The Vanishing Bomb Suspect: How the New York Post Scooped Reality

In the confusion around the Boston Marathon bombing yesterday, as facts came and went, the New York Post staked out two dramatic claims: at least a dozen people were dead, and the authorities had a Saudi man in custody as a suspect.



How did an out-of-town tabloid beat the national media to major scoops in a chaotic, breaking story? By not worrying too much about whether the scoops were true.

First, the death toll. By 4 p.m. yesterday, the Post had gone on record raising the number of dead to 12. Long into the evening, as authorities again and again put the death toll at three, the Post persisted in publishing that figure—as if it were holding out hope that nine more victims might be pronounced dead in time to treat it as confirmation. In a version published online shortly after 2 a.m., the Post wrote:

A federal law enforcement source told The Post there are at least 12 dead and at least 132 people have been treated at seven area hospitals.

Even after going with "3 killed" on the front page, the Post kept its original number in the story:

The official death toll remained at three, but a law-enforcement source told The Post it could be as high as 12.

Quietly, the figure had switched from 12 or more to 12 or less. But it was definitely on one side of 12 or the other. Law-enforcement sources were telling people all kinds of things yesterday: that a bomb had gone off at the JFK Library; that between one and five more bombs had been found, undetonated. Law-enforcement sources were getting lots of bad information too. So the Post took the step of also citing another news outlet:

One witness told The New York Times there appeared to be 10 to 12 fatalities, including "women, children, finishers." The wounds appeared to be "lower torso - the type of stuff you see from someone exploding out," he said.

That quote appeared in an early breaking-news story from the Times, and was removed from later editions.

In other words, the quote demonstrated that it had been possible, at one point, to believe that the death toll was 12. The Times, however, recognized it as bad information and cut it out (albeit without a note). And it's not completely inconceivable that more victims may succumb to their injuries, though nine more deaths seems unlikely. Neither of those possibilities, past or future, meant that the Post's law-enforcement source wasn't wrong.

Then there is the Saudi suspect. Or there was the Saudi suspect.

Investigators have a suspect—a Saudi Arabian national—in the horrific Boston Marathon bombings, The Post has learned.

Law enforcement sources said the 20-year-old suspect was under guard at an undisclosed Boston hospital.

After the Post's initial report, other outlets confirmed underlying pieces of fact: A Saudi student was in the hospital with injuries from the bombing. He had been considered suspicious by someone on the scene, who had grabbed him as he fled. Police had talked to him.

These things were true. But did they matter? The Post was convinced it had beaten everyone to a real lead in the case—a definitive lead, pointing to an answer to the still-open questions of what sort of attack this was, and what forces were behind it.

The authorities weren't so confident. By the time the paper went to press, the suspect was merely being questioned. Still, the front page bullet-pointed it, right below the fact of the bombing and the number of casualties: "Saudi grilled by FBI."

The Boston Globe, citing its own law-enforcement sources, had dismissed the Saudi angle by morning. Other outlets did the same. Law enforcement said there were no suspects in custody.

But the Post stuck with it, like an investor holding a plummeting stock, hoping to ride out a market correction. It downgraded the Saudi to a "potential suspect," but still under the subhead "Smells of gunpowder." And that FBI grilling?

[I]nvestigators had not yet directly asked the man whether he had set off the bombs. But they had asked him general questions, such as what he was doing in the area.

The potential suspect told police he had dinner Sunday night near Boston's Prudential Center, about half a mile from the blast site, the sources said.

He also said that he went to the Copley Square area yesterday to witness the finish of the race.

So: The Post's suspect had gone to watch the race. When the bomb went off, he fled. Having been hit by a bomb, he smelled of gunpowder.

He also, according to the Post's sources, asked, "Did anyone die?" (Twelve people, the sources presumably answered.)

Finally, a little after 3 p.m., the Post surrendered: