Last night around 3:00 a.m., at the conclusion of several hours of insane police-scanner monitoring and reports of gunfights and explosions in the Boston suburbs, local law enforcement officials on their working radio band identified their quarry by name:
Mike Mulugeta and Sunil Tripathi, armed and dangerous fugitives, alleged marathon bombers, and reported killers of an MIT police officer.
Scores of red-eyed journalists and news junkies, already gathered on Twitter and deconstructing every grunt and squeak on the police scanners, launched into a public, real-time data scrape for information on the named suspects. Tripathi was a big deal, having gone missing from Brown University last month without his wallet, leaving only a mysterious note that spurred FBI agents to investigate his disappearance.
One of the suspects (According to BPD) is Sunil Tripathi. The missing Brown student ABC reported on in March. abcnews.go.com/US/sunil-tripa…— Jack Moore (@BuzzFeedJack) April 19, 2013
My alma mater blowing up my hometown. Great. RT @michaelskolnik: wow! the 2nd suspect they are saying is the missing Brown student.— Zach Green (@140elect) April 19, 2013
I was no exception. Having placed my confidence in the pack, I contributed to the piling on:
Here is video produced by Tripathi family asking Sunil to return to them 2 weeks ago. youtube.com/watch?v=t12tfT…— Adam Weinstein (@AdamWeinstein) April 19, 2013
Some media movers practically cackled as they delivered the news:
There was just one problem: Mulugeta and Tripathi had nothing to do with the events unfolding in Boston. America awoke this morning to reports that the bombers were two young Chechen-Americans, with a third possible accomplice. Virtually no one in the media, who had pushed the Mulugeta-Tripathi narrative just hours before, acknowledged the shift. They simply plowed forward with more real-time misreporting.
Sketchy and incorrect first reports in breaking stories like these are par for the course. Few media outlets have distinguished themselves by being fast and reliable this week; far more, like the New York Post and CNN, stood out by screwing more pooches than a junkyard mutt with blue balls. But this instance—an entire industry naming the wrong suspects, and amplifying the error—was a particularly epic fail, and it seemed to be going down the blackest of memory holes.
Clicking on this Google News headline, for example:
Led to this story:
The media, content to pile new data on top of old, was simply pretending that it had never fingered the wrong two guys.
How did the bad info get out there? It may have resulted from a multimedia feedback loop of epic proportions, according to J.D. Adler, a writer who had initially relayed Mulugeta's and Tripathi's IDs as suspects via Twitter:
Was it really possible that Boston's cops may have developed leads on their suspects based on threads that sleuthing Redditors had started on them? It's possible, yes—because it definitely happened this morning, when police cornered one of the actual bombing suspects and broadcast what they believed to be his intentions:
Police on the scanner were just talking about a Dzhokhar Tsarnaev twitter account saying he'll kill all of them for killing his brother..— Kristina Fenley (@YaGirl_Tina) April 19, 2013
But the police officer was not referencing the real bomber; rather, it was a fake Twitter account that had been set up in his name earlier in the day:
This, in itself, is remarkable: Excited internet hounds, out to glean info on the bomber, seize on a fake social media account, whose messages are seized on by police...who convey the info via radio, where it's seized on by excited internet hounds.
That may be how the world came to learn about Mulugeta and Tripathi, though there are other possibilities. (A Boston Police Department representative said the department was busy with the ongoing manhunt and unable to comment today on the scanner report on Mulugeta and Tripathi, or much else.)
But the real story is not how the news got it wrong—there's been plenty of that since Monday. It's how, mere hours after telling a bullshit story, the news simply told a new story and expunged the previous one from its memory. Real-time accuracy isn't always possible in journalism. But no one can call himself a journalist if he can't acknowledge in the present what he got wrong in the past. Even an alleged pig-fucking alcoholic bigot understands that.