What we know is that on Tuesday, March 17, a 21-year-old white man allegedly murdered eight people, six of them Asian women, at three different Atlanta-area massage parlors. That’s not much information, but commonalities between the victims do seem to suggest a pattern of anti-Asian violence at a time when anti-Asian violence in America is historically high. However, in America, crying racism sets off more alarms than crying murder, and so it would seem most major news outlets are taking the alleged killer (or, more likely the alleged killer’s lawyer) at his word when he says he didn’t specifically target Asian-American women—including Xiaojie Tan and Daoyou Feng, along with Delaina Ashley Yaun Gonzalez, Paul Andre Michels, and four others whose names have not been released—he simply murdered people he thought were sex workers, most of whom happened to be Asian-American women.
In a twenty-four-hour news cycle in which every major outlet is fighting for a spot atop the search rankings, there’s always more to the story, especially when the story involves violence on a mass scale. But while it might take weeks or even years to sort out the alleged shooter Robert Aaron Long’s history with sex addiction, sex workers, Asian women, and anti-Asian American sentiment amid the coronavirus pandemic, it takes mere seconds to publish his stated motivations, providing weeks of fodder for content in a conversation that Long himself is allowed to lead.
For example, CNN’s bid for top spot in the search rankings has all the hallmarks of a great SEO hed: “What We Know About Robert Aaron Long, the Suspect in the Atlanta Spa Shootings.” All the keywords are there, though the writing itself declares, “Not much information has surfaced about the 21-year-old from Woodstock” in the post’s second paragraph.
Much of the information that has surfaced comes from Long himself, who reportedly “made indicators that he has some issues—potentially sexual addiction—and may have frequented some of these places in the past,” according to Sheriff Frank Reynolds of Cherokee County, where some of the shootings occurred, implicitly casting the victims as sex workers before much was known about them and therefore, given the disdain America holds for sex workers, blaming them for their own deaths. Long also allegedly told authorities that the shootings were “not racially motivated,” despite reports from major South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo that a witness heard Long yell, “Kill all Asians.”
Yet his word seems to be good enough, both for the police chalking the murders up to a “bad day” and CNN, which devotes the bulk of its reportage to an interview with Long’s reported roommate at an addiction clinic who explains that Long is a “deeply religious person.” On the New York Times podcast, The Daily, host Michael Barbaro lets Long’s narrative frame an episode ostensibly devoted to explaining the difficulty of proving hate crimes against the Asian American community, opening the episode by explaining that the murders have “stirred fear and outrage among Asian Americans, who see it as the latest burst of racist violence against them, even as the shooter himself offered a more complicated motive.” This framework of “his word against Asian fear” permeates Barbaro’s interview with reporter Nicole Hong, who speaks to the difficulty Asian-Americans have had with having racially motivated crimes labeled hate crimes. “You have to call it what it is,” Hong says at the close of the episode.
But since Long says it’s not a hate crime, large American news outlets seem timid to contradict him, even as, again, Korean news outlets have seemingly managed to track down sources who saw him shooting and heard him say that “he would kill all Asians.” Why is this account worth less to English-language American media than the alleged killer’s own account?
The answer could lie in the fact that American reportage of mass shooters is nearly always more focused on the killer’s motivations than the violent products of those motivations. After James Holmes killed 12 people in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater, Tom and Caren Teves, parents of one of the victims say they could find more information about the shooter’s living room decor than the fate of their child: “So we’re turning on the television and all we could see was about the killer in the killer’s apartment. You couldn’t get information. It was chaotic in Denver. You couldn’t get anybody on the phone,” according to an interview with Jezebel’s Alexis Sobel Fitts for Wired in 2017. In order to address this problem, the Teves created the No Notoriety project, which encourages journalists to focus on the victims rather than aggrandize the perpetrator.
But that’s difficult when even the police seem to be speculating on the alleged killer’s state of mind, opining in Long’s case that he was having a “bad day” while also leaking reports to the media that he says he’s not racist—likely putting the authorities in league with Long’s attorney’s, who will surely use these reports to argue that the killings were not hate crimes, which would make them punishable by harsher sentences under Georgia’s new hate crime law. Information-hungry news outlets are also inadvertently building Long’s case for him by accepting his alleged assessment of his own motivation as truth rather than the unreliable statements of a man accused of eight violent murders, along with a public that, unfortunately, often cares much more about true crime storytelling than the bigger story—America is a dangerous place for Asian-Americans, and right now it seems like both the public and the media would rather listen to a white killer’s excuses than Asian-Americans’ experiences.