April 16, 2013

The New York Post yesterday proved its editorial independence. While nearly the entire media was reporting a death toll of two from the Boston bombings, the New York Post went with 12.

Since then, authorities have moved the toll to at least three dead.

The New York Post, faced with the official count, has found ways to stick with its count of 12. Here’s how a Post story put things in a piece that was last updated in the wee hours of Tuesday morning:

Two explosions were detonated at the race’s finish line within seconds of each other, beginning at 2:50 p.m. Three other undetonated devices were later discovered by authorities. A federal law enforcement source told The Post there are at least 12 dead and at least 132 people have been treated at seven area hospitals.

And here is how the paper handled things in a story this morning:

The twin blasts injured 176 people — 17 critically, authorities said today. The official death toll remained at three, but a law-enforcement source told The Post it could be as high as 12.

One witness told The New York Times there appeared to be 10 to 12 fatalities, including “women, children, finishers.” The wounds appeared to be “lower torso — the type of stuff you see from someone exploding out,” he said.

There are precisely two possible scenarios in this case:

1) The New York Post is right. If so, it has a stupendous law-enforcement source, one that knows far more than the FBI, the Massachusetts governor, the Boston mayor and everyone else who has gone on record about the tragic events of yesterday afternoon. And that source is sitting on information at odds with the consistent statements that public officials and medical officials have made across a number of news conferences since yesterday afternoon.

The discrepancy between the official count and the New York Post count is nine lives. Given that gap, the New York Post at the very least owes its readers an extensive explanation as to why it continues mentioning its number.

2) The New York Post is wrong. This is a possibility.

One outlet that could shed light on the situation is the New York Post. Earlier today, the Erik Wemple Blog contacted the paper’s PR firm, Rubenstein Strategic Communications and Media Relations. At the same time, we tried getting someone in the paper’s newsroom to chat about the reporting. A call to an administrator got me bounced to a New York Post bureau; someone there gave me a cell-phone number for a reporter whose name was listed at the bottom of one of the paper’s 12-dead pieces. The reporter declined to answer questions about the death toll and referred me to a number where we could get some answers. When we asked for the name of an editor who could speak for the stories, the reporter declined. “The people who answer the phone, I believe, will direct you to the proper person,” said the reporter. The people who answered the phone referred me to the PR firm.

The priceless part of the New York Post’s revisionism is where it tries to piggyback on the reporting of the New York Times. Indeed, a witness told the New York Times about 10-12 fatalities. That bit of information came in an early version of this New York Times story, titled “War Zone at Mile 26: ‘So Many People Without Legs’.”

The current version of that story doesn’t have the 10-to-12-fatality reporting cited by the New York Post, but NewsDiffs, a site that tracks edits to stories of certain news outlets, has an early copy of the piece in question. Here’s how it reads:

Bruce Mendelsohn, a public relations professional, was at a celebration on a third-floor office above where the explosion took place. His brother, Aaron, had finished the race earlier.

“There was a very loud boom, and three to five second later, there was another one,” said Mr. Mendelsohn, 44, an Army veteran, who immediately recognized the noise because of his training. “I ran outside. There was blood smeared in the streets and on the sidewalk.”

He said that on first glance, there appeared to be 10 to 12 fatalities, including “women, children, finishers,” but that he could not be sure. The wounds, he said, appeared to be “lower torso.”

The New York Post didn’t highlight the could-not-be-sure part. That the New York Post would cite a bystander quoted by another news outlet about something he wasn’t sure about could startle all those who have relied on this newspaper for all their information about the Boston bombings.

The New York Times declined to comment.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.