The Boston Globe’s remarkable two days

Tsarnaev image

A massive investigation into the Tsarnaev family that casts into doubt the notion that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was the dupe of his older brother, Tamerlan. A harrowing two-part story on a supposed case of “medical child abuse” that raises serious questions about one of our most respected hospitals. And a feel-good story posted to Twitter that immediately goes viral.

It was quite a two days for The Boston Globe, starting with the Sunday edition and wrapping up Monday evening, when staff reporter Billy Baker’s tweets about a poor teenager getting accepted into Yale were cited by the likes of BuzzFeed and Piers Morgan.

It was the Tsarnaev package that has received the most attention. Reported by Sally Jacobs, David Filipov and Patricia Wen (Filipov, a former Moscow bureau chief for the Globe, visited Dagestan, where he learned of Tamerlan’s inept efforts to join an Islamist insurgency), the story provides the most thorough overview yet of a dysfunctional family dynamic that ultimately led the Tsarnaev brothers into terrorism.

The story defies summary. For me, the most fascinating takeaway is that Dzhokhar, far from being manipulated by Tamerlan, was himself an angry young man and a big-time pot dealer who was at the very least a co-equal of Tamerlan’s. With Tamerlan reportedly hearing voices and seemingly unable to make coherent plans, Dzhokhar may well have been the key to pulling off the Boston Marathon bombings.

Indeed, it was Dzhokhar, according to the Globe report, who downloaded an article in an Al Qaeda publication titled “Make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom.” No doubt this is the sort of thing we can expect to hear at Dzhokhar’s trial, especially if prosecutors seek the death penalty.

(And a quick word about the Boston Herald, which tries to claim that what the Globe published was a politically correct puff piece about the Tsarnaevs — see this, this and this. Just stop, OK? You’re embarrassing yourselves and exploiting the victims of the Tsarnaev brothers’ act of terrorism. At least Herald columnist Margery Eagan hasn’t taken leave of her senses.)

One final point: Even though the Globe published a special eight-page section for its Tsarnaev story, the package was most fully realized online, where it received the large-type/big-art treatment that has become known as the “Snow Fall” effect, after a pioneering New York Times multimedia story. The message is that, increasingly, newspapers are treating their print editions as a secondary medium — even as they continue to bring in most of the advertising revenue.

Abuse — or a terrible mistake?

If it hadn’t been for the Tsarnaev package, I imagine the big news of the week would be Neil Swidey and Patricia Wen’s report (here and here) about Justina Pelletier, a 14-year-old from Connecticut who was taken to Children’s Hospital with what had been diagnosed as a metabolic disorder.

Doctors at the hospital concluded that Justina was actually the victim of “medical child abuse” at the hands of her parents. They placed the girl in a locked psychiatric unit for months while they tried to figure out what to do next. It is a harrowing and horrifying story, and it’s difficult to know who’s right and who’s wrong. But there are some strong suggestions that Children’s made a terrible mistake:

  • Justina’s older sister had been diagnosed with a milder form of metabolic disease, yet was living at home with no apparent issues.
  • Justina’s condition did not improve in the absence of her parents.
  • Dr. Mark Korson, a Tufts physician who had provided the initial diagnosis, was treated with contempt by Children’s and not allowed to participate in Justina’s treatment.

One inescapable conclusion: If the people at Children’s now harbor doubts about their actions, they dare not admit it because of the legal and professional ramifications. The case is as yet unresolved, and I look forward to learning more.

Billy Baker’s tweets of hope

Finally, there is Billy Baker’s remarkable series of tweets, which he began after learning that George Huynh had been accepted into Yale. Baker profiled George and his older brother, Johnny, two years ago. They were both attending Boston Latin School and were determined to rise up despite the suicide of their father and the mental illness of their mother. It began as simply as this:

It turns out that Baker had stayed in touch with the Huynh brothers after his story was published and had become something of a mentor to them. The tweets tell a full, deeply moving story, ending with George’s smiling face.

I’m not sure Twitter is the best tool for narrative journalism, but Baker made it work. And he put a smile on everyone’s face just before Christmas.

Correction: I misspelled Swidey’s name in the original post.

Some thoughts on that Rolling Stone cover (III)

My interview with News@Northeastern.

Some thoughts on that Rolling Stone cover (II)

Screen Shot 2013-07-17 at 8.38.47 PM

Front page of the Sunday New York Times, May 5. Same picture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, page one, above the fold. Here is the story. Does anyone really want to argue that what the Times did is somehow different from what Rolling Stone did?

Also, a very smart commentary in The New Yorker by Ian Crouch.

Some thoughts on that Rolling Stone cover

22516_lgI’ve been following and participating in the social media debate over Rolling Stone’s cover shot of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev since last night. And I have a couple of contradictory thoughts about it.

First, the positive. The cognitive dissonance makes for a brilliant piece of magazine design. The angelic-looking Tsarnaev juxtaposed with cover type calling him “the bomber” and “a monster.” The knowledge we all have that this is who Tsarnaev was not that long ago — and that he would soon begin his descent into terrorism.

As we know, the cover has been roundly criticized for supposedly glamorizing Tsarnaev. According to Steve Annear of Boston magazine, Tedeschi’s and CVS have both announced that they won’t sell the issue. Tedeschi’s released a statement that says:

Tedeschi Food Shops supports the need to share the news with everyone, but cannot support actions that serve to glorify the evil actions of anyone. With that being said, we will not be carrying this issue of Rolling Stone. Music and terrorism don’t mix.

Needless to say, similarly angelic portraits of Tsarnaev have appeared in just about every publication you can think of, including the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald and the New York Times. The outrage, it seems to me, is based on a misperception (reflected in the Tedeschi’s statement) of exactly what it is that Rolling Stone does.

In fact, the magazine publishes a lot of serious news stories and often puts them on the cover. And by way of analogy, I’ve posted a 1970 Rolling Stone cover of Charles Manson looking, if not exactly angelic, then at least somewhat more human than we’re used to seeing. I assume the accompanying story was not a flattering one.

For a little historical perspective, in 1938 Time magazine made Adolf Hitler both its “Man of the Year” and its cover boy. Yes, the start of World War II was still a year off, but Hitler was already a world pariah at that point.

Having said all that, I do have one negative observation to offer about the Rolling Stone cover — not that it glamorizes Tsarnaev, but that it draws attention to him in a way that may make an impression on other alienated people who could be inspired to follow his example.

My Northeastern colleague Jack Levin, a criminologist who’s an expert on serial killers and mass murderers, made that argument in an interview with Fox News. “If they want to become famous, kill somebody,” Levin said.

I’m not sure that we can or should edit with an eye toward how mentally disturbed people will react to decisions we make as journalists. Still, Levin’s point is well taken and well worth thinking about.

Update: Rolling Stone has now posted the story, preceded by the following statement:

Our hearts go out to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and our thoughts are always with them and their families. The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone’s long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day. The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens.
— THE EDITORS

Update II: I’ve now had a chance to read the article, by Janet Reitman. It’s not great, but it’s pretty good. There’s not much new, but it offers a level of detail I haven’t seen previously, including interesting information about Tsarnaev’s abandonment by his family and his gradual embrace of his brother’s radical form of Islam.

No doubt many people will say that the article “excuses” Tsarnaev, but I don’t see it that way. To explain is not to excuse. I certainly don’t excuse him. We need to understand as best we can what happened, and why.

I thought the most chilling part came near the end, when we learn how widespread the belief is among Tsarnaev’s fellow immigrant classmates that 9/11 was an “inside job.”

Two more for your must-read list

Eric Moskowitz’s Boston Globe interview with the Tsarnaev brothers’ carjacking victim is just astonishing — detailed, full of suspense (even though we know the outcome) and tautly written. And the Globe’s Kevin Cullen continues to show why he has emerged as the voice of the city following the Boston Marathon bombings.

Casting some doubt on the official marathon accounts

Boston Marathon bombing memorial at the Boston Common Gazebo

For the police — and for the public — last Friday was a day of fear, rage and confusion. So it takes nothing away from the work done by law-enforcement officials to point out that things didn’t go down exactly the way they were described in real time.

Three big stories today underscore that confusion. The most significant is in the Washington Post, which reports that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was probably unarmed when police fired on the boat in Watertown where he was hiding. They quote an anonymous official as saying that an officer may have accidentally fired his gun, setting off a fusillade.

Such a “fog of war” situation, as the Post describes it, is totally understandable. And yet, if authorities lost a chance to bring in a high-value terrorism suspect alive for questioning, it would have been a serious loss.

In the Boston Globe, a team of reporters quotes law enforcement as saying that it is now believed Tsarnaev’s neck wound came from flying shrapnel rather than a self-inflicted bullet wound, which fits in with the emerging theory that he was unarmed.

And from the New York Times we learn that the boat was actually inside the search perimeter, contradicting earlier reports. Again, not to second-guess the police, but it makes you wonder what sort of search they conducted during all those hours on Friday.

Journalists should approach the official account with skepticism, not cynicism. We need to know exactly what happened last week — including, of course, whether the Boston Marathon bombings can be attributed to a breakdown in intelligence-sharing among the CIA, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies, which is the main focus of the Globe article.

Photo (cc) by AnubisAbyuss and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

The Russian government’s literally incredible behavior

News Dissector Danny Schechter retweeted this blog post by former British diplomat Craig Murray, who questions the notion that the Russian government warned the United States of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s radicalism in 2010.

I will confess that I know nothing about Murray. But what he writes is the simple truth about the official story: After raising a warning flag about Tsarnaev, Russia allowed him into the country in 2012 and let him stay for six months, then leave again. Murray’s gloss on those facts also seems worth thinking about:

In 2012 Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who is of such concern to Russian security, is able to fly to Russia and pass through the airport security checks of the world’s most thoroughly and brutally efficient security services without being picked up. He is then able to proceed to Dagestan — right at the heart of the world’s heaviest military occupation and the world’s most far reaching secret police surveillance — again without being intercepted, and he is able there to go through some form of terror training or further Islamist indoctrination. He then flies out again without any intervention by the Russian security services.

Murray adds: “That is the official story and I have no doubt it did not happen.”

The New York Times today reports on Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s time in Dagestan. This passage pretty much sums up the paper’s findings:

During his six months in Makhachkala [the Dagestan capital], according to relatives, neighbors and friends, he did not seem like a man on a mission, or training for one. Rather, they said, he was more like a recent graduate who could not quite decide what to do with himself. He slept late, hung around at home, visited family and helped his father renovate a storefront.

We are at the very beginning of what is likely to be a long investigation. But these reports are relevant at a moment when — as the Boston Globe reports — Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are despicably calling for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to be treated as an “enemy combatant,” and when Republicans are already describing the Boston Marathon bombings as a breakdown in intelligence.

Not only do we not know that, but early indications are that such irresponsible speculation is not in accord with the facts.

The Miranda exception and why I’m not concerned

I’ve been debating on Facebook with several people whose views I respect about the decision by law-enforcement officials to invoke the “public safety” exception and question Dzhokhar Tsarnaev without first reading him his Miranda rights.

I think it was the right call. The idea behind the public-safety exception is that the investigation must take precedence over the prosecution — that the paramount interest is to obtain any information that could protect the public. Consider:

  • There have been reports that the Tsarnaev brothers may have planted other bombs. Pete Williams of NBC News reported that police detonated an IED near the Berklee College of Music on Friday morning. Are there more? Where?
  • The Tsarnaev brothers may not have acted alone. Last night, police took into custody three people in New Bedford to question them about their possible ties to the surviving brother. Was the Boston Marathon bombing part of a larger plot?
  • We need to know what if any ties the Tsarnaevs might have had to foreign extremist organizations. We know that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had spent quite a bit of time overseas. The New Yorker’s David Remnick paints a chilling portrait of both brothers, and of Tamerlan in particular.

Despite all this, Emily Bazelon of Slate writes that even though she supports the public-safety exception, she opposes it in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Her argument is inconsistent and illogical. If it’s all right to use it in investigating a major terrorist attack, and we just experienced a major terrorist attack, then what is the issue exactly?

Now, I’m not going all Dick Cheney here. If Tsarnaev’s lawyer argues later that his client’s non-Miranda-ized statements shouldn’t be used against him at trial, I will probably find myself in agreement. In any case, Tsarnaev could likely be convicted solely on the basis of the physical evidence.

But the whole purpose of the public-safety exception is to keep Tsarnaev talking and not plant the idea in his head that he ought to shut up. Not while there are so many unanswered questions about dangers that may still be out there.