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CURL: The news and social media’s not good, very bad week
Moore's Law states that computer processors double in complexity and speed every two years.
A similar law applies to news: Call it the Law of More.
Seconds after Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev detonated explosives at the Boston Marathon on April 15, the media went into hyperdrive but this time, everyone was a "journalist." Police chiefs and top FBI agents practically begged the public to get involved, pleading for pictures and videos no lead was too small.
And, boy, did everyone get involved and how.
On Day 1, the FBI was deluged. By Day 5, after the bureau released photos of the bombers, its website was getting 300,000 queries a minute that's 5,000 a second.
In between, it was shoot first, ask questions later.
First, news agencies rushed to report that authorities were questioning a suspect a Saudi, no less! "Investigators have a suspect a Saudi Arabian national in the horrific Boston Marathon bombings," The New York Post "has learned." "The man was caught less than two hours after the 2:50 p.m. bombing on the finish line, in the heart of Boston."
Oops. Turned out he was being questioned as a witness, not a suspect.
The same story reported, much like the rest of the media, that a third explosion had occurred at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Who knows who first reported the "fact": Within minutes, the wildfire had burned across the networks.
Except it wasn't an explosion, it was a fire unrelated to the bombings. And a minor fire at that, a problem with the HVAC system.
Day 2 wasn't much better. By then, all the nets had flown in their talking hair to pore over every last "tip" from every "source," all breathlessly reporting from the streets of Boston in the harsh daylight sun that reminds us all how much makeup and TV lights really help! "Experts" crawled out from under their rocks to speculate and bloviate and postulate theory after mindless theory.
By then, the FBI had had enough it postponed a 5 p.m. press briefing, then after 8 that night canceled it altogether. The message: Everyone calm down, we'll take it from here.
Around that time, Internet sleuths finished up their bowls of cereal in their parents' basement and took to the Web. Some on sites like Reddit and 4Chan and Twitter compiled slide shows of "suspicious" characters you know, people with backpacks and wearing white baseball hats (not backwards, like the clue leaked by some mouthy official, just caps). Hmm, 23,000 runners, all needing a change of clothes, yeah, there might be some backpacks. And runners, um, they wear caps.
Day 3 brought more "journalism" this time by "real" journalists. On the street, Supercuts Wolf Blitzer, excitedly said to John King, "You're getting more information exclusive reporting what else are you learning?" "Uh," said Hair Cuttery King, "that an arrest has been made in the investigation here in Boston."
"So," Biltzer asked exclusively, "the suspect that has been identified has now been arrested?" "I, I, I," King stuttered. "We would assume that. I've just been told an arrest has been made," King said. "A dramatic shift."
Dramatic if true. But it wasn't. Wrong again. No arrest.
After much confusion, King returned to clarify his report to the former host of "The Mole" reality show host Anderson Cooper.
"I went back to the Boston law enforcement sources who said, 'We got him.' I said, 'Got him? Identification on arrest?' The source says can't talk to you right now, says there is significant blowback at the leaks. Says there will be more information later today," he said.
Cooper channeled Bill Clinton. "And what 'identification' means is also up for debate." Well, that depends on what the meaning of "is" is.
Back to those Redditors and 4Channers in their bathrobes and floppy slippers. By Day 4, the slide shows were everywhere. Posters compared backpacks to the one shown near the blast sites, even mused about faraway gazes in some attendees' eyes. By then, the posts had blasted at the Speed of More, rising to the top slot on Reddit, getting tweeted and Facebooked and hyperlinked across the Internet in minutes.
The posts were (surprise) picked up by news agencies, and the New York Post (of course) went one further (and when does it not?). They put one of the photos on A1. "BAG MEN," the headline blared. "Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon."
One of the men in the tab cover was identified as "brown" in the Reddit compilation; the other wore a white cap and black backpack. Terrorists!? No. The "brown" kid is 17-year-old Salah Eddin Barhoum, a Morrocan high school track athlete, the other guy his coach. So what did Post Editor and Mensa wannabe Col Allan say about that troubling "fact"? "We stand by our story."
By Day 5, when the endgame was afoot, the Boston Police Department and FBI had had more than enough. "WARNING: Do Not Compromise Officer Safety by Broadcasting Tactical Positions of Homes Being Searched," the BPD tweeted. They also switched to secure communications, eschewing the public police scanners listed on Reddit (although real "reporters" were able to find the live feeds).
Reddit, with one pimply faced prepubescent listening to the Boston Police Department scanner, posted that a cop had mentioned Sunil Tripathi, a 22-year-old Brown University student missing since March 16. Angry blogger Perez Hilton quickly tweeted that Mr. Tripathi was on the lam and heavily armed. Problem: No cop ever mentioned him.
And what were CNN and Reddit doing Friday night as a cop finally said over the scanner "subject is in custody"? Reddit's "live Boston update" was 10 minutes behind perhaps the OP was already back to bashing Christians and posting "awww" animal pictures; and four baggy-eyed CNN "journalists" were standing on a street, checking and rechecking their Blackberrys. They missed the moment by several minutes and CNN even relied on people in the neighborhood as confirmation for the capture.
Sometimes, More is less. Even if it isn't the law.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times and is now editor of the Drudge Report. He can be reached at email@example.com and @josephcurl.
About the Author
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