Some media found the possibility that foreign terrorists bombed the Boston Marathon to be too tantalizing an explanation to pass up, even when it snares the wrong suspects.
On the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, for example, the New York Post proudly presented a scoop that misidentified an injured “Saudi national” as a terror suspect. By the next day, authorities confirmed that the badly burned man actually was a witness, not a suspect. Sorry about that.
Online vigilantism ran so wild on the Reddit online link-sharing community that its general manager Erik Martin issued an apology this week. Before the brothers Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, and alleged co-conspirator Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, were identified as the bombing suspects, several photos and names of innocent men were circulated through Reddit, including a 17-year-old high school student and a Brown University student who has been missing since March. Sorry again.
The meteoric rise of new Internet media created a new and dangerous rise of send-before-you-think journalism, especially in do-it-yourself media. That puts a greater burden on news consumers to be skeptical about how and what they are being served.
Unfortunately, it also can create real dangers to individual lives, social dialogue and even national security
For example, in a New York Times essay a day after the Boston bombings, Haider Javed Warraich, a medical resident in Boston, gave this explanation for why he decided against running into the action: As “a 20-something Pakistani male with dark stubble” owing to his hectic schedule in an intensive-care unit, he wrote, “I look like Hollywood’s favorite post-cold-war movie villain.”
That night CNN and ABC News journalist Christiane Amanpour read from Warraich’s op-ed at the Arab American Institute’s annual dinner in Washington, which I attended as a guest.
Amanpour was receiving an achievement award named for Anthony Shadid, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times foreign correspondent and Lebanese-American who died while covering Syria’s unrest last year.
Amanpour used Warraich’s quote to underscore a point she wanted to make about what she called “the elephant in the room.” She was referring to the haunting concern by many in that hotel ballroom that the marathon bombers, not yet identified, might turn out to be Arabic.
“How many of us feel this burden of association and hope beyond hope that this doesn’t turn out to be what it might be?” said Amanpour. “No conclusions yet. ... Is it international? Is it domestic? But like all of you — I’m not Pakistani, and I’m not Arab, but I am part Iranian. And I do understand the burden of association. ...”
As an African-American I, too, understand the burden of guilt by association. I took no consolation when the focus of racial profiling discussions, a hot issue in the 2000 presidential primaries, suddenly shifted after Sept.11, 2001, from “driving while black” or Latino to anyone who looked as though they might be Arab or Muslim.
That’s why I find it ironic to hear increasingly about how much white conservatives don’t like to be profiled, either. Breitbart.com, among other conservative websites, slammed NPR, for example, for a publicly funded “smear” in “the media’s never ending crusade to falsely blame the right for mass murder.”
Their complaint? They didn’t like NPR’s counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston’s report that officials were investigating possible connections between the marathon bombs and “anti-government, right-wing folks,” among other possible leads.
As the facts unfold, the backgrounds of the Boston bombing’s brother suspects frustrate our usual narratives and stereotypes. They’re foreign born, but domestically raised without obvious ties to terror groups.
We need to get past everyone’s hurt feelings to have a serious conversation about how we deal with both forms of threats to our national security.
CLARENCE PAGE’s column is distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.