Why some in the media are holding back on a motive in the Club Q shootings

Pride parade in Colorado Springs. Photo (cc) 2013 by Stephen Rees.

You may have noticed some reluctance on the part of the media to label the mass killings in Colorado Springs as a hate crime aimed at the LGBTQ community. Looking at the case from the outside, the shooter certainly appears to have been motivated by anti-LGBTQ animus. He burst into Club Q, an LGBTQ club, and started firing before he was taken down by a military veteran. The Colorado Sun, quoting an anonymous police source, reported as early as Sunday that “law enforcement has collected evidence suggesting the shooting was a hate crime.”

Despite all that, many commentators are holding back. For instance, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, even while decrying the right’s exploitation of anti-transgender and anti-drag show sentiment, felt compelled to write: “Perhaps we’ll learn something in the coming days that will put these murders, which took place on the eve of Transgender Day of Remembrance, into a new light, but right now, it seems hard to separate them from a nationwide campaign of anti-L.G.B.T.Q. incitement.”

Please support this free source of news and commentary for just $5 a month.

Why the caution? I suspect some of it stems from the aftermath of the mass killings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in 2016. That horrifying incident claimed 49 lives. Like Club Q, the Pulse catered to the LGBTQ community, and the shootings were immediately labeled a crime motivated by hatred of LGBTQ people. And so we all believed it was — until evidence to the contrary emerged. As Jane Coaston explained in Vox in 2018, the shooter had originally intended to attack a shopping and entertainment complex but decided security was too tight. His wife told investigators that he chose the Pulse at random. Coaston wrote:

This evidence dramatically changes the mass shooting’s narrative; politicians and individuals across the political spectrum had positioned it as an anti-LGBTQ hate crime. Instead, the new evidence suggests, the Pulse nightclub shooting was intended as revenge for US anti-terror policies abroad.

The evidence emerged during the trial of the shooter’s wife, Noor Salman, whom the federal government charged with aiding and abetting and obstruction of justice. Federal prosecutors argued that Salman had helped her husband plan and orchestrate the attack.

What we later learned about the Pulse shootings is a good reminder that journalism needs to be grounded in evidence. As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel put it in their classic book “The Elements of Journalism,” our work should be grounded in “a discipline of verification.” We all know what the Colorado Springs incident looks like, but until we know for sure, cautionary language such as Goldberg’s is the proper way to frame this.

Of course, there’s an additional challenge: Before can can arrive at an understanding of what happened, we’re already on to the next mass shooting. Colorado Springs came right after the killings of three University of Virginia football players. Then, on Tuesday night, a gunman killed six people at a Walmart in Chesapeake, Virginia.

So no, we shouldn’t get ahead of the story. But what we can do at moments like this is call out politicians who try to turn us against each other because of race or sexual orientation, and whose only answer to the spread of gun-related violence is more guns. Those are universal values regardless of the details of any particular incident.

The New York Times has a David Brooks problem

David Brooks. Photo (cc) 2011 by the Miller Center.

The New York Times’ David Brooks problem has ratcheted up from “uh, oh” to “holy cow.”

Craig Silverman and Ryan Mac of BuzzFeed News reported on Wednesday that Brooks, a prominent Times columnist, is getting paid for his work at Weave, a civic-engagement project that’s part of the Aspen Institute. Among Weave’s funders is Facebook.

A week earlier, BuzzFeed reported that Brooks had written a post on Facebook’s blog singing the praises of Facebook Groups without letting his editors at the Times know about it. That was bad enough. But now that there’s money involved, the Times is going to have to take action.

It’s unclear whether the Times knows he’s been getting a second salary. If they do, then perhaps Brooks can avoid being disciplined. But whether they know or not, what about the rest of us? Every time Brooks writes about an organization in which he has a financial stake, that needs to be appended to the bottom of his column. Needless to say, the problem with that is it would look ridiculous. I’m sure the Times doesn’t want to run a piece by one of its own staff columnists that reveals he’s in the tank to someone else.

As someone who has worked in opinion journalism for many years, and who teaches it, I feel like I have a stake in calling out Brooks’ misbehavior. I stress to my students repeatedly that we have the same ethical obligations as straight-news reporters. We don’t make political contributions. We don’t put signs on our lawns. And we maintain our independence.

One of the four tenets of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is to “act independently.” The code explains further: “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.” Brooks’ conflict seems avoidable enough, but at the very least he should have disclosed it.

A summary of Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s “The Elements of Journalism” has this to say about independence and opinion journalism:

Journalistic independence, write Kovach and Rosenstiel, is not neutrality. While editorialists and commentators are not neutral, the source of their credibility is still their accuracy, intellectual fairness and ability to inform — not their devotion to a certain group or outcome. In our independence, however, journalists must avoid straying into arrogance, elitism, isolation or nihilism.

I assume the Times is going to take this seriously. It may be bad for Brooks that the Times’ opinion editor, Kathleen Kingsbury, is just a few weeks into her job and may want to send a message to the rest of her staff.

But I’m troubled by a statement BuzzFeed got from Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy. Silverman and Mac write: “Murphy said other Times columnists have roles outside the paper. When asked for an example, she cited Paul Krugman, who was a professor of economics at Princeton and is currently a distinguished professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.”

Seriously? Krugman is not a columnist who scored an academic gig. He’s a professor who was so highly regarded that the Times hired him as a columnist. The Times is his second job (or was; he seems to be semi-retired now), just as the Aspen Institute is Brooks’ second. And everyone knows about Krugman’s academic background. It was hardly a secret when he won the Nobel Prize in Economics.

I hope this can be resolved. Brooks is reviled in many circles, but I value his work. He often shows himself to be out of touch, and he can drive me crazy sometimes. But at his best he’s very good, and I’d hate to see him go, or set up a Substack.

It will be interesting to see what happens when Brooks and Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart kick the week’s news around on the “PBS NewsHour” tomorrow evening. Brooks should address it.

Become a member of Media Nation today.

The 11th element of journalism

UnknownIn Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s classic work “The Elements of Journalism,” they list nine (later revised to 10) qualities that define good journalism. These include principles such as an obligation to the truth (rather than mere he-said/she-said accuracy), verification of facts and independence.

This week I asked students in my Journalism Ethics and Issues class to come up with an 11th element. I am delighted with the results, which you can read by clicking here.