In the immediate chaos following the Boston Marathon bombings that left three people dead, information flew fast and furious over Twitter. News organizations on Monday scrambled to discern truth from fiction, and, naturally, a few made mistakes. While most issued retractions or corrected their reports, there was one glaring error that stood out above the others.
In a report that was widely criticized, the New York Post boldly and incorrectly trumpeted that 12 people had been killed in the explosions and, more alarmingly, that a "Saudi national who suffered shrapnel wounds" had been identified as "a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing." The story, which was never corrected, spread quickly through the usual information pipelines: As of Wednesday, the story had 48,000 Facebook likes and was tweeted more than 16,000 times. One man echoed the sentiment of many:
I'm a brown dude in New York City & I'm nervous to walk around alone today. This is how racism works.
— Hari Kondabolu (@harikondabolu) April 15, 2013
Talking Points Memo quickly swatted down the claim that the man being questioned was a suspect. "Honestly, I don't know where they're getting their information from, but it didn't come from us," a Boston PD spokesperson told TPM. At a press conference later that day, Boston police commissioner Edward Davis said the reports were "not true."
The 21-year-old Saudi national, a student studying English in Boston, was described by his roommate as quiet, clean, and a sports fan — someone who he didn't think would plant a bomb. According to the Boston Herald, fellow tenants say authorities searched through the young man's apartment in "a startling show of force" while his wounds were still being tended to by doctors. His roommate, Mohammed Hassan Bada, 20, was apparently harassed nonstop by reporters the following day. "Let me go to school, dude," he told a Fox News producer, who asked him if he had any idea he might have been living with a killer.
"What made them suspect him?" asks Amy Davidson at The New Yorker. "He was running — so was everyone."
The police reportedly thought he smelled like explosives; his wounds might have suggested why. He said something about thinking there would be a second bomb — as there was, and often is, to target responders. If that was the reason he gave for running, it was a sensible one. He asked if anyone was dead — a question people were screaming. And he was from Saudi Arabia, which is around where the logic stops. Was it just the way he looked, or did he, in the chaos, maybe call for God with a name that someone found strange? [The New Yorker]
There were those, of course, who argued that the racial profiling was warranted. "Was he a real student or was this a front?" asked Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano on Fox & Friends (via Mediaite). "Was he honest or was he deceptive when he made his visa application, which is a lot more complex post-9/11 — but which any smart and determined person can trick the government and get in here even though they have evil designs."
But not all conservatives were convinced the Post and other outlets had pegged the right guy:
Even Gateway Pundit's commenters mostly think posting photos of the Saudi "suspect" is way out of line thegatewaypundit.com/2013/04/photos…
— Dan Stewart (@thatdanstewart) April 16, 2013
It soon became clear, however, that the 21-year-old with chunks of shrapnel in his leg was a witness (and a victim), not a suspect. "[Law enforcement] have been questioning one individual since just after the blast who is NOT being described as a suspect but was very close to the bomb at the time of the blast and who police thought was acting suspiciously," CBS News' John Miller, former associate director of the FBI, said in an online Q&A session. "He has been fully cooperative throughout."
Critics quickly called for the Post to apologize for labeling the young man a potential terrorist.
— Tony Karon (@TonyKaron) April 16, 2013
— Jenan Moussa (@jenanmoussa) April 16, 2013
To its credit, the Post subsequently and correctly reported that "nothing terrorism related" was found in the wounded Saudi's apartment. The question, now, is should, or perhaps will, the publication apologize? BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith had this to say about a private email exchange with a friend:
A friend at the New York Post emails: “No, we won’t be discussing our world-beating scoop about the man being questioned”
— Ben Smith (@BuzzFeedBen) April 16, 2013