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Controversial Take: It’s Bad To Put Words In The Mouths Of Murder Victims
On Ben Collins and the scourge of opportunistic post-tragedy commentary
On Tuesday’s Morning Joe, Ben Collins, who “covers disinformation, extremism and the internet for NBC News,” gave what I found to be a very strange soliloquy about Club Q, an LGBT nightclub in Colorado Springs where five people were killed and about 18 injured by a man named Anderson Lee Aldrich on Saturday night.
Collins subsequently tweeted a link to it (archived here):
Collins starts by asking, “Am I doing something wrong here?” Then he runs down his and his colleagues’ tireless coverage of anti-LGBT rhetoric on the right, reading a bunch of headlines that are splashed on-screen:
He then says, “And I’m just wondering — what could I have done different? Seriously. As reporters, what can we do different?”
To be blunt, I found this obnoxious and solipsistic. Not everything is about journalists. The probability that any mass murder has anything to do with anything Ben Collins or his colleagues did (or didn’t do) is approximately nil. This is just a very strange, self-absorbed way to understand the world.
Collins then proceeds to chide his fellow journalists to Do Better. “I think we have to have a come to Jesus moment here as reporters,” he says. “Are we more afraid of being on Breitbart for saying that trans people deserve to be alive, or are we more afraid of the dead people? ’Cuz I’m more afraid of the dead people.” Collins was sufficiently satisfied with this applause line that, as you can see, he included a version of it in his tweet. And the implication is clear: Journalists have been too afraid to defend LGBT rights, and they haven’t pushed back hard enough on the sort of rhetoric that gives rise to tragedies like this one. (Collins’ claim about Breitbart, which, to be clear, is a loathsome site that once dragged me for writing this article, appears to be a reference to an article it posted the day prior ridiculing him for saying that kids should meet drag queens to see that they’re human beings. I think the right’s drag queen story hour moral panic is ridiculous, and that “groomer” discourse is disgusting and in some cases dangerous — if you repeat often enough that LGBT people are targeting kids, of course eventually someone will respond with violence — but Collins is also plainly exaggerating when he says that “saying that trans people deserve to be alive” will bring down Breitbart’s wrath.)
Watching Collins’ emotional appeal to his fellow journalists to Do Better, you would think that it had been determined that Aldrich had been radicalized by, say, LibsofTikTok or Matt Walsh. You’d think this was a case-closed claim, because here is a Disinformation Reporter going on a cable TV news program and treating it as such. He is the authoritative voice, the antidote to all the right-wing smoke that obscures so many Americans from the truth.
Except four days later, we actually don’t know why Aldrich committed his heinous acts. We do know a bunch of useful details thanks to actual reporters (as opposed to Disinformation Reporters), including Joby Warrick, Robert Klemko, Razzan Nakhlawi, Alice Crites, and Cate Brown of The Washington Post (I feel like if I’m going to mention Ben Collins’ name, I should mention all of theirs as well).
Warrick and his colleagues report that the reason it has been difficult to dig up details about Aldrich’s life prior to the shooting is that at age 15, he changed his name from Nicholas Brink. Aldrich, the reporters write, had a tumultuous life. His mother was charged with arson and his father “spent time in federal prison for illegally importing marijuana,” per CNN.
There was other family drama, and Aldrich was also a victim of severe online harassment: “At age 15, he became the target of a particularly vicious bout of online bullying in which insulting accusations were posted to a website, along with his name, photos and online aliases, according to a review of the site by The Washington Post,” the authors of the Post article write. “At some point, a YouTube account was created under his name, featuring a crude, profanity-laden animation under the title, ‘Asian homosexual gets molested.’”
As had previously been reported elsewhere, the Post authors note that Aldrich was recently accused of making a violent threat:
In June 2021, Aldrich was arrested for an alleged bomb threat, one that prompted a partial evacuation of the Colorado Springs neighborhood where his mother lived at the time. He was charged with kidnapping and felony menacing, but was never prosecuted, for reasons that remain unclear. No bomb was ever found.
Despite his run-in with the law, some 17 months later, Aldrich was in possession of at least one weapon, a long gun, which he allegedly used in targeting customers and employees inside a nightclub long seen as a safe haven for the city’s gay and lesbian communities.
New details about Aldrich’s 2021 incident emerged on Monday, shedding light on his disturbing behavior at the time. A video obtained by CNN appeared to show moments from a standoff between Aldrich and sheriff’s deputies who responded to reports of a bomb threat.
According to CNN, Leslie Bowman, the owner of the home where the standoff occurred, made a copy of the video before it was removed from social-media platforms. Screenshots from the video depict a visibly agitated young man wearing a helmet and what appeared to be body armor. The video shown by CNN shows the young man — identified by Bowman as Aldrich — daring law-enforcement officials to breach the house. It is not clear from the video if a bomb or weapons were present.
Little is known about what led to the confrontation. [.]
This was a very disturbed young man who both menaced others and was menaced himself. That’s really all we know, motive-wise — the Post reporters don’t speculate, because they are real journalists (they do note that authorities are seeking to charge this as a hate crime, but — this is me talking — that doesn’t tell us anything on its own, since prosecutors often try to charge as heavily as possible). Another Post article, this one by Scott Wilson and Molly Hennessy-Fiske, notes that the authorities are still trying to figure out Aldrich’s motive (someone inform Ben Collins). Further complicating everything, Aldrich said through his lawyers that he is nonbinary and wants to be referred to as they/them (you’ll note I refer to Aldrich as male throughout this piece — if it later comes to light that he’d previously come out as nonbinary, I’ll refer to him using they/them pronouns, but I think there are limits to politeness and self-ID, and I’m not going to take a mass murderer at his word on the basis of one legal filing).
So the fact of the matter is we don’t know why Anderson Lee Aldrich shot up Club Q. But to Ben Collins, that doesn’t matter. What matters is immediately to tie the shooting to a broader narrative. This, it goes without saying, is utterly bankrupt journalism. It could certainly be that Aldrich shot up the club out of antigay or anti-trans animus fueled by (say) LibsOfTikTok’s endless spotlighting of the most off-putting left-wing LGBT people on social media. But until you know that, you can’t assume. This is something you learn in the first week or two of any intro to journalism class. What Collins has done here is really wrong. He has spread a huge amount of… well, not even misinformation, because we don’t know yet! This is basically the journalistic equivalent of being not even wrong.
But the worst part of Collins’ monologue, by far — the part that tipped me over from exasperation at Collins and into genuine queasiness, like This dude is doing something really gross — came when he followed up his question about what reporters can do better with this: “Because there are five dead people in a strip mall, because that was the only place they felt safe as gay or trans people, in this town, in Colorado Springs.”
Let’s name those victims: Raymond Green Vance, Kelly Loving, Daniel Aston, Derrick Rump, and Ashley Paugh. They are actual, real-life, flesh and blood human beings who were alive until Saturday night. Since they cannot speak for themselves, they deserve to have their lives and their experiences represented accurately by the journalists discussing and reporting on them. Ben Collins is putting words into their mouths and thoughts into their heads. He is, in effect, speaking over recent murder victims solely to make a political point and to inflate the importance of his own particular beat. That’s the only way to describe this.
It’s true, according to reporting I’ve seen, that Club Q was seen as a general haven for LGBT people in Colorado Springs, as many such clubs are. But there’s no evidence to support Collins’ claim that it was the “only place” the victims felt safe in Colorado Springs, and in fact, this would be a very surprising thing to find out about any good-sized American city in 2022, even one known for having a conservative culture due to the heavy influence of evangelical Christians and multiple nearby military bases. (On Twitter, I saw a couple people say something like How could Colorado Springs be homophobic given that Colorado has a gay governor? This is a very silly argument — of course a state with a gay governor could also have homophobic pockets.)
It’s a side note, but I randomly found this study — I haven’t checked the methodology — ranking how liberal or conservative major cities are. Colorado Springs is fourth most conservative, by this measure, but check out that skew, which shows that liberal cities are far more liberal than conservative cities are conservative:
Anway, we can speculate and map- and study-wave all we want about the politics of the area, but Collins made a specific claim not about the politics of the Colorado Springs area, but about these five particular human beings. And it seems pretty definitive that at least two of them, Green and Paugh, didn’t feel the way Collins said they felt, given that they were in long-term relationships with members of the opposite sex — that is, they were straight, or were living pretty straight lifestyles (it’s always possible they were bi). Green had a longtime girlfriend who was with him at the club, according to CNN, and Paugh left behind a husband, according to the LA Times. I haven’t conclusively checked the sexual orientations of the other three victims, but the point is, again, that Collins is really just making something up. He’s embellishing an already horrible, traumatic story to make it seem even worse — the victims were killed in the only place they felt safe. Worse, it was a strip mall! Right-wingers couldn’t do a better job caricaturing journalists’ treatment of “flyover country” if they tried.
You cannot claim to care about murder victims and then blithely impute to them sentiments there’s no evidence they ever expressed. Collins is treating the victims of this massacre more like puppets or mascots than people.
It feels like everything Ben Collins said during his monologue, in fact, was said not in the service of justice, or fighting hatred, or expressing collective grief, but in the service of Ben Collins. Everything: the reading of his own headlines, the implication that other journalists are too scared to cover anti-LGBT rhetoric, the faux Oskar Schindler act. I’m frustrated that people like this play such an outsize role in steering the direction of mainstream journalism, and I’m baffled that so many other journalists — journalists who will launch a three-day shitstorm over what they view as a missing parenthetical — think this sort of thing is remotely acceptable.