In an otherwise interesting story about the medical response in Boston, the Times reports:
Cellphone service in Boston had been limited to prevent terrorists from using cellphones to detonate any more bombs, so doctors, nurses and other medical professionals were contacted with text messages.
This is a zombie non-fact, arising from the AP’s mistaken report that cell service had been shut down in the wake of the bombing. What really happened is that cell networks were overwhelmed, and only text messages were getting through because, to oversimplify, if your phone can communicate with with the cell network, it can send a text message even if there’s not enough bandwith to make a call.
This might not seem like a big deal, but it does show the power of the first report. Even in a time of tight budgets, a front-page Times story is heavily edited, and every editor who touched that story missed a pretty obvious falsehood. One of the strange things about human memory is that stress or trauma fixes memories into our brains. In Down Around Midnight, Robert Sabbag’s story of surviving a plane crash and dealing with his traumatic memories, he mentions a tribe that would tell its most important stories to kids and then throw them in the river, because the trauma and fear of near-drowning would cause them to remember the story for life. Perhaps that’s why the Times’ editors remember the initial AP story, which came at the height of the chaos around the bombing, but not the correction. If you don’t like my “This American Life”-style explanation, you can chalk it up to sloppiness caused by technical ignorance. Either way, this won’t be the first time that the “scoop” obsession of the media covering this and other stories has caused a rumor from a single source to be treated as fact long after being debunked.
Being first is not a real scoop, but the mania to be first pushes a bunch of crap into our already shit-burdened media pipeline. This zombie cell phone story is just one example.