A Word About Jumping To Conclusions, Boston Edition

There's a lot we still don't know about what happened in Boston, so maybe it's time to stop speculating.

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While less than 24 hours have passed since two bombs exploded near the Finish Line of the Boston Marathon, that hasn’t stopped the media from passing on endless rounds of speculation about what is going on in the case. The New York Post, for example, spent the better part of yesterday claiming that there were twelve people dead in the attack. We now know that the actual death toll, at this time, is three with 140 injured, 17 of whom are listed in critical condition. The Post, along with CBS News also reported that police were holding a Saudi national who had been injured and was for some reason believed to be either a “suspect” or a “person of interest,” terms with two very distinct legal  meanings. There does seem to be some truth to this in that, last night, Federal and local authorities conducted a search of an apartment in the Boston suburb of Revere, Massachusetts. This morning, CNN reported that this search was done with the consent of the resident, strongly suggesting that this is a person who is cooperating rather than someone authorities consider a suspect. It was also reported yesterday that there had been a third explosion at the JFK Library. Indeed, the Boston Police Commissioner said as much at the initial press conference that was held by local officials. As it turned out, there was no explosion and that the facility had suffered an unrelated fire in a Mechanical Room. Finally, there were multiple reports that authorities had recovered multiple unexploded devices. The Wall Street Journal reported that as many as five other devices had been recovered, potentially a very important investigatory lead. This morning, it was made clear by all the levels of government investigating this matter that there were no unexploded bombs found by any authority.

This isn’t the first time that we’ve seen this kind of baseless media speculation. In the immediate aftermath of the Gabby Giffords shooting, a false report that the Congresswoman had died blasted its way around cyberspace in a matter of minutes, only to be revealed to be untrue within a matter of minutes. For hours after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the media was reporting incorrectly that (1) that the suspect was named Ryan Lanza rather than his brother Adam Lanza, (2) that there was more than one shooter, and (3) posting portions of the Facebook page of a “Ryan Lanza” who wasn’t even related to the shooter.  And, of course, going back even further, there’s the example of Press Secretary James Brady being declared dead by the news media as he was fighting for his life on an operating table at George Washington University Hospital.

The reasons that things like this happen are easy to understand. When there’s a breaking news story like this, the media beast demands that it be fed. At the same time, law enforcement has the understandable desire to keep information related to the investigation close to the vest, especially when it’s possible that the perpetrator (and possible confederates) are on the loose and monitoring media reports about the investigation. That’s been true as long as television as existed, I think, and has become even more prevalent with the advent of 24/7 cable news channels. The media wants something to talk about, and they want to be able to claim that they got a story “first,” and law enforcement wants to conduct its investigation, which can be a slower process than the modern news cycle is willing to tolerate. Add in the world of the Internet and especially Twitter, and the pressure to report something, anything becomes very strong. And, hence, we have news outlets reporting half-baked rumors as if their fact, many times provided by law enforcement sources who may not be as close-in to the investigation as reporters think they are.

There’s another aspect to this type of news cycle, though, and it brings up memories of a man named Richard Jewell. Jewell, you’ll recall, is the security guard who ended up getting caught up in the whirlwind of the 1996 Centennial Park bombing. He had apparently noticed a suspicious package that night, told a nearby police officer, and helped warn people to get out of the park. For his trouble, he ended up getting caught up in a month-long media maelstrom in which he was accused, tried, and convicted in the court of public opinion. As it turned out, of course, Jewell was completely innocent, the bomb had been set by Eric Rudolph, but it took years for that fact to come out and Jewell’s life had still been ruined. Indeed, even the libel settlements he got from several major news outlets likely were insufficient to make up for the hell that he was put through.

So, perhaps, we should keep Jewell in mind as the information about the tragedy in Boston trickles out:

If the FBI, and CNN, and NBC, and the New York Post, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and All Of Us, could get the Atlanta bombing sotragically wrong in 1996, they, and we, can do it today. In the days to come, it would behoove All Of Us to take what the FBI, and CNN, and NBC, and the New York Post, and their ilk, have to say about suspects and motives with a grain of salt.

Lest we find outselves owing someone a Richard Jewell-sized apology.

Perhaps the best apology we, All Of Us, can give to Richard Jewell is to be a little more skeptical of what we’re told by the FBI, and CNN, and NBC, and the New York Post, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and their ilk.

It will do Richard Jewell no good whatsoever, but it will make All Of Us better citizens.

To which I can only say, agreed.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Jeremy says:

    Agreed as well, Doug. Agreed as well.

  2. Red Barchetta says:

    That is wise, Doug, and Amen.

    I am in Boston frequently. I’ve been at that corner perhaps 50 times. Its an emotional thing for me.

    Let’s let the facts unfold. And go from there.

  3. Latino_in_Boston says:

    I couldn’t agree more Doug.

    The only thing I know as of right now is that this was a tragedy and that this city has made me proud. We are indeed resilient and will make the best of the situation. In the meantime, let’s remind ourselves that we just DON’T KNOW, and even what we might find out in the next few hours/days might turn out to be wrong, inaccurate or partially true.

  4. John Peabody says:

    Damn well agreed. If you don’t know, shut the hell up.

  5. Mikey says:

    This will just be repeating what everyone else said, but it’s worth repeating.

    We know very little at this point and much of that is likely wrong.

  6. C. Clavin says:

    Richard Jewell…exactly.
    Speculation based on nonsense, like Jenos’s counter-factual:

    …My first thought was that this was probably not a right-winger terrorist, on the basis that the attack was inefficient. … Historically, right-wing terrorists in America like McVeigh have planned big, and succeeded big. It’s the left-wing terrorists who have been more inept…

    …is worse.

  7. grumpy realist says:

    And of course all the news shows are going gaga over this, repeating every rumour that gets twittered to them with the breathless immediacy of a “hot scoop!”

    They must have repeated the story three times during the five minutes I was in my sports’ club locker room this morning. Insane. I wanted to throw a brick through the TV.

  8. 11B40 says:

    Greetings:

    Kind of makes one wonder if they even mention that nevermind teach about it in Journalism School anymore.

    “What you see is news. What you know is background. What you feel is opinion.”
    – Lester Markel, late Sunday editor
    of The New York Times.

  9. matt bernius says:

    Part of the problem is the current mode of “constant coverage.” In the past — pre-CNN/cable news — rather than constant “live” coverage, news updates would typically come periodically on an event like this.

    The net result was far less “vamping” — i.e. filling dead time between actual news updates. Hence, a little less need to fill the gaps with speculation.

    The new model — which extended to text journalism via the web — is an expectation to provide constant updates in real time. Plus there continues to be a desire to “break” news — i.e. be the first with the update (as everyone is even more aware of what their competitors are publishing at that very same moment).

  10. C. Clavin says:

    Another Jenos jewel regarding the NY Post jumping to conclusions:
    https://www.outsidethebeltway.com/multiple-explosions-at-boston-marathon-finish-line/#comment-1729864
    The reality?
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/16/ny-post-boston-bombings_n_3092814.html
    Jenos vs. reality…a never-ending conflict.

  11. Septimius says:

    (To be honest, given the date, I have to think that the better money is on domestic anti-government types, but time will tell).

    Steven L. Taylor
    April 16, 2013

  12. Scott says:

    @C. Clavin: It would be helpful if you actually made a useful contribution to the conversation instead of these indulgences.

  13. Jeremy says:

    @C. Clavin: I second Scott. This is really unnecessary right now.

  14. C. Clavin says:

    Scott and Jeremy…
    You are right…the baseless speculation should continue.
    Sorry I bothered you two.

  15. Todd says:

    If it turns out that this Saudi student was nothing more than one of the victims, I’d be very interested to learn what exactly the witnesses who reported his activity to police found to be “suspicious” … other than simply looking middle eastern near the scene of an explosion?

  16. C. Clavin says:

    @ Todd…
    Running while Arab.

  17. C. Clavin says:

    @ Todd…
    Seriously though….this Saudi student talked to cops, denied being involved, agreed to let them search his apartment, his roomate agrred to let them search it too, and gave his name to the Globe. Hardly the actions of a terrorist. I’m betting he was not involved.

  18. Todd says:

    @C. Calvin,

    With the caveat that I have no way of nowing for sure, I agree, it certainly doesn’t sound like this guy had anything to do with it.

  19. John Burgess says:

    The ‘news’ that comes out in the first 24 hours after an event like this is like seeing the first six dots in what turns out to be a pointillist painting. Very easy to connect the dots, but not necessarily having anything to do with the actual picture.

    How long will it take to go through upwards of 100K — maybe more than a million –photo frames? How long to just collect, assemble, and analyze witness statements, many of which are going to be contradictory?

    I really think that the first 24 hours are no more than a framework. You know something happened, have a detail or two, but nothing near what it needed to reach a valid conclusion.

  20. Tsar Nicholas says:

    What’s the point in having an Internet if we’re not going to jump to conclusions?

    In any event, obviously it was a terrorist strike. You’d have to be brain dead not to realize that.

    The only remaining front-line question is whether it was domestic or foreign. Question 1.a would be if it’s the former was it a right-wing extremist attack (a la McVeigh) or a left-wing extremist attack (a la ELF or Ayers). Question 1.b if it’s the latter scenario would be was it al Qaeda or some other group. Question 1.c would be if it’s the latter was it sleeper agents or people who recently arrived here. Not exactly rocket science, but for obvious reasons not nearly cognizable in various media-academe-Internet demographic groups.

    Ultimately assuming it’s foreign-based terrorism the most interesting questions will be (1) to what exent will the liberal media-academe-Internet cabal be able to airbrush this event from history, as obviously they’d be hell bent on doing, and (2) whether and to what extent will the near-comatose U.S. general public emerge from their collective reality holidays and become sentient, informed and rational.

  21. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @C. Clavin: It seems that, when you’re not fixated on slamming me, you’re plagiarizing me.

    You, just now: “Running while Arab.”

    Me, yesterday: “People from all over the world run in the Boston Marathon. This very well could be a case of “Running While Arab.” I’d be curious to hear why they grabbed this guy.”

    Get an effing life, Cliffy.

  22. Al says:

    @C. Clavin:

    I have a feeling you’re missing the point.

  23. Peter says:

    Right as 9/11 was unfolding some online news sources reported a big explosion at the State Department in Washington. Nothing of the sort actually happened. Later that afternoon the death toll estimates were in the 6,000 to 10,000 range, though under the circumstances that might be understandable. A few months later, following the arrest of the would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid, news reports were describing him as Sri Lankan.

  24. Gromitt Gunn says:

    You see, it would be this mat that you would put on the floor…

  25. James Joyner says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    In any event, obviously it was a terrorist strike. . . . The only remaining front-line question is whether it was domestic or foreign.

    There are all manner of remaining questions, including who did this and why. What if it was a pissed off former employee? Or someone who for some reason hates runners? Or just some sick jerk out for fun? Unless there was a political motivation behind the attack, it’s not terrorism.

  26. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    Charles Krauthammer brought up an interesting point: this, technically, might not have been a terrorist attack. Part of the accepted definition of terrorism is that it is done for a political goal; if this was just some nut who thought it would be cool to kill people in a very public forum, he had no higher goal and would simply be a murderer, not a terrorist.

    I think it highly unlikely, but interesting nonetheless.