Against my better judgment, I woke up my wife, Melody, at 3 a.m. last week to tell her all hell had broken loose in Boston and that she probably ought to get up and watch the breaking news.
We had already witnessed the terrorist bombs detonating at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three and
maiming 170, but the resulting manhunt was nearly as shocking. My guess was that the bombers were homegrown knuckleheads of the Tim McVeigh variety. Melody thought it was the work of Muslim extremists, so it turns out we were both sort of right. After the release of the suspects' photographs, within three hours, the police had the two Chechen-American brothers identified and trapped. And when the citywide lockdown was lifted, the surviving brother was located and taken alive. It was a stunning success for the Boston Police Department, the FBI, the ATF, and all the other agencies that helped track down these miscreants. But it was an extraordinary and historic failure for both print and electronic journalism.
The post-marathon manhunt made for gripping reality television, only you couldn't change the channel. When the networks joined the cable news channels in wall-to-wall coverage, there was no escaping the unfolding saga. In fact, you could take a nap, and afterward, the same people would be speculating about the same things. It was like watching an endless episode of Dragnet, except nobody had the facts, ma'am.
From CNN, to Fox News, to The Boston Globe, so many falsehoods were presented as fact and so many baseless rumors floated as the truth, it's understandable why a good-sized portion of the populace doesn't trust the news "industry" anymore. The medium now has more face-men than real journalists, and a woman with an attractive cleavage is valued more highly than one with a journalism degree.
For days, all the networks' top stars were based on a Beantown corner, acting like they knew something. Not to demean the seriousness of the event, but the 24-hour, nonstop coverage of the search for the terrorists in Boston knocked all the rest of the news off the airwaves. No doubt, if someone from Waco called a news outlet and claimed credit for the massive explosion in West, Texas, for al-Qaeda, every news anchor in the business would be sitting in front of a bombed-out fertilizer factory in Texas talking about how they caught us unawares.
The "Boston Journalistic Massacre" began, predictably, when the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post printed a front-page picture of a Moroccan-American man, falsely accusing him of being the bomber. As happens after most violent events, the first lie reported was that the hunted person was a black man. The Post claimed twice in one week that the suspects were "dark-skinned males." After CNN repeated the lie, an innocent man from Bangladesh was assaulted.
Next, Fox News and The Boston Globe reported arrests were made when there were none. The network cameras focused on a man lying prostrate in the street, while police officers trained their guns on him — wrong guy. They reported on a mysterious person on a rooftop overlooking the bomb site — just a bystander. And in one of the most bizarre scenes of the entire week, a man was forced to strip naked in the middle of the street and was frog-marched to a squad car, private parts pixilated for the cameras, without comment or explanation from the chattering "experts." When the manhunt moved to Watertown, the bad information shifted into overdrive. First, someone coincidentally robbed a 7-Eleven while the Tsarnaev brothers happened to be there. Then the robbery became a carjacking, and, within the hour, NBC's Brian Williams was seated in front of the Town Diner. When the network cut into a local feed and an announcer was heard saying, "I don't know shit," a red-faced Williams had to apologize for the incidental profanity and remind everyone that tensions were high. At least that guy was honest.
The best reporting of the night was done by a bystander named Andrew Kitzenberg, who spoke with MSNBC by Skype while a gunfight was raging beneath his apartment window. Kitzenberg accurately reported the shoot-out, which killed one brother, and the reckless escape of the other. Misinformation poured in about explosive devices at MIT and the murder of a campus policeman who was "responding to a disturbance," when actually, he was shot while sitting in his car. When the quarantine was finally lifted and the second suspect was located, it was at first by "a neighbor" who saw something unusual about a ladder and a boat, but it turned out to be the homeowner, who'd gone out to his backyard for a smoke.
My intention is not to criticize the police — obviously whatever they did worked — so who's to criticize? It's just that I've never seen the total lockdown of a major city before. In the drama's denouement, when it appeared as if every law enforcement vehicle in a tri-state area had converged on the scene, it occurred to me that if I had criminal inclinations, it would be the ideal time to rob a bank. Maybe it's just me, but 9,000 law enforcement officers in pursuit of a wounded teenager seemed a bit like overkill. Someone said it was necessary to have a show of force after a terrorist act. Probably so, but there weren't that many cops out looking for Lee Harvey Oswald. And the Israelis, who deal with suicide bombers on a daily basis, merely clean up and open for business the next day. An argument could be made that, with every camera focused upon them and the entirety of the American news media reacting to their every blood-drenched move, the terrorists succeeded in their goals. One deranged fanatic managed to lock down millions of people while he ran free. Major League Baseball and hockey games were canceled. All municipal transit was halted. They got their man, but now we know what martial law looks like.
Randy Haspel writes the Born-Again Hippies blog, where a version of this column first appeared.