NYTs shows admirable restraint, this time

As strange as it sounds, I think it’s time to offer praise to the editors at The New York Times for showing admirable restraint in their early coverage of Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez of Idaho Falls.

At the very least, the man accused of spraying the outside of the White House with multiple shots from a Romanian-made semiautomatic rifle — with a “large scope” — could have been called a born-again Christian in the newspaper of record’s headline and lede.

Why? Hey, he is claiming to be the modern-day reincarnation of Jesus Christ, sort of. That’s born again, right? Sort of? What he’s saying isn’t precisely conservative Christian doctrine, but, what the heck, he shot at the White House.

I’m joking around. Honest. I actually think that the Times story did a good job of quoting the various strange elements of this story, without trying to pin an easy religious label on this man.

After the newsy details of this strange incident — including the President Barak Obama is the “Antichrist” lingo in the lede — here is some of the important Godtalk information offered about the accused trigger man:

Besides the one friend who told investigators that Mr. Ortega-Hernandez had said he believed the president was the “Antichrist” and that he needed to kill him, another friend said he stated “President Obama was the problem with the government,” was “the devil,” and that he “needed to be taken care of.” The second friend also said he appeared to be “preparing for something.”

Mr. Ortega-Hernandez has had legal problems in Idaho, Texas, and Utah, including charges related to drug offenses, resisting arrest and assault on a police officer, officials have said. He is said to be heavily tattooed, with the word “Israel” on his neck and pictures of rosary beads and hands clasped in prayer on his chest.

For journalists, this “he is said to be” language is a bit troubling. However, this seems to be vivid and factual information, even though it is most strange. The details are sure to be checked out.

That’s the point. Strange factual information offers readers information to make their own decisions about this man, his motivations, etc. Factual information is good. It’s a whole lot better than vague, loaded labels that tell the reader more about the assumptions of journalists than about the life and behaviors of the accused.

Yes, this is true for all kinds of believers — alleged Christians, Muslims, pagans, unbelievers, you name it. The goal in these kinds of hot-button stories is to find and report information about the role that religion played or did not play in the incident. If a gunman says he’s Jesus Christ, Jr., then report that. If a gunman kills a Pakistani politician and says he did it for Allah, then report that.

But mere words are not enough. Journalists have to move past quotations and, at some point, they must find the practical details that attempt to show links between a religious life (for good or ill) and concrete actions (either sacred or hellish).

That’s journalism. Facts are more journalistic than labels.

By the way, here’s a sample of the language Ortega-Hernandez tossed around in a video prepared to promote his cause, whatever that cause turns out to be (real or imagined). This sample is from an online CBS report:

In a video made at Idaho State University in September, he said this about himself: “It’s not just a coincidence that I look like Jesus. I am the modern day Jesus Christ that you all have been waiting for.” …

In a 20-minute video posted by CBS Affiliate KBOI, Ortega-Hernandez claims to be the second coming of Christ, and talks about Nostradamus and receiving a “message thorough time.”

“When I first saw that, there was no doubt in my mind that the message sent through time was solely for me,” Ortega-Hernandez said.

Rest assured that there is more coverage to come.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • carl jacobs

    I don’t see this as restraint. If the shooter suffers from a mental disease, then he doesn’t fit the profile necessary to serve the cause. The NY Times wants to sell lucid fanatical religious killers. Its readership wants to see evidence of the emerging “Christian Taliban” that it fears is secretly lurking in the heart of every conservative Evangelical. If the Times describe this man as a ‘right wing Christian’ and he turns out to be mentally ill, then the Times will undermine its own credibility to do want its readership expects.

    carl

  • Will

    But in the case of the Arizona shooting, the press did not worry about whether Loughner’s mental condition interfered with the “narrative” of the rightwing/Tea Party menace. So, at least by contrast, this is restraint.

  • Dave

    Restraint from sticking a quickie faith label on the suspect is, indeed, restraint, and should be lauded. If the same paper fails to show similar restraint in another case it can be called to live up, not to GR standards, but to its own.

  • phillydavis

    had this man been Muslim there is no way any restraint would have been shown, and he would NOT have been given the bleeding heart title of “mentally ill”.


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