How did the Pulse Narrative Spread? By Ignoring Facts

On Wednesday, the Huffington Post published “Everyone Got the Pulse Massacre Story Completely Wrong” about the 2016 Pulse mass shooting and the false narrative that spread regarding the shooter’s motives. The conclusions of the law enforcement investigation should challenge journalists to engage in self-reflection regarding their personal biases and their industry’s accountability in purposely spreading a narrative.

For two years, it was treated as an indisputable fact that Omar Mateen attacked a gay nightclub on June 12, 2016, because he was homophobic. However, this is overwhelmingly rejected by the evidence; it appears not only did homophobia not play a role in Mateen’s decision to target Pulse, but Mateen actually saw himself as an Islamic warrior whose attack was in service to ISIS.

Law enforcement’s investigation surrounding Pulse and Mateen determined the following:

To be clear: It is not my intent to disregard or downplay the issues faced, or grief or fear felt, by the LGBTQ community, which has been marginalized and persecuted throughout history. The second most deadly mass shooting in U.S. history occurred at a gay nightclub, a location considered by many LGBTQ people to be a sanctuary free of condemnation, discrimination, fear, or harm. We should listen to LGBTQ people when they tell us how this makes them feel.

Forty-nine innocent lives were cut short that night. Regardless of motive, it is absolutely vital to recognize the pain felt by the LGBTQ community, and I do not mean to ignore that or suggest otherwise. I simply want to address how the narrative was so wrong and how it could have been avoided.

For example, I read this Vox article by Jane Coaston, who is an excellent, thought-provoking reporter whose perspective I always appreciate. I expected her piece to discuss errors made by her industry and to castigate her peers for advancing a politically advantageous narrative without supporting evidence.

However, though Jane mentions Trump and Republicans’ reactions to Pulse, she leaves out points that are important to discuss, such as the fact that that many Democrats and reporters criticized Republicans for pointing to Islam, not homophobia, as the motive behind the attack.

Jane’s piece states:

The Pulse nightclub shooting was the deadliest attack on LGBTQ people in American history, and liberals and conservatives — including then-presidential candidate Donald Trump — assumed the shooting was based on the victims’ sexual orientation and gender identity. Trump and other Republicans attempted to use their response to the shooting to argue that they were true pro-LGBTQ advocates because of their support for immigration restrictions aimed at Muslims…

After a mass shooting, observers, including journalists, often search for a motive, sometimes even before the first victims have been identified. But the Pulse shooting proves that initial narratives about mass shooters’ motivations are often wrong — and those narratives can be far more powerful than the truth.

Those are the only uses of “liberals” (or Democrats) and “journalists” (or reporters) in a piece about a widely spread narrative being incorrect.

Furthermore, at the time Republicans received overwhelmingly negative coverage for focusing too much on Islam and failing to mention the victims’ sexual orientation (the latter of which, to be fair, could be a valid criticism).

Among many in the media industry, there now seems to be an incredible lack of introspection about who was wrong about the Pulse shooting, as well as how and why.

At the time, most publications blamed homophobia and other factors, rather than radical Islam:

While the precise motivation for the rampage remains unclear, it is evident that Mr. Mateen was driven by hatred toward gays and lesbians. Hate crimes don’t happen in a vacuum. They occur where bigotry is allowed to fester, where minorities are vilified and where people are scapegoated for political gain. Tragically, this is the state of American politics, driven too often by Republican politicians who see prejudice as something to exploit, not extinguish.

Yes, we know now that this view is wrong. But we knew it then, too.

It took effort to portray the Pulse massacre as being motivated by American homophobia, because it required ignoring contradictory information provided by Mateen himself and available almost immediately after the attack:

  • He proclaimed allegiance to the Islamic State;
  • He demanded the U.S. “stop bombing Syria and Iraq”; and
  • He identified himself as an Islamic soldier.

Mateen revealed this information in multiple phone calls during the horrific attack. (Shamefully, the Department of Justice initially released a 9-1-1 transcript that redacted such information.)

Two days after the attack, Pulse survivor Patience Carter described Mateen’s 9-1-1 call, which she had overheard while hiding: 

Throughout the conversation with 9-1-1, he said that the reason why he was doing this was because he wanted America to stop bombing his country. So, the motive was very clear to us, who were laying in our own blood and other people’s blood, who were injured, who were shot, that we knew what his motive was, and he wasn’t going to stop killing people until he was killed, until he felt like his message got out there.

Furthermore, Mateen had posted on Facebook during the massacre:

I pledge my allegiance to [Islamic State leader] Abu Bakr al Baghdadi…may Allah accept me…The real Muslims will never accept the filthy ways of the west…You kill innocent women and children by doing [U.S.] airstrikes…now taste the Islamic state vengeance.

How, then, is it possible that the accepted narrative was so wrong about the motives behind Mateen’s massacre, when he himself told us why? Why were people so determined to ignore Mateen’s own words?

The answer is because they wanted to.

And this is not intended as a defense of all Republicans’ behavior or reactions to the Pulse shooting (or any other national tragedy). Republicans and Democrats both go too far, simply in opposing directions. But Republicans had evidence for the conclusion they reached, because Mateen himself provided it.

Nonetheless, Republicans also made wrong assumptions — claiming Mateen had chosen Pulse purposely because his Islamic faith meant he was virulently anti-homosexual. There was no evidence to support this claim.

Neither the Left nor the Right react to national tragedies in particularly exemplary ways. Both sides are all too quick to look for an excuse to blame the other side; you can practically feel the relief from one side when its suspicions are confirmed, such as when it learns that a shooter “belonged” to the “other” side. This is a significant reason for why false narratives like this can spread until they are nearly impossible to refute and therefore unstoppable.

Some of it is understandable; in the midst of a tragedy, it is reasonable to search for explanations as to how or why such a tragedy occurred. But the impulse to give in to personal bias is not helpful or productive long-term, and it damages trust and credibility. Members of the media must recognize this.

And now that one narrative has been proven false, effort should be taken to spread the truth and to acknowledge hard realities, even about ideological allies or industry peers. And hopefully, in the future, people will remember this particular tragedy and try to stick to the facts, not come to their own conclusions and twist the facts to fit.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent those of any other individual or entity. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarahmquinlan.