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Media Coverage of Orlando Tragedy Follows Familiar Scripts

An outpouring of emotion and familiar narratives marked TV news coverage of the Orlando shooting.

As soon as word emerged, on Sunday morning, that 29-year-old Omar Mateen had called 911 and pledged his allegiance to ISIS right before opening fire at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., the tenor of American television news almost completely shifted, from horror and chaos to a well-worn narrative. At first, the murder of at least 50 occupants of Pulse was so appalling that networks could barely cover it any other way.

Much of the somber coverage had all the hallmarks of hastily assembled productions: All the major news networks pulled in their usual law-enforcement talking heads and terrorism consultants in order to fill up the spaces in which there was no new information to share, and the same few clips of the daytime crime scene and the nighttime scenes of devastation were played over and over again.

This was news that broke at 2 a.m. ET on a Sunday morning, and as the audience at home idly flipped on the morning news programs, possibly in the spirit of laziness usually reserved for days where sleeping in is possible, the news coverage served as a vessel of many painful emotions.

At first, the coverage had the quality of a terrible, extended rerun: When ABC transitioned to coverage of President Obama’s remarks, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos noted that the president has made similar remarks “so many times” before. Commentators echoed this sentiment, mentioning the Paris attacks, including the mass shooting at the Bataclan club, and the 2012 shootings in Newtown, Conn. Mateen’s weapon, an AR-15, is rapidly becoming “mass shooters’ weapon of choice,” per the Washington Post. And just the day before, “The Voice” contestant Christina Grimmie was shot and killed in Orlando, a case that took up the attentions of some of the same police officers who reported to Pulse. As more than one local official noted, some of the police in Orlando had been on duty for more than 24 hours by midday Sunday. 

But once the shock and surprise lifted, our 24-hour cable news networks — each with their well-worn grooves of political tendencies— collapsed back into their respective corners, often beating the same political drums that are already familiar to their viewers. Mateen’s invocation of ISIS transformed the conversation from one about gun control to one about Islamic terrorism. There was no point during the coverage where the media seemed comfortable exploring in depth the obvious motivation of homophobia, preferring instead to point to mental illness, a history of violence and, once it became known, the shooter’s Muslim heritage.

NBC News and MSNBC aired the same reporting, much of it anchored by Tamron Hall, who was later succeeded by Brian Williams. Hall and one guest, law enforcement expert Sean Henry, discussed the very thorny question of how a man on the FBI watchlist could have purchased two weapons recently, including an AR-15. That somewhat brief conversation alluded to an ongoing discussion about the fact that Republicans in Congress passed over legislation that would have prevented suspects on the FBI watchlist from obtaining guns. Based on Sunday’s coverage, in which the media was much more comfortable establishing the facts of the attack, a longer conversation about that topic is only beginning. 

Various commentators on Fox News were careful to note that “jihadists” would kill Americans with or without gun control, and the idea that they wouldn’t belonged in a “fantasyland,” according to one talking head. The same event was described in any number of coded ways: as a “hate crime,” “act of terror” or “mass shooting”; the words “extremism” or “homophobia” were often heard. Mateen was alternately described as an “ISIS fighter,” “unstable,” “American” and “a lone wolf.” When law enforcement officials talked about preventing these types of attacks, they often didn’t dig into the idea of preventing murders and instead used the vague term “increasing security.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, lately running for president, garbled all of this together in his Sunday appearances, in which he talked about a “warped ideology” and “a threat that has been a scourge to the world.” It was unclear whether or not he was talking about the warped ideology of homophobia, the threat of murder in the everyday lives of Americans or the scourge of Islamic terrorism.

All in all, the conflation of some of America’s most notable blind spots — Islamophobia, homophobia and lenient gun laws — confounded newscasters’ efforts to streamline coverage along one easily digestible narrative. It is difficult to discuss the massacre in Orlando without reckoning with all three of these issues. Mateen took arrogant selfies of himself both in a kufi, a hat often worn by Muslim men in Africa, and an NYPD T-shirt. By mid-afternoon, much of the day’s relevant information had emerged and fewer new tidbits were forthcoming (the last big news, as of publication time, was that the FBI interrogated Mateen in both 2013 and 2014 following up on tips from coworkers).

The commentators on major networks tried to tease out meaning from these deeply polarizing threads, but some weren’t given much time to do so. By 3:30 p.m. ET, NBC and CBS were back to their scheduled sports coverage — Formula 1 racing and the PGA, respectively.

It’s hard not to feel cynical about our national ability to process such tragedy, given our polarized and politically entrenched populace, when you’re watching news coverage scramble to find a convenient narrative that fits — and then some networks abruptly drop that coverage mid-stream (though, of course, more coverage and news specials will be forthcoming in the next few days and weeks).

All that said, there were a few moments on TV news today that felt powerful. Cutting through the endless chatter filled with the buzzwords of “homeland security” and “domestic terrorism” are words like “patriots” — a term that was used by Orlando police chief John Mina to describe the murdered clubgoers, who assisted each other during the terrifying events, many risking their lives to do so. These are people who, because of their sexual orientation or the company they keep, would have been seen as less than human just a few years ago, but time and again Mina and other officials referred to them as important and treasured members of the community. 

There were also these words from a queer activist on the ground in Orlando: “In the LGBT community, we’re a family. We accept each other for who we are. When something happens like this, it affects all of us.” Another member of Orlando’s tight-knit LGBT community, Patty Sheehan, Orlando’s first openly gay commissioner, made the rounds on cable news to comment on the tragedy. “This community is much more than violence… this is a community that loves,” she said. 

Even on Fox News, there were signs of… something: Anchor Eric Shawn interrupted a commentator who talked about profiling Muslims with the hurried remarks that surely, surely he meant only investigating Muslims who were possible suspects of crimes. The commentator, on the phone, tried to respond; much of his response is lost to time, because Shawn talked right over him.

Maureen Ryan contributed to this story. 

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