BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
When Omar Mateen opened fire in a gay Orlando nightclub in June 2016, killing 49 people and wounding 58 others, it was, at the time, the deadliest shooting by a single gunman in US history. Mateen died in a police shootout that ended the attack and, therefore, could not explain his motive. Speculation naturally followed: Was he a lone wolf jihadist, a homophobe, and did he really act alone? Was his wife, Noor Salman, a co-conspirator? Earlier this month, the question of Salman's involvement came to a definitive conclusion.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Nearly two years after the deadly mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Florida, the gunman’s wife, Noor Salman, was found not guilty today of aiding in the attack.
BOB GARFIELD: Huffington Post reporter Melissa Jeltsen covered the trial and she says that much of the initial media coverage of the shooting followed red herrings and let the narrative be dominated by gay activists and the police. She saw one theory that Mateen had committed the atrocity because he was a self-denying, self-hating gay man take hold soon after the attack.
MELISSA JELTSEN: Within days, people came forward who believed they had seen him at Pulse before. Others thought they recognized his face from Grindr, a gay dating app. One person even went on Univision wearing a mask and said they had had sex with him. So the narrative was driven by eyewitnesses who came forward, plus the natural human instinct to believe that it must have been a targeted attack against the gay community. I mean, this is a community that has historically been marginalized and been persecuted. There was an instinct to believe that he chose them because of who they loved and he purposely set out that night to kill gay people.
BOB GARFIELD: This quickly mutated from speculation or theory to a kind of righteous certainty.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Investigators know Mateen was homophobic.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Omar Mateen was a regular at gay clubs, including the site of the attacked Pulse, for years.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: -- homophobic, even a closeted gay man.
MELISSA JELTSEN: Yeah, it just became the accepted narrative, and this is despite Omar Mateen’s own statements during the crimes. He was on the phone with hostage negotiators and he said, I pledge allegiance to ISIS. I am doing this to avenge airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. He didn't make any gay slurs while he was there. He didn't mention anything about the LGBT community. He was very specific about it being an attack during Ramadan to protest US intervention in the Middle East.
BOB GARFIELD: But to paraphrase what we say in journalism, never let the facts get in the way of a good explanation. Sure enough, at the widow’s trial, the actual facts cited in testimony blew that theory apart altogether.
MELISSA JELTSEN: We learned at the trial that Omar Mateen left his house that night with a rifle, with a clock, and it looks as if he intended to target Disney Springs, which is a Disney property. But when he got there, there was a lot of security and it looks like he was deterred and he googled “downtown Orlando nightclubs.” From there, he went to another nightclub, Eve Orlando, the straight nightclub, was also deterred and googled, “downtown Orlando nightclubs” again and ended up at Pulse.
Now, you know, Pulse doesn't have any insignia outside that would show that it’s a gay club, and a security guard said when he walked in he asked him, “where are all the ladies at?”
BOB GARFIELD: All right, another narrative that emerged was the presumed culpability of the widow, Noor Salman.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Sources tell Fox News Mateen’s wife did know about plans for this possible attack and did not alert authorities before the shooting.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Law enforcement sources say Noor Salman purchased ammunition with her husband and they believe she drove with him as he scouted the Pulse nightclub.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Noor Salman accompanied her husband, Omar Mateen, to the Pulse nightclub where that massacre unfolded, as well as went with him to a Florida gun store where Mateen purchased weapons and ammo.
MELISSA JELTSEN: Yeah, so the FBI interviewed Noor Salman in the immediate aftermath of the massacre. They pulled her out of her house at 4 o'clock in the morning and brought her to FBI headquarters and held her there for 11 hours. By the end of the interrogation, they had a handwritten statement that an FBI agent wrote for her because she was too nervous to write herself. And there’s many iterations of this, quote, unquote, “confession” but the last one says, I knew that my husband was going to Pulse that night. I knew because we had cased it together a week ago and I knew because I had saw him looking at the website. That was the government's key piece of evidence against her.
But their investigators knew within a few days of the massacre that her alleged confession couldn’t possibly be true because they had forensic evidence; they had her cell phone, they had Omar Mateen’s cell phone, and they learned quite quickly that she had never been to Pulse, he had never been to Pulse. It just wasn't true.
BOB GARFIELD: How did a year and a half go by without the press asking the obvious questions that would have led to the same conclusion?
MELISSA JELTSEN: I'm not really sure. Some government officials did release a statement even just a few months after Pulse to say, you know, we've investigated these claims that he was on Grindr or that he was a closeted gay man, we -- They interviewed 500 people and could not corroborate a single one. And so, there were a few news outlets who covered that but not to the extent that it would upend the narrative that had already become so embedded.
So it's taken this trial and I think that the benefit of this trial is that we've learned for the very first time a lot more about Omar Mateen. He just spent all day on his phone looking at ISIS videos, reading about airstrikes. Noor Salman, on the other hand, was not radicalized at all. Prosecutors could find zero evidence that she’d ever looked at an ISIS video, liked anything on social media about terrorism or ISIS. I mean, they had nothing.
BOB GARFIELD: In fact, it turns out, once you get past the coerced confession, far from being a co-conspirator, Salman was really Omar Mateen’s first victim.
MELISSA JELTSEN: She absolutely was. She has told her family that he was extremely physically abusive to her, he was very sexually abusive to her and he was also incredibly controlling of all her daily activities. Omar Mateen’s first wife has also come forward and described a very similar situation when she was married to him, where she was almost a prisoner in the home. I don't think it's hard to imagine that a person like Omar Mateen, who was willing to walk into a nightclub and just slaughter dozens of people, would be extremely violent inside the home.
BOB GARFIELD: There is this New York Post with a cover photo of Noor Salman and the headline, “She Could Have Saved Them All.” How widely was she tried and convicted in the press?
MELISSA JELTSEN: The media got it wrong because they depended on the government to tell them the story. Law enforcement had all these leaks to national news that had the contents of her confession, so they told NBC, amongst others, that she knew what he was planning, that she went to Pulse with him. When I walked around Orlando and talked to people, I couldn't find anyone that thought she could be innocent. From what they were hearing from the government, she knew he wanted to kill gay people and she didn't do anything about it. The feelings against her were very strong and very ungenerous in their interpretation that she could be innocent or that she could be a victim herself.
BOB GARFIELD:The Advocate, the gay weekly magazine, has been quite critical of your coverage. It insists that no matter what was proven at the trial, the events of June 2016 were, indeed, an act of violent homophobia.
MELISSA JELTSEN: Yes, so the argument is that no matter if he picked it at random, if he didn't know he was gonna end up killing gay people that night, that when he made the decision to do it, it was an act of homophobia. Now, I don't claim to know what was in his heart, and we know he aligned himself with ISIS, which is obviously no friend to the gay community, so he may very well have been homophobic in terms of his personal feelings but we have no evidence that that drove his actions that night. It was such a horrific painful attack on the LGBT community, and we’re learning that it was just bad luck that they became the victims that night. That can be really difficult to grapple with.
Someone asked the owner of Pulse how she felt when she learned that and she said, it doesn't make it any easier and it doesn't make it any harder, it just makes it different.
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BOB GARFIELD: [BREATHES AUDIBLY] Melissa, thank you very much.
MELISSA JELTSEN: Thanks for having me, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Melissa Jeltsen is a senior reporter at the Huffington Post. Her recent article is titled, “Everyone Got the Pulse Massacre Story Completely Wrong.”