Orlando Shooting

Where Did the Justice Dept. Learn to Censor Info About Violent Attacks? From the Public (Updated: Redactions Reversed)

Here are your unintended consequences for demanding media censor info about mass killers.


Omar Mateen

Today the Department of Justice and FBI are releasing more information about Omar Mateen's attack on Orlando nightclub Pulse, including Mateen's 911 calls. Over the weekend Attorney General Loretta Lynch got significant public attention for making the Sunday morning television circuit and saying that the Department of Justice was going to deliberately censor out references to the Islamic State from the transcripts.

Lynch told NBC "What we're not going to do is further proclaim this man's pledges of allegiance to terrorist groups and further his propaganda."

When the transcripts were released this morning, the Justice Department censored out some of the words. Put on those thinking caps and see if you can figure out this puzzle:

Orlando Police Dispatcher (OD)
Shooter (OM)

OD: Emergency 911, this is being recorded.

OM: In the name of God the Merciful, the beneficial [in Arabic]

OD: What?

OM: Praise be to God, and prayers as well as peace be upon the prophet of God [in Arabic]. I let you know, I'm in Orlando and I did the shootings.

OD: What's your name?

OM: My name is I pledge of allegiance to [omitted].

OD: Ok, What's your name?

OM: I pledge allegiance to [omitted] may God protect him [in Arabic], on behalf of [omitted].

OD: Alright, where are you at?

OM: In Orlando.

OD: Where in Orlando?

[End of call.]

Who could Mateen possibly be referring to? Such a mystery. Note that there is an indication that Mateen is pledging allegiance to a specific person, not just ISIS. There may be investigative reasons for some censorship here, but that, remarkably, is not the justification being presented for it.

The decision has been widely derided and criticized online from folks across the political spectrum. It's blatant government censorship justified as a way to fight "propaganda." President Barack Obama's administration faces heavy criticism for the way it has approached dealing with the Islamic State. It's impossible to separate this decision to censor a transcript with the administration's now very obvious desire to downplay any possibility that the existence of ISIS presents a threat to American citizens back at home.

But here's the thing: Where on earth would the administration get the idea that such a move would play well with the public? It might be because Americans have been increasingly using this exact same argument to try to convince the media to self-censor information about mass killers.

Over the past few years, whenever there's been an incident of mass killings, there's been a push to stop providing information about the killer or even saying his name. The belief (which I think at the moment is unsupported by evidence) is that giving the killer publicity is exactly what he "wants," and it will encourage other psychopaths to do this same.  

It's an argument not tied to any particular political ideology. Conor Friedersdorf promoted the idea over at The Atlantic in 2014 following a killer's spree in Santa Barbara.

Mind you, this is not a call for official government censorship. These folks are not calling for the government to order the media not to publish names and images of mass killers. Rather it's a cultural push to get media to deliberately not give the public information. It's working to some degree. On the day of the Orlando attack, CNN correspondents made a big deal about not publicizing Mateen's name and image while reporting on the aftermath.

I take a dim view of this argument because it, first of all, assumes that we can or should alter our entire mass culture in such a way so as to not trigger violent behavior from a very small number of people. These people are unstable and unpredictable. It's not logical or reasonable to think that extremely violent, mentally ill individuals can be shepherded into peaceful or even rational behavior on the basis of withholding what rational people think are "rewards." Furthermore it creates an environment of collective responsibility for the behavior of a group of people—a "psychopath's veto," if you will. Except the censorship is not on the basis of what the psychopath demands so much as censorship on the basis of not providing what he wants.

In fact, while I was writing this blog post, Reason got a complaint from a reader who wanted us to stop using Mateen's name and photo as we did in Steve Chapman's latest column. The writer repeated the argument that media coverage is what nutjobs like Mateen crave and that covering it just encourages more.

But here we see the unintended consequence of media self-censoring stories about mass killings in order to pander to this belief that it helps prevent future attacks somehow. The argument Lynch is presenting for censoring transcripts of a 911 call is exactly the same as the argument presented to the media to withhold Mateen's name and image. Her argument is that referencing ISIS just encourages them to engage in more terrorism.

We can all see that there is a secondary political consideration for what the administration is doing here. That's why it's so important for the media not to easily fold to emotional demands to withhold information without an identifiable public service need that is based on facts, not fears. Authorities are more than happy to weaponize those fears to attempt to control public dialogue for self-serving needs.

But it's also not the media's role to direct whether a person retains infamy for his crimes. That will be a matter for culture and history (who remembers the name of the killer referenced in Friedersdorf's post? Anybody?). Otherwise, the slippery slide here is that the government itself will be deciding how much information the public gets to hear about criminals within our midst, and history shows that government will control the flow of this information to protect its own interests over public safety.

We are better off enduring Mateen's name and image for a few weeks than the alternatives.

UPDATE: As this trial balloon from the administration flew directly into the power lines, the FBI announced this afternoon it was unredacting the transcripts and releasing them in full.