Well, you just knew that Craig Stephen Hicks had to be some kind of conservative, even if of an angry libertarian stripe.
So is it relevant that the man who is alleged to have gunned down three young Muslim college students has described himself -- his social media profile, or parts of it, are now fair game for mainstream journalists -- as a "gun toting" atheist and that he had a concealed weapons permit? Of course it is.
Does it matter that, as the Associated Press reported that:
... Hicks often complained about both Christians and Muslims on his Facebook page. "Some call me a gun toting Liberal, others call me an open-minded Conservative," Hicks wrote.
Yes, that matters, too. Still, I am not sure that "complained" is the right word, in this case. As The Los Angeles Times has noted, scores of people online are just not buying that:
"U won't see this on the news because it's about a Muslim," one Muslim user tweeted overnight, in a sentiment that was retweeted more than 1,400 times and that was widely shared across social media. Many users also criticized CNN for an early-morning tweet that asked, "Did their faith play a role in the shooting?"
"THEIR FAITH!!!" one Egyptian user tweeted back, earning dozens of retweets. "how about the beliefs of the terrorist who shot them, CNN?"
Yes, Hicks is a man who appears to have had many, many beliefs and they don't add up to a convenient label that fits in 140 characters.
The key question, as the day-two coverage rolls in: Which of his religious, political and cultural beliefs are relevant when discussing possible motives? It is clear that at this point some pieces of this man's political and cultural worldview have been taken off the table in mainstream news coverage. The top of a current Associated Press story is a good place to start:
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) -- The North Carolina man accused of killing three Muslims in a dispute over parking spaces had earlier run-ins with his neighbors, sometimes while wearing a handgun on his hip.
Police were still trying to determine whether religious hatred played any role in the shootings, which shocked the bucolic college town of Chapel Hill and left many residents grappling to make sense of the crime.
Charged with three counts of first-degree murder is Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, who has described himself as a "gun toting" atheist. Neighbors said Wednesday that he always seemed angry and confrontational. ...
His current wife, Karen Hicks, said that her husband "champions the rights of others" and that the killings "had nothing do with religion or the victims' faith." She then issued another brief statement through her lawyer, saying she's divorcing him.
So, "champions of the rights of others." The New York Times offered a bit more depth and detail this time around -- including references to causes that, once again, are either liberal or libertarian.
Mr. Hicks appeared to have a deep dislike of all religion. On his Facebook page, nearly all of his posts expressed support for atheism, criticism of Christian conservatives or both. Last month, he posted a photograph that said, “Praying is pointless, useless, narcissistic, arrogant, and lazy; just like the imaginary god you pray to.”
Mr. Hicks’s wife, Karen, insisted at a news conference that her husband was not a bigot. “I can say with absolute belief that this incident had nothing to do with religion or the victims’ faith, but it was related to a longstanding parking dispute that my husband had with the neighbors,” she said.
His wife also pointed out his support for gay rights and the right to abortion.
The question, of course, is whether to connect the names of specific causes and organization with Hicks, even if the man himself did the connecting. In yesterday's post, I asked if the mainstream press would show the same restraint if Hicks was a strong supporter -- in his social media profile, at least -- of conservative causes.
Note, for example, that The Times was willing to be more specific when listing the cases of tensions in the Research Triangle area when it comes to Islam.
Although the area is dotted with mosques and interfaith events are a staple at universities and houses of worship, tensions have been rising since the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, according to several Muslim leaders. Last month, Duke University abruptly canceled plans to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer on Fridays, citing security concerns, after Franklin Graham, the son of the evangelist Billy Graham, raised vehement objections on Facebook.
So Franklin Graham is linked to "security concerns" and the possibility of violence in the area? There are violent people on the loose who are strong supporters of Samaritan's Purse? Like I said, connecting specific names to specific events and threats is tricky.
For example, consider this passing reference in the second-day Washington Post coverage, which led to critical comments among an email correspondent or two:
It was logical for some people to hear about the shootings and wonder if recent news involving the Islamic State -- including the deaths of a Jordanian pilot and an American hostage -- could lead to some sort of reprisal against Muslims, said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Yes, there is the Southern Poverty Law Center, again. Is it relevant that Hicks -- on what appears to be his Facebook page (unless a culturally conservative hacker managed to fake this page in a few hours) -- noted that he is a supporter (at least at the level of a "like" click) of this very group? Should the Post have mentioned that? Some would say "yes." So would say "no." At the very least, I think this is ironic.
Meanwhile, I thought Religion News Service was right on target in its round-up story that, when seeking other points of view on the tragedy, actually called a network for atheists and agnostics near Hicks to find out (follow the money, look for real connections) if he had been an active member. That's a journalism question. Bravo.
Harry Shaughnessy, president of the Triangle Freethought Society said Hicks was not on his organization’s membership rolls and did not attend meetings. ... He added that while some in the atheist community have negative feelings about religion, discussions usually center on gripes against Christianity, not Islam.
“We are deeply disturbed that this individual self-identifies as an atheist,” the society’s statement read.
But atheist animosity toward Muslims has grown in recent years, amplified by comedian Bill Maher, biologist Richard Dawkins and author Sam Harris.
“They say they hate all religions, but there’s one they particularly hate,” said Omid Safi, director of Duke’s Islamic Studies Center, and a former professor at nearby UNC.
In conclusion, there is one more factor that must be taken into account when discussing the media coverage of this story, a factor that will not fit into a snappy tweet.
In conversations yesterday -- analog and in email -- I heard working journalists note the fact that the simple mechanics, most linked to timing, of reporting the early versions of this story were really bad.
1. Small market + little information + overnight development = slow national media attention.
2. Worldwide market + passionate people on Twitter + enough info for 140 characters = viral attention
Yes, that was part of the problem. Plus, as I noted yesterday, it is easier to verify statements of rage in cyberspace than it is to verify factual information in cyberspace. The mainstream press has to keep digging for solid material and catch up with the online fury.