Three Interviews, Two News Conferences, and an Editorial on Uvalde

From CJR’s The Media Today by Jon Allsop:

ON WEDNESDAY—the day after a gunman killed nineteen children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas—Ted Cruz, the state’s Republican US senator, attended a vigil in the city and faced some tough questions from Mark Stone, a journalist with the British network Sky News. Stone asked whether now is the right moment to pursue gun reform; Cruz tried to brush off the question as a politicized media talking point; Stone countered that mourners were asking the question, too. Stone then told Cruz that people around the world “cannot fathom” why mass shootings keep happening only in the US, asking, “Why is this American exceptionalism so awful?” Cruz said that Stone had a “political agenda,” then tapped him on the shoulders and said “God love you” before turning heel and walking away. Stone followed, politely insisting that this is purely an American problem, and saying, “You can’t answer that, can you?” Cruz suddenly turned and hissed at Stone about American greatness. Then he left.

Also on Wednesday, Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, hosted a press conference at a local high school. He said that the shooting “could have been worse” if law enforcement hadn’t done “what they do” and shown “amazing courage.” When Abbott stopped talking, Beto O’Rourke, his Democratic opponent in the state’s upcoming gubernatorial election, made a dramatic intervention, approaching the stage and speaking up at Abbott from the floor of the auditorium. “You are offering up nothing,” O’Rourke said. “You said this was not predictable. This was totally predictable when you choose not to do anything.” Abbott stayed quiet, but others on stage shouted back, including Don McLaughlin, the mayor of Uvalde, who called O’Rourke “a sick son of a bitch.” O’Rourke was eventually ushered out by law enforcement as a media scrum formed around him; it continued into the parking lot, where dozens of journalists soon found that they had been locked out of the auditorium. The footage of the confrontation was shared far and wide, as were instantly iconic images taken by news photographers showing O’Rourke standing calmly as officials towered over him and pointed in unison for him to leave. The takes soon flowed; Newsweek wrote that the episode could cost O’Rourke the governor’s race.

Also on Wednesday, just after 7pm local time, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, on the scene in Uvalde, interviewed a local med aide named Angel Garza who explained how he found out that his daughter, Amerie, had been killed in the shooting from a friend of hers to whom he was tending. Amerie was trying to call the police when she was shot. She was ten. The camera zoomed in on a photo of Amerie that Garza was cradling in his arms as he bowed his head and sobbed. Cooper put a hand on Garza’s shoulder and kept asking questions. “She was so sweet, Mr. Cooper,” Garza said. “She was the sweetest little girl who did nothing wrong.” Cooper took off his glasses and wiped his eyes. Garza apologized for breaking down again. Cooper said it was okay.

Yesterday, Victor Escalon, an official with the Texas Department of Public Safety, convened a press conference with the stated aim of clarifying the events of the shooting. He failed. Escalon did offer that the gunman had stayed outside of the building for twelve minutes before entering and that a school police officer did not, contra other officials’ prior claims, confront the gunman on entry, but he also made confusing statements about officers’ entry into the school and didn’t answer other, simple questions from reporters, including officers’ response time to the initial 911 call. Journalists seized on the mixed messaging and gaps in the official timeline. “We’ve been given a lot of bad information,” CNN’s Shimon Prokupecz asked Escalon, “so why don’t you clear all of this up now?” Escalon said he would “circle back.” As he walked off, reporters clamored for him to take a question in Spanish. (Uvalde is heavily Latino.) He did not.

Also yesterday, parents and other members of the local community talked to reporters from various outlets about their frustration with the police response to the shooting and subsequent lack of clarity, amid growing reports, and videos circulating on social media, showing parents urging law enforcement to enter the school and suggesting that they might have to go in themselves. One parent, Angeli Rose Gomez, who has two children at the school, told the Wall Street Journal that as she desperately urged law enforcement to go in, US Marshals arrested her for interfering with an investigation, and handcuffed her. (Local police officers persuaded the Marshals to free her; the US Marshals Service denied cuffing anyone.) Gomez said she saw other parents being pushed to the ground, pepper-sprayed, and Tasered. “They didn’t do that to the shooter, but they did that to us,” she said. “That’s how it felt.”

Back on Wednesday, in France, Le Monde ran an editorial about the massacre in both French and English. “America is killing itself, as the Republican Party looks the other way,” the headline read. “If an American exceptionalism still exists, it’s in tolerating schools regularly being transformed into blood-soaked shooting ranges,” the piece itself said. “Always more weapons: that’s the only Republican credo.” The editorial was widely read, and various major US news organizations deemed it noteworthy enough to share with their readers. HuffPostdescribed it as “damning.” The New York Times described it as “scathing.”

The three interviews, two press conferences, and editorial mentioned above were all shared or referenced widely. Of course, they are far from the only notable examples of journalism—or public information—to come out of Uvalde since Tuesday; they just stood out to me through an impressionistic blur of grief, outrage, and fatigue. Taken together, though, they illustrate broader truths about the coverage as a whole. I wrote in Wednesday’s newsletter, borrowing from the Texas Tribune’s Matthew Watkins, about the “numbing script”—parts of it necessary; others regrettable—that the press as a whole tends to follow in the aftermath of atrocities like this one. The six stories above collectively show different elements of that script: the factual struggle to piece together what happened, efforts to learn about the victims and center their grieving relatives, and the impulse to slot all the horror into a framework of national political debate and electoral contestation.

These stories illustrate something more, too. The official obfuscation and heavy-handed policing of traumatized parents, in particular, fit a script that is not limited to mass shootings; similarly, the rush of coverage that follows such events, while repetitive and distinctive in its rhythms, cannot be divorced from the way we approach other big stories across the sweep of society. In all such cases, the need to probe and scrutinize the official line, rather than just regurgitate it, is paramount. And Stone’s questioning and the Le Mondeeditorial, in particular, show ways—sharpened in each case by outside eyes—in which we might think about flipping the script, both on mass shootings and more generally. All of us should assess how America is exceptional—and how it’s not—with the clearest of eyes.

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