Last Tuesday morning, I wrote in this newsletter about a recent NPR series that used the case of the Capital Gazette, in Annapolis, Maryland, to illuminate the inadequacy of the news cycle that typically follows mass shootings in America: messy breaking news, followed by “thoughts and prayers,” coverage of vigils, stories about the victims and survivors, then, all too quickly, silence. By Tuesday night, the cycle had started again: a gunman murdered eight people at three spas in the Atlanta area; six of the victims were Asian women. This time, though, the cycle felt different, or at least slowed down. As I wrote on Friday, we had, to that point, learned astonishingly little about the Asian victims, in particular—four of them had yet to be named officially; observers apportioned blame, too, to newsrooms’ lack of diversity and consequent inability to adequately cover communities across language and cultural barriers. Since then, we have learned more: officials identified the remaining victims as Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, and Yong Ae Yue, and major national outlets finally published more details about some of the victims’ lives, as well as interviews with loved ones. Still, though, there are gaps—and we knew much more, much sooner, about the gunman than his victims.
The post-Atlanta news cycle has differed from past shooting stories in another important respect: the emphasis placed on subsequent calls for gun reform. There have been some stories in that direction. We learned about the weapon the gunman apparently used (a nine-millimeter handgun) and how he obtained it: legally, at a store, just hours before the shootings. Some commentators pointed out that there are greater delays involved in registering to vote and having an abortion in Georgia than in buying a firearm; as Slate’s Christina Cauterucci put it, “There are few clearer statements of a society’s values than this: We place more trust in the self-knowledge and decision-making skills of a would-be mass murderer than we do in a pregnant woman.” Gun-control advocates called for change in Washington, as did some media commentators. The satirical site The Onion ran the same headline that it always runs after mass shootings: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” (The Onion satirized police—and, by extension, media—credulousness in a separate headline: “Atlanta Police Rule Out Mass Shooting As Cause Of Death After Suspect Says He Didn’t Shoot Anyone.”)
In general, though, such stories have not added up to anything approaching a focused, national-level debate about America’s gun laws. Across the agenda-setting Sunday shows yesterday, gun reform was mentioned only in passing on NBC’s Meet the Press and Fox News Sunday, and not at all on ABC’s This Week, CBS’s Face the Nation, or CNN’s State of the Union, where the word “weapon” was used only to refer to the Senate filibuster; of the first ten articles that appeared in a quick Google News search for “gun control” this morning, six were not at all tied to Atlanta, and two of the other four were right-wing writeups of comments that the Democratic Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock made on Meet the Press. This absence is especially curious given that the gun debate has otherwise been in the news of late. Five days before the Atlanta shootings, the House of Representatives passed a pair of measures that would broaden and stiffen background checks for gun purchases. These appear doomed in the Senate unless Democrats move to abolish the filibuster—but this is a story in its own right, and in any case, the broader debate is not yet dead. As BuzzFeed reported on Friday, prominent Democrats are mulling more limited proposals in the hope of attracting some bipartisan support.
There are numerous possible reasons why Atlanta has not accelerated this debate. President Biden has not set the agenda from the top; more justifiably, conversations about anti-Asian racism and inadequate hate-crime laws have gained momentum in the press, even if the coverage has often been hesitant or otherwise flawed. Centering hate, however, need not come at the expense of a conversation about guns—not just because the news media should be able to interweave divergent threads of big stories, but because hate laws and firearms laws speak with equal urgency to different parts of the crime; as the gun-reform advocate Kris Brown told The Guardian, “Hate exists everywhere in the world and America’s unfettered access to weapons makes that hate lethal.” In August 2019, racism and gun reform shared the media spotlight to a greater extent after a gunman murdered twenty-three people, the vast majority of them Hispanic, at a Walmart in El Paso. In that case, a racist screed written by the El Paso gunman and a near-simultaneous shooting in Dayton, Ohio, added obvious fuel to these respective components of the news cycle—and even then, the coverage of both was very far from perfect. The New York Times’s headline “Trump urges unity vs. racism” was widely criticized, as was its second effort, “Assailing hate but not guns.” (The latter, at the very least, channeled a duality of focus.)
Both these focuses pretty quickly faded, both in Washington and in the press. Those two spheres are, of course, connected: journalists are generally much better at reacting to the movements of politicians than using their agenda-setting power to keep intractable problems front-of-mind for the nation. In the wake of the Atlanta shootings, there are plenty of contingent reasons for the lack of focus on gun laws, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that both apathy and cynicism about the prospects for change have played a central role. Normalization probably has, too; in different senses, normalization has also hamstrung coverage of anti-Asian racism, and of the victims. As NPR’s Capital Gazette podcast showed, the typical mass-shooting news cycle is profoundly inadequate, but in the case of Atlanta, it’s arguably its absence that feels most jarring. When it comes to guns, we can’t prolong policy debates beyond the aftermath of a tragedy if those debates never start.
Below, more on Atlanta:
- A conversation, I: On CJR’s podcast, The Kicker, Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher, spoke with Diana Lu, who writes about Asian American culture and coverage, and Kent Ono, a scholar of Media and Asian American Studies at the University of Utah, about the early coverage of the shootings. “A lot of it so far has not focused on the women’s lives, and their children, and their families, their friends,” Ono said. “In part, I think that is a result of access to the shooter, which often in cases like this, police do not have… Additionally, there seems to be a lot of ambivalence about covering the victims.”
- A conversation, II: On CNN’s Reliable Sources, Brian Stelter spoke with the journalist and TV anchor Connie Chung and Michelle Ye Hee Lee, a Washington Post reporter and president of the Asian American Journalists Association, about the Atlanta coverage and the media’s handling of anti-Asian racism generally. “The media has been miserably late—miserably late—and it’s because we’re that minority that is invisible,” Chung said. “We are insignificant, and it’s so apparent to all of us who are Asian.”
- A blind spot: The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove and Diana Falzone spoke with Asian American journalists and academics about the media’s “glaring blindspot” around anti-Asian racism. “I think where my rage is personally is the fact that in the early hours of reporting, the shooter’s assertion that it was not racially motivated was given oxygen,” Naomi Tacuyan Underwood, AAJA’s executive director, said. Grove and Falzone also assessed Fox News’s early coverage of the shootings, including Tucker Carlson’s assertion that “it’s kind of the opposite of the truth” to say that “very real attacks against Asian Americans are somehow a product of white supremacy.”
Other notable stories:
- The top story on the Sunday shows yesterday wasn’t Atlanta, but rather the situation at the border; ABC’s This Week hosted its entire show from there. Will Bunch, of the Philadelphia Inquirer, critiqued the coverage as being driven, primarily, by disingenuous Republican talking points, arguing that the Sunday shows “seemed to openly salivate at a return to the days of swinging at Democrats with a club furnished by the RNC.” Rep. Ilhan Omar, a progressive Democrat from Minnesota, also discussed border coverage, with CNN’s Stelter; rather than focus on political point-scoring, she said, the press should “show the basic humanity and treat the causes of migration in the region.”
- The press critic Eric Boehlert calls out what he sees as fawning recent coverage of Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, and his response to the pandemic; “the Beltway media,” Boehlert writes, is “pushing GOP talking points about how DeSantis has steered the Sunshine State into ‘boom’ times, and suggesting the pandemic has thrust him to the front of the 2024 White House line.” In other Florida news, the state House voted on Thursday to repeal a law that mandates that certain paid public notices appear in print newspapers—an important source of revenue for titles statewide.
- Last week, the Seattle Times reported that Ed Troyer, the sheriff of a local county, trailed and confronted a Black newspaper carrier, without identifying himself as law enforcement, while the carrier made his rounds one night in January; Troyer told police that the carrier “threatened to kill me” as he scrambled a massive response, but he later retracted the allegation. Troyer, who denies racially profiling the carrier, is now facing calls for his resignation. (In 2018, I investigated the hazardous work of carriers for CJR.)
- In a dissent issued Friday, Judge Laurence Silberman, a federal appeals court judge on the DC circuit, slammed the news media for its supposed liberal bias, and endorsed Justice Clarence Thomas’s past call for the Supreme Court to reassess New York Times v. Sullivan, a canonical 1964 decision that made it harder for public figures to sue news outlets for libel. Silberman called “one-party control of the press” a “threat” to democracy.
- Late last week, Beth Reinhard, of the Washington Post, reported on an allegation of sexual misconduct that Nicolette Davis, a former lobbyist, leveled against Rep. Tom Reed, a New York Republican. Reed’s office called Davis’s account of his behavior “not accurate”—but yesterday, Reed apologized, and said he would not stand run for reelection to Congress or for governor of New York, as he had been mulling doing.
- On Friday, the military junta in Myanmar detained two more journalists—Aung Thura, of the BBC, and Than Htike Aung, of Mizzima News—as part of its broader clampdown on freedoms since it seized power in a coup last month. According to the AP, roughly forty journalists have been arrested; around half are still locked up. (For more on the coup and the press, read E. Tammy Kim’s interview with Swe Win for CJR.)
- Last week, Ajay Lalwani, a journalist with the Daily Puchano, in Pakistan, died after being shot in a drive-by attack at a barber shop. Ashiq Jatoi, Lalwani’s editor, told the Committee to Protect Journalists that he believes Lalwani was killed in relation to his reporting, though he did not offer specific details; Jatoi also noted tensions between journalists and local police, and questioned the latter’s ability to investigate impartially.
- Jacob Rees-Mogg, a cartoonishly Conservative politician in the UK, used an appearance in Parliament to falsely accuse Arj Singh, a reporter for HuffPost UK, of deceptively editing audio of remarks made by a government colleague; Rees-Mogg also called Singh “a knave or a fool.” HuffPost rejected the accusations, and accused Rees-Mogg of hiding behind Parliament’s legal privileges to “smear a journalist” without evidence.
- And Stephen Brown, the editor in chief of Politico Europe, died last week after suffering a heart attack. He was fifty-seven, and previously worked as a foreign correspondent for Reuters. “I have always thought that what makes Politico work is our determination to defend and vindicate timeless journalistic values,” John Harris, the site’s founding editor, said. “Stephen embodied that as well as anyone at Politico on either side of the Atlantic.”
New from CJR: Seeing through a new Prism