Stunning HuffPost feature on Pulse massacre: Trial showed it was an ISIS attack, period

If you have read GetReligion over the years, you may have seen previous posts in which your GetReligionistas asked this question: In terms of journalism, what exactly is The Huffington Post, exactly?

It's a news and commentary website, obviously.

Ah, but there's the issue: Where does the commentary stop and the news begin? Is it possible to separate the opinion and advocacy from the hard-news reporting in some of the features at HuffPost? This is a question writers at this blog have had to ask about a number of different newsrooms in our foggy digital age.

Yes, that buzzworthy HuffPost piece about the trial of Noor Salman -- the widow of gunman Omar Mateen -- does contain elements of commentary. Yes, it is first-person, magazine-style journalism. It is also a blockbuster that raises all kinds of questions about any role that religious faith -- specifically, a radicalized, ISIS-style Islam -- played in this deadly attack.

Salman was found not guilty of helping her husband plan the attack. That's big news. But what's the larger story here? Here is a crucial passage near the top of the piece, which ran with this main headline: "Everyone Got The Pulse Massacre Story Completely Wrong."

Almost overnight, a narrative emerged that until now has been impossible to dislodge: Mateen planned and executed an attack on Pulse because he hated gay people.
“Let’s say it plainly: This was a mass slaying aimed at LGBT people,” Tim Teeman wrote in The Daily Beast. The massacre was “undeniably a homophobic hate crime,” Jeet Heer wrote in The New Republic. Some speculated that Mateen was a closeted gay man. He was likely “trying to reconcile his inner feelings with his strongly homophobic Muslim culture,” James S. Robbins wrote in USA Today.  
There was compelling evidence of other motivations. Mateen had pledged allegiance to the self-described Islamic State during the shooting, and explicitly said that he was acting to avenge air strikes in the Middle East. “You have to tell America to stop bombing Syria and Iraq. They are killing a lot of innocent people,” he told a crisis negotiator over the phone while at Pulse. “What am I to do here when my people are getting killed over there. You get what I’m saying?”
But this was a tricky thing to get a handle on -- 49 dead and another 53 wounded, so many of them members of a historically marginalized and persecuted group. How could they not have been targeted? To say that the attack was not “rooted in homophobia,” one commenter wrote in USA Today, was to “erase the LGBT community … causing only more pain by invalidating their experiences.”

Salman just had to be part of that. Right?

But that leads us to the thesis of this piece, which is framed in all kinds of hard-news, factual material that emerged during the trial. Like what? Check out this slap-the-side-of-your-head detail on the technical side of pretrial research:

Based on data from their cell phones, neither Mateen or Salman had ever been in the vicinity of Pulse before. On the night of the attack, Mateen first went to Disney Springs and EVE Orlando -- both of which had heavy, visible security -- before ending up at Pulse after a Google search for “downtown Orlando nightclubs.” Notably, his search did not include the words “gay” or “LGBT.” 

Now, HuffPost is a liberal publication. You know that the goal here was NOT to minimize the horrible tragedy that took place here and, in particular, it's impact on the LGBTQ community. The goal was take a serious look at the facts, since a woman's life was at stake.

Here is the article's most sweeping summary.

Salman’s trial cast doubt on everything we thought we knew about Mateen. There was no evidence he was a closeted gay man, no evidence that he was ever on Grindr. He looked at porn involving older women, but investigators who scoured Mateen’s electronic devices couldn’t find any internet history related to homosexuality. (There were daily, obsessive searches about ISIS, however.) Mateen had extramarital affairs with women, two of whom testified during the trial about his duplicitous ways.
Mateen may very well have been homophobic. He supported ISIS, after all, and his father, an FBI informant currently under criminal investigation, told NBC that his son once got angry after seeing two men kissing. But whatever his personal feelings, the overwhelming evidence suggests his attack was not motivated by it.

You want one more stunning detail? Read to the end of this quote:

As far as investigators could tell, Mateen had never been to Pulse before, whether as a patron or to case the nightclub. Even prosecutors acknowledged in their closing statement that Pulse was not his original target; it was the Disney Springs shopping and entertainment complex. They presented evidence demonstrating that Mateen chose Pulse randomly less than an hour before the attack. It is not clear he even knew it was a gay bar.
A security guard recalled Mateen asking where all the women were, apparently in earnest, in the minutes before he began his slaughter.

The key to all of this was that there was no evidence with which to hang this crime on Salman.

Many people -- for understandable reasons -- wanted to have a villain to take the blame for this tragedy. Mateen's widow was the only living nominee to fill that role. But the facts didn't back that up and HuffPost notes that key officials knew that was the case, early on.

But, but, but...

A Muslim woman who by her family’s account was beaten by Mateen, Salman might have been a sympathetic figure in a different context. But I think now of Bob Kunst’s sign. A longtime human rights activist, Kunst was protesting outside the federal courthouse, just two miles from the nightclub where the tragedy occurred, as Salman’s trial began. “‘FRY’ HER,” his sign read, “TILL SHE HAS NO ‘PULSE.’” It didn’t seem to occur to many people that Noor Salman might have been a victim of Mateen, too.

There's one more religion angle linked to this.

One of my favorite writers these days is #NeverTrump conservative David French, a Harvard Law graduate who is a religious liberty pro. Writing at National Review, has asked if The New York Times needs to think its post-Pulse editorial that said:

While the precise motivation for the rampage remains unclear, it is evident that Mr. Mateen was driven by hatred toward gays and lesbians. Hate crimes don’t happen in a vacuum. They occur where bigotry is allowed to fester, where minorities are vilified and where people are scapegoated for political gain. Tragically, this is the state of American politics, driven too often by Republican politicians who see prejudice as something to exploit, not extinguish.

So maybe some kind of correction?

I would say the editorial team's answer would be "No." Contrast the contents of the HuffPost piece with this New York Times piece about the trial and verdict.

What is the crucial difference in the two stories? For example, the Times story contained this chilling detail:

The final coup for the defense came during the prosecution’s closing argument, when Ms. [Sara C.] Sweeney for the first time suggested that the reason Ms. Salman told F.B.I. agents that she and Mr. Mateen had driven by Pulse was because she incorrectly thought the nightclub was at the Disney Springs shopping and entertainment complex, formerly known as Downtown Disney, which the couple did visit.
Offering an especially chilling detail, Ms. Sweeney suggested that Mr. Mateen bought a baby carriage and doll at a Walmart the night before the massacre so that he could conceal his AR-15 assault rifle and draw no suspicion as he walked toward Disney Springs, which prosecutors believe was his original intended target.
Prosecutors had never before assigned any importance to the stroller, which Mr. Mateen bought alone, while Ms. Salman was miles away, shopping with his credit card.

But why did Mateen attack Pulse? When did he decide? How did he decide?

Read the HuffPost piece for information on that.

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