"BAG MEN," the New York Post's front cover brays this morning, underneath a photo of two Boston Marathon spectators. "Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon." After its embarrassing performance on Monday in the aftermath of the marathon bombings, has the Post redeemed itself by scooping the first, much-discussed photos of the suspects?
No. As CBS' John Miller reports, neither man is likely to be a suspect in the bombings, and these are not the pictures of the possible suspects that authorities plan on releasing. But I didn't need John Miller to tell me that—the "persons of interest" in the photos are two local kids who had already been checked out by Reddit and other message-board "crowd-sleuthing" efforts yesterday, and found to be a incredibly unlikely suspects.
As we documented yesterday, a large and active community of amateur detectives, dedicated to the close examination of photographs of the scene, emerged on the link-sharing site Reddit (and elsewhere) in the aftermath of Monday's bombing. Their efforts were going about as well as you might imagine, which is to say, not very well—lots of MS-Paint circles and lots of near-baseless speculation.
But thanks to their ability to do really basic internet detective work, they managed to figure out pretty quickly that the guy in the blue track jacket almost certainly isn't a bomber. All they had to do was find his Facebook. I was able to do it pretty quickly: He's a Moroccan-American kid, a local high-school soccer player and track runner (possibly he and his friend's track outfits could have been a tipoff that they were actually interested in the race?) who works at Subway and likes How High and The Hunger Games. On Monday, he took a couple of geekily enthusiastic photos of himself at the marathon. These were the latest posts on his News Feed (since deleted; he's also changed his name on Facebook):
Now: Were cops circulating his photo, as the Post reports? Probably, yes, they were circulating them internally, sanely, and responsibly, along with many other photos, the way police do (or should). Are or were he and his friend "persons of interest"? Sure! Maybe.
It took Redditors a few hours to find that Facebook page; it took me about ten minutes in the wake of their work. If you have even a little faith in the FBI, it's difficult to imagine that its investigators didn't figure out who this kid is, and how unlikely he is as a suspect, yesterday—especially after he went to authorities to clear his name.
Which means there are two possibilities: one, the Post newsroom couldn't even be bothered to do the bare minimum of follow-up reporting—that after reporters had spoken to their sources, who gave them at best outdated information, they didn't (or didn't know how to) spend the ten minutes it would have taken to learn that the person in the photos had been identified already—by message board posters!—as a person who did not plant a bomb at the Boston Marathon.
Or, two, that the the Post did the followup reporting—that its reporters found out that the kid had been identified online, that he'd contacted authorities, that he's just some poor teenager who posts "SWAG" image macros on his Facebook page—but is institutionally so committed to identifying an Arab, any Arab, as a terrorist, that it still splashed his photo on the front page and insinuated his suspect-hood.
You don't even need to leave the Post's website to understand why that's so damaging. For most of the morning, the article below their exposé on the scary Arab "persons of interest" was "Bx. idiots beat up ‘Arab' in revenge," a story about a Bangladeshi-American man who'd been assaulted in New York City the day of the marathon:
[O]ne of the men snarled, "Yeah, he's a f—king Arab," and the gang pounced, punching him on the head and body, dislocating his left shoulder and leaving him semiconscious. [...]
The victim said he went home and turned on the TV, and only then learned about the bombing and put two and two together.
"I saw the news, and then it hits me: That's why I got jumped," he said.
The Post has updated the story—"Two men probed in Boston Marathon bombings cleared by investigators"—but editor-in-chief Col Allan stands by their initial handling:
NY Post editor Col Allan responds: "We stand by our story. The image was emailed to law enforcement agencies yesterday afternoon... (1/2)— Michael Calderone (@mlcalderone) April 18, 2013
"seeking information about these men, as our story reported. We did not identify them as suspects. (2/2)— Michael Calderone (@mlcalderone) April 18, 2013
Barhoun's younger brother, who declined to be identified, said that it made his mother "sick and upset" that her son had been connected to the tragedy."
"It made her think he had done something wrong," the teen's younger brother said. "My brother is not the bomber."