The Washington Post headline said it all: "As Always, the Internet Angle." The Post's Linton Weeks was mimicking what reporters around the country were doing in the wake of Tuesday's shootings in Colorado - looking for clues online, in what has become a ubiquitious sidebar to every national tragedy.
Little surprise that Weeks found conspiracy talk and wild rumors in chat rooms as the news broke. Matt Drudge had published info on his site saying one of the killers had posted a warning about the attack on an AOL page. Early on, many news sites were running with stories about the killers' profiles and Web pages, despite repeated warnings that they weren't sure of their veracity. Sure enough, AOL said the warning of the attack was from a prankster after the fact.
The Post reporter's biggest mistake was asking the same question as so many TV talking heads and editors: "Did the Internet play any role in warping the world views of the teenage killers?" Expert after expert told him that people are scared of the Net because of its newness, that pipe-bomb books are in bookstores, that people are blaming the Net just like they're blaming Marilyn Manson, Goths and "The Matrix." But somehow, Weeks had to find a dose of reality in a discussion on the Well, where one poster said sarcastically, "One of the shooters 'had a Web site.' Gosh, with such an obvious early warning sign, how could this tragedy not have been averted?" It's almost eerie how it mocks Weeks' own line about the "sinister side of the Internet."
Meanwhile, the L.A. Times wins the award for over-the-top headline of the day: "Killers but a Drop in Internet's Vast Ocean of Angst." Times reporter Greg Miller got literary and mixed metaphors - amid "oceans of angst" the "digital traces apparently left by these troubled teens" amounted to "a few specks of sand."
Among techcentric news sites, most barely touched the story. CNET, for instance, ran a wire story about investigators seizing computer records and computers from the homes of the suspects. But ZDNet ran a huge package devoted to "Trenchcoat Mafia" rumors online.
Much more refreshing was Salon's media cynic James Poniewozik, who railed against the press' rush to attack the Net. He said the media was fooled by all the quick hoaxes posted online, and that "this sort of incident gets spun against the Internet, Den of Falsehood, but in fact it shows the inherent prejudice, increasingly silly as time wears on, that anyone not using the Internet to buy sweaters or make millions with a harebrained e-commerce strategy is a potential nut job."
The real Internet danger, said Poniewozik, is that naive journalists are easily outraged by what they see online. "From broadband to print, wireless to cable, we now have myriad forums in which to be left speechless."