New York Post Can’t Help If Readers Thought ‘Bag Men’ Were Bombing Suspects

The Post's lawyers have a more fully-fleshed defense of the cover that led to a libel lawsuit.


The battle lines have been drawn in the Suffolk County lawsuit between the New York Post and two Massachusetts guys who claim the newspaper libeled them in the days after the Boston Marathon bombs went off. In legal briefs posted online by The Washington Post, lawyers for both sides laid out their arguments as they fought over whether the case ought to be dismissed. There’s a lot in there, but among the defense’s arguments is an interesting distillation of just how far the Post thinks it can go in the service of a catchy cover without, you know, libelously inconveniencing the lives of innocents.

You’ll recall (or maybe you won’t) that the Post published a headline in the Marathon aftermath “BAG MEN” with the subheading “Feds seek these two pictured at Boston marathon” alongside a picture of 16-year-old Salaheddin Barhoum and 24-year-old Yassine Zaimi. There was no doubt the Post messed up when, several hours later, the FBI released the photos of the Tsarnaev brothers, identifying them as the actual suspects and rendering the Post‘s big cover useless. So there’s no doubt here that the Post probably shouldn’t have gone with it.

But whether the screwup was libelous remains to be seen and comes down to whether the Post covered its legal bases in wording its piece on the two men. In defending the implications in its headline, the lawyers happened upon a pretty amusing thesis statement for the New York Post‘s entire raison d’etre:

 “A headline is ‘commonly understood to function primarily as an attention-getter,’ and that is certainly true of the Post’s headlines in general and this headline in particular,” a brief from the Post’s lawyers argues, which … yep! That does seem to be the case. In response to the argument that “bag men” carries some criminal implications, they say, “Taken in context, the headline in this case was obviously nothing other than a play on words,” states the brief. We really wish Anthony Weiner had sued them after they ran the “Second Coming” headline about him. Not that he’d have any reason, but it’d be fun to see the Post‘s lawyers describe the non-implications in that “play on words.” 

Whether the Post can escape a ruling against them by arguing that they followed the letter of the law by, for instance, identifying the men on their cover as ‘potential suspects’ not ‘suspects’ remains to be seen. But the longer their lawyers have to argue about how their headlines are nothing more than meaningless attention-grabbers (that might lead readers to wildly incorrect conclusions through no fault of the Post’s) the less pleasant this probably is for the paper’s editors.