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Journalists Charles Sennott And Seth Mnookin Discuss Boston Manhunt


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we're following events in Boston. We have several guests standing by. Our first guest is Seth Mnookin, a professor of journalism at MIT. He's become famous for live-tweeting the events in Watertown last night. He's a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and was a senior writer at Newsweek. Seth, are you joining us on the phone there?

SETH MNOOKIN: Yes, I'm here.

GROSS: Thank you for being with us. So how did you end up being on the scene at Watertown last night?

MNOOKIN: Well, I got an alert from the emergency alert system at MIT a little bit after 11:00, alerting us about the shooting that had occurred on campus a couple of minutes earlier. And I went down at the campus there. And when I arrived, it was already turning into a sort of breaking news scrum, where essentially it was a lot of reporters standing outside of a crime scene area.

And so when all of a sudden a bunch of the police cars that were at the scene took off very quickly, I thought that it would make more sense if, if I was new information, to follow them as opposed to staying there. And so I first followed them to what seems to be the site where the suspects let out the carjacking victim, which was at a gas station in Cambridge, and then over to Watertown, where the firefight had just concluded.

GROSS: Just give us an overview of what you saw in that firefight. Well, I guess it had just concluded, but what did you actually witness?

MNOOKIN: Well, so the first thing that I noticed is that the area in Watertown in which this took place is right behind several large shopping malls, but it's an incredibly residential area, essentially all single, double-family homes and apartment buildings. And as soon as we got in that area, you could smell gunpowder and smoke in the air.

That was very striking. Then when we got there, the thing that really struck me was the absolute confusion and chaos that was on the ground. The police officers who were there already had been instructed to turn off their cell phones for fear of detonating some sort of explosive device, but they were primarily Boston Police Department cops and not Watertown PD.

So they weren't at all familiar with the area. So they were receiving directions over their radio to go to X and Y intersection and had no idea where that was and couldn't look on their smartphones to call up a map and access that. So there was a sense of total - almost really chaos at the scene, exacerbated by the fact that they clearly felt that there were explosives in the area.

And there was no easy way that I think they or anyone else could see to contain what is again a residential area with dozens, if not hundreds of people asleep or in their houses. So what we ended up seeing was someone who was certainly treated as a suspect told to get out of a car and then take off his clothes and lie down on the ground. He was eventually questioned by the FBI.

And initially the Boston police indicated that he had been a suspect. They said one suspect has been apprehended, and that's the suspect that we now know has died. And there is someone else in custody. And then about an hour later, they said that actually there was only one suspect, the one that had died, and this other person, it appeared as if it was just someone who had the really bad luck of being in the very wrong place at a very wrong time.

GROSS: So you got to Watertown after the suspect - the first suspect was shot.

MNOOKIN: Yes, right after the first suspect was shot but when they believed the second suspect was still right in that area. So what happened was that both suspects were in a car. One of the suspects was struck by a bullet and it seems may also have been injured by some explosive devices that the suspects had.

And then the other suspect was able to essentially drive his way out of this, you know, drive at officers and drive his way out. But when we - when I arrived there, they still thought that he was in this fairly small area. And just to give a sense of how quickly changing the situation was, I got there, I followed the police, I parked my car, was standing talking to a policeman.

Two minutes later, someone comes running at me, another policeman comes running at me, screaming to get 100 yards back. They cordoned off then a several-square-block area. My car is in that area, and when I asked when I might be able to receive my car, this was at like 3:30 in the morning, they said not tonight and possibly not tomorrow.

GROSS: Oh, so you don't have it back yet?

MNOOKIN: No, no, I don't have it back. And in fact at one point they were setting off a controlled - there was talk of setting off a controlled detonation, and I realized that I had my large bulky backpack sitting on a seat in the car.


MNOOKIN: And so I went and found a state police officer and said, you know, just so you know, you don't need to blow up my Subaru. That's not one of the suspects' vehicles.


GROSS: Excuse me for laughing. So...

MNOOKIN: No, no, I mean, you know, it was one of those situations where it was so nerve-wracking, and the events were so tragic that both the cop who I was talking to and I had the same reaction. I think it was sort of nice to have something be ridiculous and not also tragic.

GROSS: So explain this tweet to me: Not sure if this is why police wanted to use my phone, but they were told to shut theirs down because of detonation concern. So...

MNOOKIN: Yeah, so again, I think that really just speaks to how confused the scene was. So they were told to shut down their phones, but because this was before a perimeter had been set up, there were no instructions that were given to me. And someone, one of the police officers, saw that I had a phone in my hand and so came up to me and said: Can you show me where this street is?

I think they also realized at that point that, you know, because we were in the middle of a residential neighborhood, there was no way that everyone in the surrounding area was going to be shutting off their cell phone. You know, certainly they weren't going to spontaneously realize that they should shut off their cell phones.

So - but that did, I think, speak to just how fluid everything was at that time.

GROSS: Was there any concern that you had, having your cell phone on, that you might accidentally detonate a bomb? You know, the police were told to turn theirs off, yeah...

MNOOKIN: And soon as I realized why they didn't have their cell phones on, you know, after I showed him, the officer, where the street was that he was looking for, I then turned it off until we were however many, you know, 100 yards away, and they had set up a perimeter. And at that point I just made sure that I was aware of what the police were doing so I could respond quickly if there were any further requests.

But something else that I think really added to the confusion, and it might be hard for people who don't live in Boston to kind of fully grasp, but, you know, Boston itself is a very small city, it's about 600,000 people. And I think when people think of Boston, what they're actually thinking of is Boston and Cambridge and Watertown and Brookline and this sort of ring of surrounding communities.

And because of this situation, moving from Boston to Cambridge to Watertown, you had multiple agencies that were not obviously used to doing bit tactical operations together. You had state and local forces, and you had the feds. So just on the scene there in Watertown, you had Boston police who seemed to be the primary presence there. You also had Massachusetts State Police. And then you had Watertown and Newton Police.

And so I think this definitely added to some of the confusion. And early on in the night I think added to some of the difficulty, possibly, in communication. There was one exchange that I overheard where some state police were trying to get an image from a member of the transit police, and for whatever reason they weren't able to get it.

And so one of the state policemen finally just sort of said, oh, this is wonderful. And, you know, and that was that. And I think that's what you see when you have people who haven't worked together in this type of situation in an incredibly stressful and very dangerous scenario all of a sudden kind of forced to operate as one.

GROSS: So Seth, you're a professor of journalism. Here you are, you know, in the middle of the night live-tweeting a police action, trying to track down, like, terrorists. One of the suspects was already shot by the time you arrived on the scene. So you're live-tweeting this. The ethics of live-tweeting aren't completely hammered out yet.

So as a professor of journalism, live-tweeting, what are some of the things that went through your mind about what you should be saying and what perhaps you should not be saying?

MNOOKIN: Well, there were a couple things, like there was one time when very clearly a specific address was audible where they thought the suspects might be. And I didn't put that address out over the transom because I didn't see any reason why that would be valuable.

Another thing I tried to do was as often as possible remind people that what they were getting from me was a sort of instantaneous, unedited snapshot of what was going on. And I tried to remind them that even if I was reporting something as being said to me by a police officer, that didn't necessarily mean that it was going to end up being true, as was the case when they thought that they had a second suspect in custody and it turned out they hadn't.

Obviously not because the police officers were dissembling in any way, just because in any kind of fluid situation, your - things are going to look one way, and then you move the picture slightly, and all of a sudden they look as if it's something completely different.

GROSS: Is there anything that you regret having tweeted now that you know a little bit more, if you know more, about what actually went down in Watertown?

MNOOKIN: I'll need to - I'm sure there is, and I'll need to go back and look at my timeline. But I can't think of anything - well, actually, there was one thing that I made a sort of snide comment about another reporter, not by name but just another reporter who was at the scene, and how they're reporting smelling smoke where we were, and you actually couldn't smell smoke.

And, you know, in retrospect I think that was both...

GROSS: I've got that tweet right here. I'm just going to read it: Reporter next to me just said on phone smell of gunpowder is overwhelming. And then you say there's absolutely no smell of gunpowder.

MNOOKIN: Right, and - which on the one hand was true; on the other hand, it's an example of where, first of all, since I'm not on the other end of the conversation, I don't know what the context is. Maybe the question was, what was it like when you first arrived in Watertown, or whatever.

And even if he had been saying the smell of gunpowder at that moment was overwhelming, I think what tweets like that kind of don't acknowledge is that everyone there is in a really stressful, frightening, difficult situation. And people respond to stressful, frightening, difficult situations in all sorts of ways. And I think a good rule of thumb is to be as generous as possible in your interpretations of what other people are doing and what your colleagues are doing. And that was an example of a time in which my snideness momentarily got the better of me.

GROSS: So I'm wondering what if feels like - now, you've gone from being in the middle of this police action to now being locked down at home with everybody else in Boston. So what is it feeling like being locked down?

MNOOKIN: Well, it's - I lived in lower Manhattan on September 11...

GROSS: And Seth, you're going to have to make that short because we've got to take a break in a second.

MNOOKIN: Yeah, and so it's very striking. It feels very much like that, and I find that kind of sad and obviously very scary.

GROSS: Well, I wish you well. I thank you very much for talking with us.

MNOOKIN: Yes, thank you, I appreciate it.

GROSS: Are you going to do live tweeting again? Was this experience something you want to do again if it happens, you've learned lessons?

MNOOKIN: Oh yeah, I think it's - you know, I think Twitter is an incredibly valuable tool for journalists in many different ways and it's something that I urge colleagues and my students to explore, as a way to enhance their reporting and their journalism. So most definitely.

GROSS: Well, thank you again, Seth. Seth Mnookin is a journalist who teaches journalism at MIT. His latest book is called "The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine/Autism Controversy." Joining me by phone from his home in Boston is Charles Sennott. He's been a foreign correspondent for 25 years. He's covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Arab Spring in 2011, bombings in New York, Ireland, Oklahoma City and Europe. He was Middle East bureau chief for the Boston Globe and is currently executive editor and co-founder of the online news organization Global Post. Earlier this week he wrote a column for its Ground Truth blog about having covered bombings all over the world for the last 20 years and what it means when it happens in your hometown. Charles, thank you so much for joining us.


GROSS: So what has it been like for you? We used to speak by phone when you were in Iraq, covering the war there. And now, you know, you've seen, you know, two explosions in your home town and you're in lockdown now. You can't get out of the house, so what's it like when it happens in your home town?

SENNOTT: Well, it's different. (Unintelligible) like suddenly, you know, of course it's a lot closer to home physically, but it's just these streets are the streets I grew up in, and these are the people I know. And Patriots Day is a day in Boston that is the best day in Boston, when it seems like there's almost always good weather and we have the Red Sox playing and the Marathon is such a great tradition, proud sense of history, the anniversaries of the battles in Concord and Lexington and you think, this is this pageant of just life, and a great city. And I think when we - when we saw these events unfold, I started to really ask myself why does it feel so different that these victims have a Boston accent? You know, the same people I grew with, or that - a student from China, and Boston, of course, is all about students from all over the world coming to the city.

This is different and I think it is different because suddenly you realize that every time you coming a bombing, it's someone's hometown. And I think this bombing has reminded me of that, that maybe we've covered so many bombings over so much time, in Belfast, in Pakistan, Oklahoma City, Jerusalem, Kabul, Madrid, London - maybe all of this somehow gets you at some point inured to the meaning of it for the people who have gone through it, and it's a horrible shock to Boston. It's a tough, resilient town, but it's a reminder to me as a journalist from here that we've got to bring that same emotion, as much as we can, every time, everywhere in the world, because wherever a bombing happens, it's someone's hometown.

GROSS: Where are you right now?

SENNOTT: So I'm in my home right now, outside of Boston, to the west of Boston, very difficult to navigate around the city right now. Tough to get into Watertown, as we were just hearing. We've got a bunch of correspondents who are in the field, who are in places in Cambridge and Watertown, sort of looking into this story. Our offices in Boston for GlobalPost are shut down. So we're all sort of isolated cells pulling this together, which isn't that hard these days. We can make it happen. And I think that, you know, our editor in Boston who's running the show will be doing a great job pulling everyone together. But it is an extraordinary set of events, you know, that have been unfolding in Boston.

You talked about tweeting. I just tweeted that, you know, very simply, many more questions than answers right now, but feels more like "Dog Day Afternoon" than, you know, "Dark Zero Thirty."

GROSS: "Zero Dark Thirty." But why does it feel more like "Dog Day Afternoon"?

SENNOTT: Well, because this is taking us inside a journey into two young brothers, and we're going to try to understand what motivated them to do something this violent, this horrific. And think that when you get inside these worlds, it's like that often with covering bombings - in Madrid we had to get inside the North African immigrant community in Madrid. In London we traveled out to Leeds and we started to look inside that community of Pakistani immigrants who felt alienated.

I think this time we're going to be on a journey to understand the inner workings of a family, a family dynamic where apparently these two brothers felt very disaffected from their other members of their family. You know, we've now heard from the uncle, who spoke from suburban Maryland, from his home. And he was asked, why do you think they would do that, and his answer was, you know, those who did that are losers, people who couldn't settle successfully.

And you know, that's a revealing comment about who these guys are or who at least the older brother is. Because we also have that - that hit from the older brother on his Facebook page where he talked about not being able to understand Americans, not liking Americans. He doesn't get them, as he said. This is Tamerlan, the one who has now been killed, the 26-year-old brother, the brother in the dark hat in the photograph. And then you have the younger brother, you know, who we're getting a picture of, Dzhokhar - known more commonly, I guess, around Cambridge where he went to high school, at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, as Jahar. And he is supposed to be this sweet, innocent, nice young kid. I mean the words coming out about him are glowing. So how do we square this? Was it an older brother influencing a younger brother inside a family that had been fractured by displacement and political asylum here in the United States, you know, who had seen their family have to flee the war in Chechnya? How did they end up here? What kind of alienation did that cause and what role does that play are all the kinds of questions we have to ask in this bombing and that I've asked all over the world...

GROSS: I'm going to stop you right here, Charlie, because we have a lot more questions I want to ask you about. But we have to take a short break here. So stand by and we'll be back to you after we take a break.

My guest is Charles Sennott. He's joining us from his home in the Boston area. And we'll be back after a break. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

Today we're following events in Boston. And joining me by phone from his home in the Greater Boston area is Charles Sennott. He's been a foreign correspondent for 25 years. He's covered wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Arab Spring, bombings in New York, Ireland, Oklahoma City and Europe. He is the founding executive editor of the online news organization GlobalPost, and he writes a column for its GroundTruth blog.

Charlie, you still with us?

SENNOTT: Yeah. Right here, Terry.

GROSS: OK. So you're trying to pull together information on your GlobalPost website about what's happening now and yet everybody who have reporting from the area is in lockdown. So how are you pulling this together?

SENNOTT: Well, we have our editor who is in Boston, is coordinating, you know, all the different aspects of a live blog of trying to pull together a profile of the two brothers. I think just all of us are pulling together to use every bit of perspective on this we can. I mean for the large part, to be honest, a lot of this is monitoring this event unfolding live on television. It's a stunning series of events that have taken so many dramatic twists and turns. I think the whole country and to some extent the whole world is watching it. We're a news organization that covers global news based in Boston and, you know, we have this dramatic global news event unfolding in our backyard that we're ending up having to cover with our correspondents being largely placed out in the world, not in Boston. So it's all turned on its head for us and we're just doing the best we can, everybody pitching in.

GROSS: So you were saying you have reporters finding out about the two brothers. What else have you learned about them? When we left off, you are talking about how you think this is going to end up being more of a "Dog Day Afternoon" scenario than a "Zero Dark Thirty" scenario, or it's about people who were really disaffected. So what else have you learned about the brothers?

SENNOTT: I mean what we're learning is just in bits and pieces but those bits and pieces are coming together pretty quickly. Talking to high school students who were at Cambridge Rindge and Latin - very famous high school in Cambridge - and that's where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev graduated in 2011. He then went on to University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and, you know, just sort of following the path of so many immigrant kids in the city of Boston. You know, we've had - we have immigrants in Cambridge from all over the world who come to settle there and who go to that high school and who go on to do good things. And those who knew him and called him Jahar - was what they referred to him as - said that this was a kid who was just, you know, a great kid, someone who they couldn't imagine doing this, that he was a trained lifeguard who worked at Harvard University. He was a good student, you know, went on to college. And I think what we're hearing then from the analysts and the people I know who cover terrorism and who do profiling within the CIA and the FBI of terrorists, they're asking questions like, well, we're really looking at how the 19-year-old may have been led by the 26-year-old. The older brother, Tamerlan, who is now dead, really was more disaffected from everything we can gather and from looking at his own posts on Facebook, this was someone who had a very different spirit than his younger brother. And I think that dynamic, getting inside of personal relationships between two young brothers, is going to be a big part of this. I mean all of this is taking so many turns. I don't want to try to guess on anything, but I do think that's a big area of questioning: What was the influence of the older brother on the younger brother? And did he encourage him to try to bring meaning to their lives through some expression of violence?

GROSS: So what are some of the dangers you're trying to avoid reporting on a live breaking news story?

SENNOTT: That's a really great question. And I think the best answer to that is an example. When I came back from Pakistan in 1995, and I was researching sort of, you know, the rise of Islamic extremism, and I had come off of the 1993 World Trade Center bombings and I came home like days before Oklahoma City. And I remember it because it was almost Patriots Day, and I remember very well that I just wanted to go to the Red Sox game but my editor said you have to immediately get to Oklahoma City, this is going to be Middle Eastern terrorism. And we sort of dutifully marched off out of the newsroom, myself and a photographer, and went to Oklahoma City, and all the networks are reporting the hallmarks of Middle East terrorism. And, of course, when we got there in Oklahoma City, the story became about a young soldier named Timothy McVeigh and his relationship with another character named Terry Nichols and their journey through a certain part of America and gun shows and the NRA and the Patriot movement. And I think of that story now and I think it would have been so easy to presume and to say that all the vectors are pointing toward this bombing on Marathon Day being the Patriot movement because of the anniversary. But here we get another twist again that now it's actually about Chechnians who are immigrants here. Whether it's about a cause connected to Chechnian separatists, we don't know, but they're an immigrant family and we're going to have to try to ask those questions. And I think never presume you know where it's going to go because that is the truth of getting inside these underworlds that explode in this kind of violence, is just follow the story where it leads you. Don't try to guess.

GROSS: Charlie, you have reporters around the world who file for GobalPost. Are you getting reactions from around the world to the bombings in Boston and to the manhunt that's underway?

SENNOTT: I mean we've been getting reactions really from the very beginning and strong messages of support, not only on the website where we've seen a lot of that attached to our coverage, but even just individually from our editors and reporters who either have worked all over the world or are still out there based in many cities all over the world. Unbelievably warm messages of support. You know, I had these young reporters in Cairo send me these really dear messages about how worried they are. And people from Baghdad who I've worked with who say be safe. You know, to be getting a message from Baghdad telling those of us in Boston to be careful and be safe is I think a big part of this story that's unfolded in Boston, that none of us are immune, no city is immune to this kind of violence and it we'll all be judged on how we react to it and the kind of strength and resiliency we show him getting over it. Of course we've seen that with that beautiful interfaith service yesterday. But also, how do we deal with the culprits? And how do we deal with our own anger towards those who did it, and what are we going to bring to that, I think is a question that we'll still unfold over the next few days, weeks, months.

GROSS: Well, more immediately, you've been exposed to so many wars and terrorist attacks. What advice do you have for your fellow Bostonians about how to deal with what they're going through right now and lockdowns? A lot of fear and uncertainty in the air?

SENNOTT: Mm-hmm. I think Boston is a tough town and never likes to be told what to do, so I would never presume to want...


SENNOTT: tell my town what to do.

GROSS: Maybe not.

SENNOTT: I would need until my family what to do. But I think that is doing the right things - which it has pulled together. It has been heroic in terms of the first responders. It's been selfless in terms of the civilians who just went right forward to help those who were injured at that finish line. And it's been reflective about faith which, you know, is a very important part of the fabric of the life in Boston and in all of America, and maybe you could say even all the world. I mean going to faith is a big issue, I think, that I see it through a lot of the communities here, and I think these are all very healthy responses to getting through it and being resilient and recognizing that this city will not be cowed in fear because of the violence of two individuals who President Obama described yesterday as stunted individuals. I think we get that in Boston. I think a bigger question for Boston will be, how do we deal with the culture of revenge? You know, it's famously been said that Boston cares about three things: sports, politics and revenge. OK. That's a line. But, really, how are we going to deal with the fact that these were two young brothers who lived in Cambridge, one went to Bunker Hill Community College, the other went to UMass Dartmouth. These are not unlike all of our sons and nephews in our own families who we are all immigrants too. We all went to those public high schools and we went on to those public colleges. But here are two that turned against this community and hurt it badly. Are we going to judge them just as individuals, you know, and look at the idea of prosecution and look at the idea of justice? Or will we make the mistake of widening it out and making it somehow about religion or about bigger ideas when it may or may not be about that?

GROSS: Well, Charles Sennott, thank you so much for talking with us. I'm going to ask you to stand by. In case you get any news through the hour, please check in with us.

SENNOTT: Sure. Will do.

GROSS: So we're going to continue to be in touch.

SENNOTT: Terry, we've been in touch since 9/11 on all of these stories.

GROSS: That is so true. I know.

SENNOTT: It's been such a journey, and this one I guess I never just thought that journey would come right home.

GROSS: And I'm so sorry that it did. I love your city.

SENNOTT: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: I've spent a lot of time there and my thoughts are with everybody there today. And thank you, Charlie. And Charles Sennott is the founding executive editor of the online news organization GlobalPost and he writes a column for its blog GroundTruth.

Thanks, Charlie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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