COMMENTARY
9:50 am
Wed May 14, 2014

Naming Names: First Thoughts On The Globe's Todashev Exclusive

We're going to be hearing a lot about the Boston Globe's decision to publish the names of the FBI agent and State Police troopers who were involved in the Florida shooting death of Ibragim Todashev, the Tamerlan Tsarnaev associate suspected of being involved in a triple murder in Waltham.

The story, by Globe reporter Maria Sacchetti, reveals that FBI agent Aaron McFarlane is a former Oakland police officer with a troubling past. The article raises serious questions about how law enforcement handled the investigation of perhaps the single most important figure connected to the Boston Marathon bombing suspects. Here is some background to keep in mind as the discussion unfolds.

Can the mainstream media act as a gatekeeper to prevent the public from learning information it can find elsewhere?
Can the mainstream media act as a gatekeeper to prevent the public from learning information it can find elsewhere?

This past January, David Boeri of WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) reported on the FBI-State Police interrogation that ended in Todashev's death. Here's what Boeri had to say about the names of the agent and the two troopers:

In the course of our investigation, WBUR has learned the names of the law enforcement officers involved in the shooting. We are not releasing the names at the request of both the FBI and the Massachusetts State Police, which cited specific concerns for their safety.

In today's Globe article, we learn that the FBI agent's name is Aaron McFarlane, and that he "has previously been publicly identified in a blog about the Boston Marathon case."

That prompted Boston magazine editor-in-chief Carly Carioli to tweet:

(And by the way, in March Boston published its own long investigation into the shooting. The article, by Susan Zalkind, was also the subject of a one-hour segment on public radio's This American Life.)

Carioli's tweet leads to a site called "The Boston Marathon Bombings: What Happened?", which on May 3 revealed the names of McFarlane and the two Massachusetts troopers, Joel Gagne and Curtis Cinelli. (As best as I can tell, that's the first time any of the three officers was named.) According to the site, the names and uncensored crime-scene photos were obtained from PDFs of public records using techniques that sound similar to what the Globe did. The Globe offers this description:

The Globe obtained their names by removing improperly created redactions from an electronic copy of Florida prosecutor Jeffrey L. Ashton’s report — which in March found the shooting of Todashev justified — and then verifying their identities through interviews and multiple government records. Those records include voting, birth, and pension documents.

On May 5, the same "What Happened?" website revealed some of the problems McFarlane had as a member of the Oakland Police Department that are at the heart of today's Globe story.

I should note that though the "What Happened?" site appears to have broken some important stories, it also traffics in rather, uh, unusual rhetoric. For instance, here is a photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, bloody and injured as he surrendered in Watertown, beneath the headline "2013: THE YEAR AMERICA BEGAN HUNTING DOWN AND SHOOTINGS [sic] IT'S [sic] OWN TEENAGERS. WHY?"

By all indications the Globe has been careful to do its own reporting — which it would in any case, but which is especially important when dealing with material like this.

Which brings us to the question I imagine we'll be debating in the days to come: Should the Globe have released the names of McFarlane, Gagne and Cinelli? I'd like to hear arguments on both sides. But keep these three things in mind:

  • The official investigation into Todashev's death had not been completed when Boeri was doing his reporting for WBUR in January. Since then the three have been cleared by investigators, and the matter is no longer pending.
  • Police officers are doing the public's business, and we have a right to know as much information as possible about serious matters such as the Todashev shooting. Consider a much more routine example, reported by the Salem News, in which the Essex County district attorney's office named officers involved in a fatal shooting in the course of disclosing the results of their investigation.
  • Because of the "What Happened?" report, the three names were, in fact, already out there. Whatever calculation Globe editors might have made if this had occurred 20 years ago, it is simply a reality that a mainstream news organization can no longer act as a gatekeeper to prevent the public from learning information that it can find out elsewhere. This change doesn't call for lower standards, but it does call for different standards.

I realize I'm putting my thumb on the disclosure side of the scale. But I think withholding the names would have been a respectable decision as well. As Sacchetti writes today, "Even Florida, which often identifies such officers, declined to do so in this case, citing concerns for the investigators’ safety."

At this early stage, I can be persuaded either way, and I'm curious to see and hear what others have to say.