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Monday, April 22, 2013

Robin Responds To Questions After Becoming Part Of Story

Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev (left) and Here & Now host Robin Young's nephew are pictured in a Cambridge Rindge and Latin graduation photo. Tsarnaev has been identified as the surviving suspect in the marathon bombings. (Courtesy: Robin Young)

Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev (left) and Here & Now host Robin Young’s nephew, Zolan, (right) are pictured in a Cambridge Rindge and Latin graduation photo. Tsarnaev has been identified as the surviving suspect in the marathon bombings. (Courtesy: Robin Young)

Many listeners have thanked us for our coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing and Friday’s manhunt.

Many people responded to my interview with my nephew, Zolan. In high school, he knew one of the accused bombers, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

In addition to the thanks, we’ve also received a number of good questions.

As a journalist, should I have disclosed a personal connection to a story?

I actually have to disclose that connection.

Should we have put Zolan on the air, or his graduation picture on the website?

What Zolan did was write a new narrative. A frightening one. One not so easy to spot.

The pictures were on social media and being passed around. We wanted them labeled correctly. And Zolan wanted to speak out to correct false reports.

Early reporting described both brothers as disaffected immigrants, who attended a prestigious academy in Cambridge.

Zolan knew that Dzhokhar had been a popular, outgoing kid. He attended Cambridge Rindge and Latin, a scrappy, public high school with many children of immigrants and more students living in public housing than in the homes of Harvard professors.

Both he and I were immediately overwhelmed with interview requests from around the world.

It was a good lesson for Zolan, who’s studying journalism in college: What happens when you’re holding the one puzzle part that everyone wants?

We each did a few phone interviews and then I had to get to work, and so did he. He’s an intern at the Boston Globe. He said, “I got the story out, now I have to go write one.”

Other students and teachers who knew Dzhokhar also came forward.

College students at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth said they joked Thursday night about how much Suspect No. 2 looked like Dzhokhar. But it was so inconceivable that they never called police.

Zolan didn’t see the FBI pictures until Friday, but his fellow high school students called in when they saw the photos Thursday.

I found myself looking at other pictures this weekend, photos from a great pre-prom party that we had back in 2011.

The kids posed for pictures before boarding a trolley they rented. Dzhokhar was at the center of a scrum of boys in tuxedos.

People don’t want to hear that Dzhokhar was such a popular kid, and I understand that.

What he’s accused of is monstrous. Evil. And we want that person to fit the narrative of loner. Outcast.

What Zolan did was write a new narrative. A frightening one. One not so easy to spot.

One of my favorite photos from that 2011 party is of parents and relatives waving in the street as the trolley made its way down our old, narrow street. We were as teary-eyed as adults always are at prom, who know something is ending.

Then I also remembered that Dzhokhar didn’t take the trolley. He had his car.

Maybe he was already traveling a path away from his high school friends.

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  • confused

    I found myself very confused by your becoming involved in the story.  It makes it difficult for listeners to decipher which role you are trying to fill, one of journalist or one of interviewee.  Very confusing.  So, yes, definitely disclose whether or not you knew him but maybe then it is time to recuse yourself.  Almost like a judge or attorney.  

    • http://profiles.google.com/barry.kort Barry Kort

      Most of the subjects of stories are not criminals, and many of them are prominent members of the community whom journalists know quite well.  Robin got to know Carlos Aredondo and has told his story before.  When Carlos turns up in a heroic role in the Boston Marathon bombing, who better to tell the story and to place it in context?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=629200566 Ali Kiedrowski Ohlhoff

    Hi Robin. I’m a daily listener and huge fan of yours, and I found your reporting of the story extremely thoughtful. Thank you for sharing the facts of your connection to the suspect, in spite of what I’m sure is/was a very difficult situation for your family.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Imani-Burrell/100002259534084 Imani Burrell

    Its too bad when any of us has an association with a criminal of this type, but w/ 6 degrees of separation, its more likely than not.  Robin has no need to recuse herself from this reporting.  Instead, she should be first in line to give her information.  After hearing the report that this boy was not, indeed, disinfranchised, it made a difference in my thinking.  Thank you, Robin… keep up the outstanding journalism…!

    • http://profiles.google.com/barry.kort Barry Kort

      Any journalist who covers politics or higher education in Greater Boston will have covered William “Billy” Bulger, who is now a retired Democratic Party politician, lawyer, and educator from South Boston, Massachusetts, who for many years was President of the Massachusetts Senate and president of the University of Massachusetts. 

      And any journalist who covers criminal justice will have covered the story of William Bulger’s brother, James “Whitey” Bulger, who is on trial for a life of crime in South Boston.

      Sometimes brothers are partners in crime, and sometimes they are on opposite sides of the law.

      Boston is a strange town that way.  Robin can tell you of a number of high public officials who fell from grace and ended up on trial for corruption.

  • http://profiles.google.com/barry.kort Barry Kort

    Connecting the Dots

    Robin, this is such a strange story, with strange and uncanny connections that it feels like it could have been written by Joss Whedon.

    In reflecting on the challenging journalistic ethics required to cover this story in a professional and ethical manner, I have no doubt you drew upon your studies on mass media ethics, including the important work of Carol Gilligan on the Ethics of Care.  

    Carol Gilligan, as you may know, is married to James Gilligan, who is a leading expert on the roots of violence in the culture.

    The lay public, when they hear the name of Gilligan, do not think of these distinguished academics from Harvard and New York University. Rather they think of the oddball character played by Bob Denver on TV.

    Bob Denver also played the beatnick character, Maynard G. Krebbs, on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, in which the main character was looking for love in all the wrong places.  

    Often baffleplexed by his disheartening failure to connect to the elusive girls of his dreams, Dobie Gillis would mimic the pose of the statue of Rodin’s Thinker in the Central City park.

    Another running theme in the show was the notion of propinquity, the tendency for people to form relationships with those whom they frequently encounter.  “Propinquity” is also the title of a popular song written by Michael Nesmith and performed by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. It was featured with scenes from the BBC series, Sherlock to signify the relationship between Sherlock and Molly, the forensic scientist in the series.

    It occurs to me, Robin, that propinquity applies to this story, in a remarkably uncanny way that profoundly challenges our reckoning of the Empathy-Antipathy Axis in psychology.

  • Finney

    Thanks for disabusing the notion that CRLS is some kind of elite exam school. The media hears the word “Latin” and can’t think straight. It was annoying to hear the school described that way even on our local TV stations. 

  • John Ingram

    Robin, I have been listening to you, somewhere on am or fm radio and television for decades.  You are a pro for sure but every so often a part of you  finds it’s way into the broadcast. That’s why I listen.

  • Michael0812

     Robin, before presenting yourself as an inside source, calling Johar a
    “beautiful, beautiful boy,” and saying hushed-toned things like “Oh
    it’s just heartbreaking, Steve, Thank you.” Or, “WE’VE known ZO-har
    since he was much younger,” and “We call him one of his (Zolan Youngs’,
    your nephew the intern at The Globe attempting to pass himself off as a
    Globe reporter) best friends,” it might have been a good idea at least
    to learn how to properly pronounce the kid’s name.

    To some, it might appear that you both tossed Fairness and Accuracy
    in reporting into the backseat and let Sensationalism and Inappropriate
    Attention Seeking drive and ride shot-gun.


    • ironymobile

      Your comment about Robin’s not knowing “how to *properly* pronounce the kid’s name” makes me wonder how closely you listened to the interview &/or
      how much attention you’ve been paying to this story (emphasis added).  As is abundantly clear, Robin asks the host to share the “new pronunciation.”  This phrase refers to the pronunciation of the suspect’s full name that has been adopted *by the media* since last Friday, when he & his brother were first identified by name.  Virtually every article quoting high school or college friends of the younger Tsarnaev notes the fact that Dzhokhar goes by “Jahar.”  So, it doesn’t take much effort to figure out that this is how Robin–the person, not the professional–knew him as well.  In this interview, she is mediating between two identities: the Cambridge resident & aunt of Z who knew this kid personally and the WBUR radio host.  Two roles, two pronunciations.

      Native anglophones, especially those with limited experience of other languages or cultures, often have a tough time pronouncing “ethnic” names (which generally means non-Western-European names).  So, many of us who have such names adopt nicknames or alternate pronunciations which will be easier–namely, for others–as we move through or assimilate into English-speaking society.  Who knows what name he went by among family members–i.e., what the “proper” (which is to say *authentic*) pronunciation of “Dzhokhar” is?  I’ll give you a hint: not the US media and not you (unless you happen to hail from the Russian Federation, generally, and the Northern Caucasus, specifically, or to be an expert on the region).

      I’m not sure what else you thought was unfair or inaccurate about this interview (especially since I don’t see how a personal perspective, presented as such, could really *be* inaccurate).  But perhaps you think neither Robin nor her nephew should have shared their experience with Tsarnaev at all.  If this is the case, why you think so is an interesting question.

      • http://profiles.google.com/barry.kort Barry Kort

        The same applies to the pronunciation of the last name, as well.

        In Russian, Tsar and Czar are common alternative spellings for the appellation deriving from the Latin Caesar, that being an authoritarian or autocratic emperor.  Compare to the German Kaiser.

        The semiotic root of Tsarnaev is unclear, but it may mean “Noble King” or possibly “Prophetic King.”

      • Michael0812


        Really, irony?  She mispronounced the name, what, “audaciously” because it was her job to mispronounce the name?  Never mind.  I expect that will just get us into more contortions. 

        Let’s not confuse it:   the beautiful, beautiful boy was eight year old Martin Richard.  Don’t take my word for it, see for yourself.


        The guy who so calmly and deliberately attacked that beautiful, beautiful boy and killed him with an IED is called Dzhokhar, or ZOhar, or Jahar.  Regardless of background or motivation, by *any* name that guy is a monster.

  • Myrna Offen

    Thanks for your story Robin.  I am a listener and fan of you and WBUR.  Perhaps the turn of events that this young man (not boy) took was unexpected.  He had other influences in his life that seem to have made more of a difference than his friends, teachers and mentors.  He will be tried and we hope that more information will be discovered and he will be punished!!!

  • Susan

    I love your show.  I heard most of it today and I heard much of it the day before the marathon.  I live in Virginia but grew up in Andover, MA and went to BU, so I consider myself a New Englander and a Bostonian.  I even have a dog named Fenway.

  • Evaarnott

    How did a kid without affluent parents manage to have a car and pay mandatory auto insurance in Massachusetts? If he smoked pot every day at U Mass Dartmouth, as others have said, was he selling at Cambridge R & L?

  • Lois

    As a regular listener of NPR and Here and Now, I was gratified to hear the prompt, honest, and courageous disclosure of your family’s connection to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  Courageous, because it would have been understandable if you had chosen only to divulge in the interest of journalistic integrity that you have a connection to the suspect, and left it at that.  It is common to hear suspected and convicted criminals described in simplistic and inflammatory terms, even by respected public figures and journalists.  In reality, human beings are complex and can change dramatically over time, or can possess seemingly contradictory qualities simultaneously.  I commend your nephew for remaining true to his experiences with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his assessment of him as a classmate and friend.  While I am heartsick at the deaths, injuries, and destruction caused by the bombs, I am also saddened by the losses of the Tsarnaev family, and for the qualities Dzhokhar lost (or perhaps did not have) that allowed him to participate in such a destructive and devastating act. 

  • Rcbilar

    I heard your story on Friday while listening to WBUR coverage of the search for “suspect #2″. Your nephew’s story was so striking in that the police were searching for this young man who, by all accounts, was so well liked and so likeable. My heart goes out to you and your nephew, and all who knew Dzhokhar before the bombings. I know that my feelings are not what most people are feeling about him, knowing what had happened, but as a mother, I feel pity for him, the loss of all he could have been. If only………

  • Rcbilar

    I must clarify my post before I become crucified by all-I do not condone what he did, and my heart goes out to all who were affected. What I am trying to say is that we never know what can turn someone into a “monster” and I hope  we find out what compelled he and his brother to do this horrible thing.  He will pay for this, but it is the sense of a life thrown away that is hard to understand. I have 2 young men of my own, and hope their future is bright. Robin humanized this young man, now we must wait to learn what happened to the Dzhokhar she knew.

    • Michael0812

       They weren’t compelled to blow up the finish line with bombs jacked with nails and BBs for maximum carnage, Rebilar, they simply chose to.  That is what defines them.  Not the circumstances, not their religion, not their nationality, . . .   not their mom. 

      They knew what exactly they were doing.  Dzhokhar left that bomb a mere feet from these little kids, fully aware that it would kill or maim them.  He knew, at least cognitively if not in his heart, the agony he was inflicting.

      There’s no conceivable *reason* for it.

      There’s absolutely no rational or sentimental apologia.  And he won’t “pay” for this.  He can’t.  For the Richards and for Dzhokhar’s other victims, the liability is impossible to account for.

      Sometimes evil has nice curly hair.

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