, guide journalists—both professional and amateur — in the coverage of historic tragedies in the future. That would be a constructive take-away from the incredible events that unfolded in Boston last week.