The Manhunt for Media Screw-Ups
At various points last week, it seemed as if there were a couple parallel, intense manhunts going down: first and foremost, the Boston Police Department and the FBI's search for the Boston Marathon bombers, but also the media's manhunt for the miscreants, rumormongers and incompetents in its ranks and beyond who turned last week into an orgy of misinformation and flawed reporting. In fact, sometimes it seemed as if a lot of the media spent much of last week trying to obliterate any remaining trust in media.
Let's examine the media-world suspects and their guilt. OK, alleged guilt.
THE NEW YORK POST
Last Monday the Murdoch-owned paper's website ran with a story that began "Investigators have a suspect -- a Saudi Arabian national -- in the horrific Boston Marathon bombings." The Post also ran a separate report headlined "12 DEAD, 50 INJURED AFTER 2 EXPLOSIONS ROCK BOSTON MARATHON." Rather astonishingly, a link with that headline still appeared on nypost.com as late as Friday afternoon, though the story itself was updated to reflect the actual death count of three and "more than 130 injured." The uncorrected story about the Saudi Arabian national, meanwhile, still closed with this line: "A law enforcement source confirmed to the Post that 12 people were killed and nearly 50 were injured in today's blast."
On Tuesday, Vanity Fair's Juli Weiner gave credit where credit is due, generously producing a short list of the facts the Post got right (e.g., the paper "correctly reported that the Boston Marathon takes place in Boston, Massachusetts" and "Participants in the Boston Marathon are, in American English, colloquially referred to as "runners.'") By Thursday, when the Post ran its notorious "BAG MEN" cover -- with a full-page photo implicating two innocent, bag-carrying men as possible Boston bombers -- the gloves really came off. Mainly because the Post's editor, Col Allan, stubbornly defended his cover in a terse statement: "We stand by our story. The image was emailed to law-enforcement agencies yesterday afternoon seeking information about these men, as our story reported. We did not identify them as suspects."
Upon learning of the wiggle room that Allan allows his paper, Gawker's Tom Scocca ran a piece titled "Is the New York Post Edited by a Bigoted Drunk Who Fucks Pigs?" (Scocca conceded that "we have no direct knowledge" of Col Allan's drinking, and when it comes to bestiality, "We do not know. It would be irresponsible to speculate." The piece has racked up more than 180,000 page views as of this writing.)
Verdict: Fatally guilty. Not only has the countdown clock on Allan's "retirement" been started but it's increasingly clear that the New York Post -- a fake business that hemorrhages countless millions each year and survives solely because it's one of Murdoch's favorite toys -- will be shut down by News Corp. not long after ol' Rupert shuffles off this mortal coil. Or sooner, if Rupert's grip on his print empire is compromised by News Corp.'s planned split into two companies.
There's no way you didn't see all the media-about-media about one particular bit of media: "Jon Stewart Skewers CNN" (Washington Post). "Jon Stewart Slams CNN" (Politico). "Jon Stewart Eviscerates CNN For Boston Bombing Coverage!" (PerezHilton). "Jon Stewart Rips CNN as "Human Centipede of News' Over Boston Bombings Report" (TheWrap). And so on.
The gist of Stewart's takedown: CNN repeatedly trumpeted its "exclusive" scoop that authorities had arrested a bombing suspect Wednesday -- which was exclusive, Stewart pointed out, only because it was completely wrong.
Verdict: Guilty-ish. Stewart's breathless, very funny -- and viral -- segment aside, CNN actually corrected its report within an hour. Here's what correspondent John King said on the air: "Clearly, there was either some confusion or some misinformation. Sometimes that happens in a case like this. But these are sources we have been talking about for a couple days who have been giving us reliable information." You know what? I accept that.
There was a lot of handwringing last week over the "crowdsourcing" of the Boston Marathon bombing investigation, with much of the spotlight shining on social-news site Reddit. The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal, for instance, in a post titled "Hey Reddit, Enough Boston Bombing Vigilantism," wrote: "Investigating these bombings is just not a job for "the crowd,' even if technology makes such collaboration possible."
Please. First of all, people talk about stuff on the internet -- all kinds of stuff, including breaking news -- and we're not going to be able to put that genie back in the bottle.
Second, characterizing speculative/analytical internet chatter of the sort seen on Reddit as especially irresponsible ignores what happened pre-internet: People spread rumors offline and pored over sketchy information put out by the traditional media -- including literally sketchy information, like officially released police composite drawings that sometimes turned out to be laughably off-target -- and flooded law-information tip lines with overwhelmingly useless information.
Third, Reddit is not some shady little corner of the web populated by paranoid vigilantes. The 8-year-old site closed out 2012 with more than 37 billion page views, 30 million posts and 400 million unique visitors. In other words, blaming Reddit for its supposed troublemaking is, basically, like blaming the internet or humanity itself.
In the end, the best, most reliable information invariably got "upvoted" (upvotes increase any given post's visibility). And rumors and speculation not only got downvoted, but counterbalanced with frequent posts promoting caution and directing to the FBI tip line those with seemingly, possibly valuable information -- including an eerily clear shot of "white-cap guy" (later ID'd as suspect Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev) fleeing the scene of the bombing.
Verdict on Reddit: Not guilty.
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.