Beheading in Oklahoma: In this case, the religion ghost is right out in the open

At the moment, it's easy to read the mainstream coverage of the beheading in Moore, Okla., and sense the tensions that journalists are feeling as they try to decide which post-9/11 news template to apply to this heartland drama.

There's the "workplace violence" template. This is used (think MSNBC) when a story has, you know, a religious angle that public officials really do not want to talk about. This template exists, in part, because -- with some justification -- officials fear that coverage of the attacker's connections to radicalized Islam will lead to unfair criticism of ordinary, mainstream Muslims. 

Then there is the "global terrorism" template. This is used (think Fox News, initially) when there is even the slightest reason to connect what could be a lone-wolf attacker to Jihadist networks at home or abroad. In this Oklahoma attack, here is what that kind of story looks like -- care of

Often, there is good cause to run with either of these templates. The key, however, is whether journalists are able to keep digging -- without prejudice -- for the basic facts that point one way or the other.

In this case, my hunch is that the story of suspect Alton Nolen is going to end up being connected to another common plot line -- the one in which a troubled man is converted to a radicalized form of Islam while in prison and then struggles to fit into mainstream society after he is released.

The main New York Times report on the attack was uncharacteristically blunt in its discussion of the religious elements in the story. Here is the top of the story:

A man beheaded a co-worker at a food processing company in Oklahoma on Thursday afternoon, and stabbed another employee before he was shot and wounded by a company executive, the police said Friday.
The suspect, identified as Alton Nolen, who has a criminal history, had just been fired from the company, Vaughan Foods, and “he recently started trying to convert some of his co-workers to the Muslim religion,” said Jeremy Lewis, a spokesman for the police department in Moore, Okla. It was not immediately clear if that proselytizing was a reason for his termination.
After being fired, “he drove to the front of the business, running into a vehicle, exited his vehicle, entered the business, where he encountered the first victim, Colleen Hufford, and began assaulting her with a knife,” Mr. Lewis said. “He did kill Colleen and did sever her head.”

Yes, the use of the p-word is rather grating, in light of the fact that one person's conversations about ultimate issues is another person's proselytizing. Once again, the key is to keep digging for what happened in these conversations, rather than merely pinning a label on them and moving on.

Early on, the Times and other elite publications also focused on Nolen's criminal record. More on that in a minute. Public officials are quoted, grimly holding to the "workplace violence" template. Well and good.

In part, the religious angle was easier to cover this time around because of the suspect's proclamations on social media.

Law enforcement officials said Mr. Nolen recently converted to Islam. On a Facebook page that appears to be his, references to Islam began in April 2013, and he called himself Jah’Keem Yisrael. The page is filled with criticism of American culture, and dire warnings for those who do not follow that religion.
“This is the last days,” he wrote in his most recent post, on Tuesday. In another, in July, he wrote: “AMERICA AND ISRAEL ARE WICKED. WAKE UP MUSLIMS!!!”

So what happens next? 

In this case, it will be interesting to see if elite media actually follows up on reporting that is being done by local newspapers, in some cases newspapers that lack an online presence. Conservative websites are already focusing on some of these details. For example, there is this reference to material from the McCurtain Gazette.

A classmate of Nolen's, who didn't wish to be identified, told this newspaper that he spoke to a close family member of Nolen's today.
He told this newspaper that according to the family member, Nolen was telling coworkers Thursday of an Islamic teaching that said women should be stoned for an offense, and that an argument followed the mark, Nolen was later fired and returned later Thursday, when he beheaded Colleen Hufford, the family member said.

Yes, that's second-hand and anonymous. Like I said, the key is whether journalists continue to dig for on-the-record material, rather than getting locked into a template that shapes coverage. For example, there could be facts that are easier to verify in this:

Nolan's classmates state that he converted to Islam while in prison in 2011. Records indicate he was incarcerated for, among other things, assaulting a police officer. ...
The Islamic Council of Oklahoma has stated that Nolen is "not known to any of the leadership in Oklahoma mosques." However the Facebook page reviewed and confirmed by the Gazette as his shows several photos of him interacting at "the Islamic Mosque in Oklahoma City."

Stay tuned. I have asked our own Bobby Ross Jr., to help us watch the Oklahoma media coverage on this story. Please let us know if you see solid, first-hand follow-up reporting that investigates the religious angles, while avoiding the templates.

Please respect our Commenting Policy