NY Times' Boston Coverage Stumbles Over Soft Headlines and Suspect's 'Jumbled' Politics

New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan bragged about her paper's deep, accurate coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing saga that captivated America last week:

What The Times can and should offer its readers is coolheaded certainty: If you read it here, it’s right. The Times can’t beat Twitter or cable news at their own frenzied game; it can be the place to come for accuracy, perspective and depth. As digital tools continue to revolutionize journalism, The Times is realizing and asserting its proper and much-needed role.

The paper did acquit itself well, especially in comparison to its shameful coverage of a previous killing spree, the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, in which Times reporters spent days trying to pin the blame on conservatism and repeatedly suggested a campaign target map from Sarah Palin may have contributed (see #9). But some of its old liberal habits remained.

The headline over the profile of the two brothers in Saturday's edition, "A Brother at Ease in the U.S., Influenced by One Who Wasn't," was an improvement on the paper's offensively sentimental online headline, "Far From War-Torn Homeland, Trying to Fit In." But the Times couldn't find anyone who could imagine why they would set off bombs, instead painting younger suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as "a handsome teenager with a wry yearbook smile, was liked and respected by his classmates..."

A kaleidoscope of images, adjectives and anecdotes tumbled forth on Friday to describe Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, the two brothers suspected of carrying out the bombings at the Boston Marathon that killed three people and gravely wounded scores more.

What no one who knew them could say was why the young men, immigrants of Chechen heritage, would set off bombs among innocent people. The Tsarnaevs came with their family to the United States almost a decade ago from Kyrgyzstan, after living briefly in the Dagestan region of Russia. Tamerlan, who was killed early Friday morning in a shootout with law enforcement officers, was 15 at the time. Dzhokhar, who was in custody Friday evening, was only 8.


Dzhokhar, a handsome teenager with a wry yearbook smile, was liked and respected by his classmates at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, where celebrities like Ben Affleck and Matt Damon had walked the halls before him. A classmate remembered how elated he seemed on the night of the senior prom. Wearing a black tuxedo and a red bow tie, he was with a date among 40 students who met at a private home before the event to have their photos taken, recalled Sierra Schwartz, 20.

“He was happy to be there, and people were happy he was there,” Ms. Schwartz said. “He was accepted and very well liked.”

The politically correct paper did its usual dance around the word "Islam" to describe the two terrorist suspects in its headline choices, most strikingly in a front-page story Monday from the ethnically frayed and ultra-violent Russian republic of Dagestan, where the older brother Tamerlan visited relatives: "A Pilgrim in a Violent Land: 'Listen to the Call to Prayer.' -- Relatives Say Bombing Suspect Found Comfort Back in Dagestan." It was a call to prayer from a mosque, we learn in paragraph six.

Columnist Charles Blow (pictured) analyzed Dzhokhar's Twitter feed Saturday and dubiously suggested that the politics of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger suspect, "seemed jumbled," using three of the suspect's tweets as proof. The tweet about 9-11 and the retweet of an Obama Election Day message do suggest Dzhokhar is both a Truther and an Obama supporter. But Blow's use of the tweet “Evil triumphs when good men do nothing" as a show of possible conservatism on Dzhokhar's part is tenuous in the extreme, and just seems to have been tossed in to avoid Blow having to admit Dzhokhar had left-wing views.

His politics seemed jumbled. He was apparently a 9/11 Truther, posting a tweet on Sept. 1 that read in part, “Idk why it’s hard for many of you to accept that 9/11 was an inside job.” On Election Day he retweeted a tweet from Barack Obama that read: “This happened because of you. Thank you.” But on March 20 he tweeted, “Evil triumphs when good men do nothing.” This sounds like a take on a quote from Edmund Burke, who is viewed by many as the founder of modern Conservatism: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”