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New York Post settles ‘Bag Men’ defamation suit

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The New York Post has settled a high-profile defamation suit over the paper’s infamous “Bag Men” cover in the midst of the Boston Marathon terrorist bombing of April 2013, a Suffolk County, Mass., court clerk has confirmed to the Erik Wemple Blog. The suit stemmed from the much-criticized decision of the New York Post to run a cover photograph of two people — 16-year-old Salaheddin Barhoum and 24-year-old Yassine Zaimi, residents of Revere and Malden, Mass., respectively — in attendance at the marathon; they were holding bags in the picture, and authorities suspected that the bombs had been carried in nylon bags or backpacks. “Bag Men,” in this context, packed quite a punch.

A defamatory punch, claimed Barhoum and Zaimi in a June 2013 civil action against the New York Post. The complaint cited the New York Post for “false, inflammatory and libelous assertions concerning plaintiffs’ involvement in the April 15, 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

The Suffolk County clerk said that the terms of the settlement were not disclosed, and one of the plaintiff’s lawyers told this blog that he couldn’t comment on them. The Associated Press last night reported that neither side would disclose terms.

Too bad. Just what the New York Post did to make this civil action go away is a matter of great public interest. Consider that the “Bag Men” treatment surfaced in the paper’s April 18, 2013, edition, as federal and local authorities were seeking the culprits in the marathon bombing. Internet-borne hysteria gripped the story, with armchair sleuths scanning social media photos of the marathon in search of suspects. Barhoum and Zaimi were not considered suspects in the blasts, as authorities later assured them (authorities eventually released photos of the real suspects, who turned out to be brothers Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev). Even so, the New York Post strongly suggested as much with a subhead on the story that read, “Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.”

Seeds for the settlement were planted in March, then Judge Judith Fabricant flattened a motion by the New York Post to dismiss the case. Conducting a judicial seminar on the fine points of libel law, Fabricant verily laughed at the paper’s contention that reasonable readers would conclude only that authorities were merely seeking to chat with Barhoum and Zaimi, not that they would conclude that they were actual suspects. She wrote: “The Court is not persuaded. To the contrary, in the court’s view, a reasonable reader could construe the publication as expressly saying that law enforcement personnel were seeking not only to identify the plaintiffs, but also to find them, and as implying that the plaintiffs were the bombers, or at least investigators so suspected.”

There was no running away from “Bag Men” in the context of the Boston bombings, as Fabricant wrote: “[T]he cover headline ‘BAG MEN’” in large capital letters across a photograph of the plaintiffs carrying bags, could fairly have been understood to imply that their bags were the ones that had transported the bombs.” Fabricant’s rejection of the paper’s arguments signaled that a protracted course of litigation wouldn’t be a profitable course for the New York Post.

We’re hoping that the New York Post dished out a large sum for the misery it visited upon two innocent young people.