The New York Post has seen three of its supposed scoops about the Boston Marathon bombing fall apart this week. Nonetheless, their editor is unrepentant, lashing out at critics and claiming a "crystal ball" would have been necessary for the paper to publish accurate information.
In a widely criticized move, the April 18 Post front page featured the headline "Bag Men: Feds seek this duo pictured at Boston Marathon" along with a photo of two men holding bags at the event. The article reported that investigators had been "circulating photos of two men spotted chatting near the packed finish line" and also that officials "have identified two potential suspects who were captured on surveillance videos." The Post added that "it was not immediately clear if the men in the law-enforcement photos are the same men in the surveillance videos."
The paper later reported in an online story that the two men they had featured on their front page had been "cleared."
In an email to Media Matters, Post editor Col Allan claimed that when the photo was published this morning, the article stated that the FBI was only emailing the photo to other law enforcement officials and noted "there is no direct evidence linking them to the crime."
"With regard to today's front page emails containing images of the two young men were sent to law enforcement offices, federal and state, at 3pm yesterday seeking information about them," Allan said in an e-mail. "I have a copy of one of those emails sent to a regional office of the FBI. At no point did the Post state they were 'suspects.' Today it is clear they were not involved ... had you loaned us your powerful crystal ball we would have known this before the presses ran."
But, asked specifically if placing the photos on Page One was misleading because it gave the appearance the men were somehow involved, Allan stated via email:
"Common sense would suggest if the FBI emailed pictures of these men standing around the Boston marathon to law enforcement offices asking for information about them it might be newsworthy. We made no judgment about the men. We simply reported the facts. Their photos were emailed by the feds. Information about them was sought. If it is your idea that we or anyone else in the media wait until the complete truth is clear then there is little need for journalists. Only historians. "
Allan also claimed that a previous incorrect Post report on Monday, that 12 people had died in the bombing -- which has yet to be corrected - was also not the paper's fault.
"Our sources were federal authorities who have been reliable in the past," he wrote. "In this event, they and thus we, were wrong. Later Monday our reporting online and in Tuesday's paper accurately reflected the official toll...give your crystal ball a good hard polish and drop it over sometime."
The day of the bombing, the Post also reported that a Saudi national student had been "taken into custody" and was considered a "suspect." That student was also cleared of involvement. In response to questions about that story also falling apart, Allan claimed that "The Post said a Saudi student WAS detained in hospital after the bomb blast. He was not free to go. at 2 am the following morning the federal bureau of investigation raided his flat and took away several bags of material. The next day the authorities stated he was co--operating and not considered a suspect. The post would have required one of your hindsight crystal balls to have known this."
News veterans and media observers, meanwhile, were quick to condemn the Post for not only jumping to conclusions and misleading readers with the Page One photo, but failing to admit its mistake.
"There are standards of evidence that you apply, the clear implication here is that there is a shadow of blame on these people simply because a legacy news organization put them on the front page," said Ed Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He also called the Post's actions "grossly irresponsible and heedless to the possibility that showcasing these guys in this way could expose them to harm."
Ken Auletta, media writer for The New Yorker, agreed.
"I was stunned," he said about the Post front page. "I think that was clearly something that was egregious, these are recognized faces and these are now implicated by their picture being on the front page of the New York Post, at a fevered time that could be dangerous to them."
Sonny Albarado, president of the Society of Professional Journalists and an editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, was one of several who compared the Post's actions to the wrongful focus on Richard Jewell after the 1996 Atlanta bombing.
"It bothers me tremendously," he said. "It reminds me again of the Richard Jewell situation. We have a photo but we do not know if it is this guy. I have to question if the Post verified what they were reporting. If you can't say definitively that this is a suspect or is someone who is going to be arrested, you have to exercise caution and avoid saying it."
Tom Fiedler, dean of the Boston University College of Communication and former editor of the Miami Herald, also cited the Jewell case.
"If the Post has it all wrong, though, after today's paper it could find itself in the same situation as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1996 when it fingered the hapless security guard as being the Olympic bomber," he said. "That rush to publish cost the newspaper many millions."
Tim McGuire, former editor of the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis and a journalism professor at Arizona State University, called the Post approach "crazy."
"It does appear that the Post, there is something crazy going on there, I don't know if it is an agenda or what," he said in an interview. "I'm afraid we are seeing a culture and I think talking about this is the only way to get most news organizations to see that this is nuts."
He later said of the Post's claim that it provided the facts surrounding the photo: "What they said was true, probably law enforcement is emailing those and nobody knows if this is relevant or not, but what you are doing there is damning [the photo subjects] by saying this is a possibility."