What Was the Washington Post Thinking with This Story About the Las Vegas Shooter?
In times of crisis, like the mass shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday night, Americans turn to the media for explanation. We want to trust our major newspapers to deliver the facts, abate our fears of continuing violence and tell us how we can help. The breaking news reporters who deliver news to us quickly and accurately, sometimes at great danger to themselves, should be commended.
And then there’s the idiot at the Washington Post who wrote this headline:
The original article appeared Monday morning, and was quickly syndicated to other major national newspapers like the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Denver Post. The piece's authors were William Wan and Aaron C. Davis. Since then, additional bylines have been added and the piece's text and tone have changed significantly.
Here’s the original opening paragraph, casting the killer in familiar terms:
Before he opened fire late Sunday — killing at least 50 people at a country music festival on the Las Vegas Strip — the gunman Stephen Paddock lived a quiet life for years in a small town outside Las Vegas. A retired man, Paddock often visited Las Vegas to gamble and take in concerts, his relatives said. Public records show he was a licensed pilot who owned two planes. And he had a hunting license from Alaska. For several years, he appeared to live in Mesquite, Tex. But property records show he chose to move to another town named Mesquite in Nevada, where he bought a home in 2013, and he has been living there ever since. Paddock’s family said there was nothing in his past that would suggest violence.
However could such an innocent-seeming, retired, country music-loving white man commit such an atrocity, the piece seems to ask. You can almost see the writers wringing their hands in confusion.
The updated version of the article casts the shooter's past in a far more sinister light:
He liked to bet big, wagering tens of thousands of dollars in a sitting. He owned homes in four states but preferred staying in casino hotels, sometimes for weeks at a time, as he worked the gambling machines. He grew up the son of a convicted bank robber who was constantly running from the law. But in his own life, Stephen Paddock, 64, had stayed out of trouble until Sunday night, when he suddenly unleashed a firestorm of bullets from his casino hotel room, killing at least 59 people and injuring more than 500 more on the Las Vegas Strip.
It's never a breaking news reporter’s job to diagnose a killer, or hypothesize about his intentions after the fact—this remains, for now, the job of the police. But the headline change alone shows that the Washington Post regretted its rapid assumptions about Paddock. The new headline reads:
No more talk of his tastes in music or preferred hobbies. Now we have a textbook quiet loner, whose horrific crimes might be connected to his gambling habit. Perhaps.
The twittersphere jumped on this hypocrisy immediately, pointing out that Muslim attackers never get this kind of treatment.
The Washington Post wasn’t the only outlet to go easy on Paddock, despite the unquestionable evidence of his guilt. In a move seemingly intended to do nothing but aggravate, get clicks or both, TMZ ran an article mere hours after the massacre claiming that Paddock “doesn’t fit the profile” of a terrorist.
Mass shooter profile: commit a mass shooting. Shooter: Commits mass shooting. Us: He fits the profile of a mass sho… https://t.co/3KRI85FqiM— dr. jenn m. Jackson (they/them) (@dr. jenn m. Jackson (they/them)) 1506954882
Outlets like the Washington Post and TMZ, while vastly different, have an enormous readership and make a significant impact on the way Americans process breaking news. We need and deserve more honesty and clarity than what they gave us Monday.