In a recent post, GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly highlighted the post-9/11 tensions faced by journalists covering the Oklahoma beheading case. Tmatt noted certain national news organizations' tendency to focus on a particular news template, be it "workplace violence" or "global terrorism."
But he pointed out the importance of reporters digging into the case — and the suspect's background — without prejudice.
The goal: producing the crucial basic facts.
In following national media reports, tmatt has found most news organizations relying almost exclusively on police, prosecutors and prison officials for their portrayals of the beheading suspect. See this Washington Post story, for example.
Here in Oklahoma, though, The Oklahoman has focused on peeling back every possible layer of the onion. In ongoing, front-page coverage, the Oklahoma City newspaper has approached the story from a variety of perspectives, including Muslim leaders as well as the suspect's relatives, friends and neighbors.
Religion Editor Carla Hinton delved into the suspect's background in a Page 1 sidebar:
Senior leaders of a prominent Oklahoma City mosque said several people remember seeing the suspect in the Vaughan Foods beheading at their house of worship and described him as being “quiet,” “low-key” and “odd.”
Friday, Imad Enchassi, senior imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, said he did not recognize Alton Nolen from photographs shown on television news, but some members of the society’s mosque told him they remember seeing Nolen at prayer gatherings at the mosque, 3815 N St. Clair.
Enchassi said the people who said they saw Nolen at the mosque said the man exhibited “odd” behavior, such as praying differently than they are accustomed. He said members of the mosque said Nolen identified himself to them as a searcher, someone who had been seeking to connect spiritually at the mosque but also other places such as churches, synagogues and through Buddhism.
In that story, The Oklahoman quoted Saad Mohammad, a local Muslim who recalled Nolen:
Mohammad said he remembers yelling at Nolen when the man placed his Quran on the floor with his prayer rug during a visit to the mosque. Mohammad said Muslims are prohibited from placing the Quran, Islam’s holy book, on the floor.
Mohammad said he and other people who recall seeing Nolen at the mosque remember him as being “quiet” and “low-key.” He said Nolen did not express violent sentiments nor did he indicate he agreed with the actions of the Islamic State terrorist group in Iraq and Syria known as ISIS.
In a separate story, longtime Oklahoman investigative reporter Nolan Clay interviewed Ricky Kennybrew, a friend of the suspect:
He said he last spoke to his friend two months ago by telephone.
“He was converting over to become a Muslim. For him to be converting over to that, that is a very new thing because we grew up as Christians. We went to church ... and we lived the right way, by the Bible,” Kennybrew said.
“I was very surprised about it. All of us were, including his family,” he said of the conversion.
“Alton was your typical high school student,” Kennybrew said. “He was very athletic. A lot of the coaches can fill you in on that.”
He said he realized his friend was converting when Nolen changed his name on Facebook to Jah’Keem Yisrael. He said the two used to go together to the Oak Grove Baptist Church in Wright City.
Kennybrew said Nolen talked about his conversion in the telephone call two months ago, saying “just that he joined the Nation.”
In another enlightening report — published just today — The Oklahoman's Graham Lee Brewer reports on the suspect's fellow apartment residents as well as employees of nearby stores who crossed paths with him:
Neighbors remembered Nolen as quiet and unsociable and said he could be seen leaving for services every Friday in robes and a kufi, a skull cap often worn by Muslim men, carrying a prayer rug. None of the neighbors or apartment staff said he ever spoke to them directly about his faith.
Employees at a neighborhood grocery store and a nearby convenience store recalled seeing Nolen in his robes and skull cap. They said he seldom spoke, heading straight for what he wanted and checking out without speaking any more than necessary. Some said he was private to a fault.
“Personally, I don’t really think he was a good guy,” said Bhupendra Kumar Sah, 23, who works at the Alon gas station down the road from Nolen’s apartment. “He was always mean to me.”
But others tell a different story:
Anna Sebree, 47, who works at the Bootlegger liquor store, had a different recollection of Nolen. She said she saw him at least once a week when he bought small bottles of vodka with his food plant co-workers during breaks.
“They’d always say the same thing, ‘We gotta get it now, because we know you’ll be closed by the time we get off,’” she said.
Sebree said Nolen often joked and laughed with his co-workers when he came in, adding she was completely surprised when she saw his picture on the news.
“I’m totally shocked, because he seemed like a laid-back person,” Sebree said. “Totally shocked.”
So, what to make of the conflicting accounts? That's easy: This is a complicated story, and the methodical local reporting certainly reflects that. Kudos to The Oklahoman for providing in-depth coverage and refusing to stick to any one, easy template.
P.S. Be sure to read the Oklahoma newspaper's excellent reporting on victim Colleen Hufford, too. In fact, I'd recommend reading this story first.