We're All Journalists Now

In the Internet age, we're all journalists -- or we should be. The dissemination of information is so quick and potentially exponential, anyone can be the source and everyone the recipient.

With the CNN/Fox media debacle of the false reports of early capture (kudos to Pete Williams of NBC for not falling for that), the incorrect pictures of supposed bombers and backpacks, and the equally false reports on social media that accused an uninvolved missing person -- by name -- of being one of the bombers, it's time for everyone to reflect on their responsibility in the dissemination of information.

Someone told me this story: A man comes to his Rabbi and says, "Rabbi, I did a terrible thing. I gossiped about a friend and now that friend is in trouble. What do I do?" The Rabbi instructed him to go home and get his favorite feather pillow. The man returned with the pillow. They went outside. The Rabbi told him to cut the pillow and scatter the feathers on the wind. The man did that. The feathers flew off in all directions. The man asked: "Is that it? Is it okay now?" The Rabbi said, "No, now you must go and pick up every feather."

The feathers, the false reports, the gossip, the naming of names are impossible to pick up once distributed - whether on the wind, to a neighbor, or through social media. The damage is done, the pain imparted, the reputations destroyed and for what? The need to feel powerful? To cover one's own lies? A chance to be first on an idea? The opportunity to spread a falsehood about someone you don't like or with whom you have a issue? The need to win a time slot or shill for a special interest? To seem more knowledgable than your peers? At what cost?

A young man went missing in March. His family, desperate for help, turned to flyers, social media, anything they could to find him. He's still missing. Yesterday, his name exploded across social media as a suspect in the Marathon bombings. Did he look like one of them? Not enough to justify the exposure of his name across the Internet and the resulting damage to a family already devastated by his disappearance. Was he of the same race or religion as the actual bombers? No. Did that stop people from posting his name, from sharing it?

The feathers are out there.

There's another example. The Czech Republic is NOT Chechnya. Tweeters who are hash-tagging Czech instead of Chechen are an embarrassment to our country. My suggestion to them: take a geography lesson. While you're at it, read this geopolitics lesson (actually, really do read that article. It's important).

What happened in Boston was horrific and terrifying. Bostonians' reactions were inspirational. The runners, bystanders and first responders who turned back to help or kept running to hospitals after twenty-six plus miles to give blood were incredibly brave. The devastatingly injured young man who identified, by description, bomber #1 as he woke in his hospital room without legs was heroic. The police, FBI, ATF, EMS, Swat, all of them deserve credit. No innocents were killed in what had to be an incredibly tense manhunt. The fact that they were able to take the second bomber in custody alive showed restraint, maturity and the understanding that capturing him would be better for everyone - that they needed to talk to him more than they needed vengeance.

There are so many questions to be answered, both by the investigators and by investigative reporters (of which we need more). What's with the Tsarnaev family? Where did Tamerlan, the older brother, go on his six month odyssey through Russia in 2012? Why did the Russians ask the FBI to watch him upon his return. Did the Russians follow through when the FBI asked for further information? What are the brothers' parents doing back in Dagestan - a region with such a difficult history - after they successfully emigrated to the U.S.? With whom are they connected there or in Chechnya or elsewhere? What did his mother's arrest in 2012 for shoplifting from a Lord & Taylor store have to do with her sons' attitude toward Boston - if anything? Her alleged belief that 9/11 was an "inside job", if those accusations are true? With whom were her sons talking on their cell phones during the marathon attack?

The answer to that latter question - with whom were they talking? - is one I hope to hear. Others couldn't help but notice the similarity to the Mumbai attacks of 2008. The Mumbai attackers - sent to India by a Kashmiri separatist group with ties to the Pakistani ISI (a story I wrote about at the time) - were controlled via cell phone from Pakistan during their attack.

With whom were the Brothers Tsarnaev talking? Each other? Or someone else? What was their motive? Was it self-radicalization or direction from others? Did they want to do damage for damage's sake, to feel powerful or to gain prestige, to strike a blow at the infidel as directed by someone from Russia or, perhaps, farther south in South Asia, or did they want to bring about the holy war predicted by al Qaeda that is supposedly to come out of the Caucuses (the region from which their family hails)?

Who radicalized that older brother and how did he convince the younger brother to go along? Did he have to convince him? Is the younger brother's role different than it appears? How did the brothers manage to create those bombs and have them actually go off? Getting a recipe off the Internet is one thing. Getting them to work is quite another.

While those questions are being pursued by authorities and the media, there are others that can only be self-pursued. What is the responsibility of a media forced to compete with social media and each other on the speed of stories? Do they jump the gun as in the case of CNN and Fox with the "suspect arrested" story? Or do they wait like NBC's Pete Williams?

The answer should be obvious. CNN's credibility has been impacted. NBC's has been enhanced. Fox, well...

Cable news is at its worst when it tries to manipulate the news, to compete with, emulate, and/or to outpace social media. Too often, social media has taken its own opportunity to spread feathers rather than fact. The impact on the family of those falsely named, of countries falsely and embarrassingly identified, on anyone who is hurt by the viral nature of false reports, should cause everyone to step back and ask themselves about their responsibility.

The freedom of the press guaranteed by the Constitution implies the responsibilities imparted to journalists along with that protection. We'll protect you so that you can hold government accountable. That makes for a transparent democracy. It also requires the press maintain credibility or it will become, as some have, just so much noise and the intent of the press, to make sure we have a transparent democracy, becomes undermined.

In the Internet age, we're all journalists. Everyone who posts on social media should consider that, if what they posted is incorrect, exposing, sensational, prejudicial or otherwise inappropriate, it may change the perception of those who see it in unforeseen ways - it may interfere with manhunts after horrific crimes - it may harm innocents, or, if not exactly innocent, those who don't deserve such exposure. Posting on social media is a great advance that allows everyone to become connected, for transparency in a democracy - as long as it is done in a thoughtful and responsible manner. Otherwise, like when cable news is wrong - it's just so much noise.