The term epic fail is a mainstay of Internet jargon, often used to describe an effort falling short in spectacular fashion. And as of last week, it can also be used in reference to the shoddy coverage of the Boston Marathon suspects debacle.
Sadly, the culprits were not unheralded, upstart publications or Podunk television stations. The most egregious offenders were stalwarts of the media industry. In what appeared to be a race to out-scoop and out-do each other, CNN, The Associated Press, The New York Post, and Fox all seemed to throw fact-checking out the window. Although, to be honest, I’m not that surprised at the Fox gaffe, as I’m sure they’re still reporting Mitt Romney was the true victor in the 2012 presidential election.
In the days following the blasts that brought Boston to its knees, several erroneous reports surfaced. CNN’s veteran anchor John King got the ball rolling by hinting that he had received information from law enforcement officials indicating that the suspect was a “dark-skinned male.” Continuing to tighten the noose around their necks, venerable newsman Wolf Blitzer asked whether it could be confirmed that the individual spoke with an American or foreign accent. King attempted to look sufficiently apologetic as he intimated that he did not want to “inflame tensions.” I think it was a tad late for that, sir.
The New York Post took CNN’s description, and raised it one better by producing photos of the possible suspects. Their cover photo featured two men including 17-year-old Moroccan-American high school student Salah Barhoun. No one was more surprised by his person of interest status than Barhoun himself, who had apparently contemplated running in the marathon before deciding to be a spectator. The teenager was horrified to find that his photo had been making the rounds on the Internet. He was later cleared of any wrongdoing, but the damage had already been done, judging by the venom that immediately began spewing in his direction. Why anyone believed the Post is beyond me. They had already misidentified a Saudi man as a suspect and reported many more deaths in the attack than actually occurred. Safe to say a Pulitzer is not in their future.
CNN once again left King with egg on his face as he reported that a suspect had now been arrested. The Associated Press and Boston Globe followed suit, with the Globe even managing to one-up all of them by claiming the suspect had not only been apprehended but was being taken to the US District Court in South Boston. This in turn caused a frenzied dash to said location. Surprise! Turns out no one had been identified or arrested.
But the best was yet to come. When an actual suspect had been identified, a local Fox affiliate in Dallas, continuing the tradition of ineptitude set by their national cable news network, scored the coup of the century when they revealed via close caption that the perpetrator was none other than “19-year-old” Zooey Deschanel. Yes, you heard right. The 33-year-old star of Fox’s own hit sitcom New Girl was the latest in a series of unfortunate news reporting.
By the time the suspects were eventually and accurately identified as Chechen brothers Tamalan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev media credibility was on thin ice. And with conspiracy theories abounding as to the
veracity of the stories surrounding the attacks, expect a few more snafus in the future.
In the aftermath of his mistake, CNN’s King said that sometimes information did not turn out to be true. You don’t say, John. You don’t say!