A tale of two amendments in Uvalde

Late last week, the Texas Tribune published an interview with Pete Arredondo, the chief of police for the school district in Uvalde, Texas, where a gunman killed nineteen children and two teachers nearly three weeks ago. Since then, Arredondo has been the subject of intense media scrutiny amid spiraling criticism that the law enforcement response to the shooting was too slow. Until the Tribune interview—which was conducted over the phone, with a lawyer providing additional answers—Arredondo had declined to publicly address his role at length, because, he said, he didn’t want to disrupt his community’s grieving process or shunt blame; nonetheless, he defended himself to the Tribune, insisting that he acted as quickly as he could and pushing back on various critics. On Saturday, the San Antonio Express-News, the Houston Chronicle, the Austin American-Statesman, and the Dallas Morning News all ran the Tribune’s story on their front pages. Sewell Chan, the Tribune’s top editor, said he didn’t think that anything comparable had happened before.

The widespread republication spoke both to the significance of the Arredondo interview and to a broader context of reporters struggling to get straight answers to key questions in the wake of the shooting. In the immediate aftermath, officials supplied contradictory information in interviews and at press conferences. After that, media briefings started to dry up as key figures, including Arredondo, remained tight-lipped; Roland Gutierrez, a state senator, claimed to the Associated Press that the local district attorney had ordered the Texas Department of Public Safety not to release any more details of the shooting investigation to the public or to him. Officials were criticized for not releasing adequate information in Spanish—Uvalde is heavily Mexican American—with a group of Latino congressional Democrats last week writing to the DPS to urge consistent bilingual communication. According to the Tribune, City Hall at one point locked its doors and refused to fulfill records requests. On June 1, police at the offices of the Uvalde school district threatened to arrest reporters seeking to conduct interviews, accusing them of trespassing.

ICYMI: The January 6 hearing and the value of spectacle

Officials have also impeded reporters’ efforts to cover the community’s reaction to the shooting. Police, including officers drafted in from out of town, blocked members of the media from photographing burials and memorials, including by strategically stationing vehicles in their line of sight, ordering journalists away from public sidewalks, and, in some cases, threatening them with arrest as well; one editor at the Express-News described the resulting effect as a “wall” of cops from “all across the state.” Meanwhile, dozens of bikers harassed and obstructed reporters outside a funeral home on the pretext of protecting mourners’ privacy, with one telling a Chronicle correspondent that they were “working with the police.” Nora Lopez, the executive editor of the Express-News, told Poynter’s Amaris Castillo that she believes the bikers on the scene to have been former cops. She also claimed that active-duty officers had discouraged grieving relatives from talking to the media even when they had agreed to do so. “There was a point where we were basically discussing whether we have to get security for our reporters, to protect them from the police,” Lopez said. “I know other TV stations did do that.”

Journalists in Uvalde have had to strike an ever-agonizing balance in their coverage of grieving people, attempting to tell their urgent stories to the world without retraumatizing or otherwise disrespecting or overwhelming them. That balance is not without legitimate tension. “Journalists have done important work in Uvalde, forcing greater transparency from officials about what happened that day and why law enforcement didn’t intervene to stop the shooter sooner,” The Guardian’s Dani Anguiano wrote days after the shooting. “But teachers and family members of the victims say they have also been bombarded with phone calls from journalists and knocks at their doors.”

Opinions as to the appropriateness of this can differ. Clearly, though, navigating this fraught task should be a matter for journalists, their editors, and the communities they cover—not an invitation for heavy-handed policing. In her interview with Castillo last week, Lopez stopped just short of accusing officers on the ground of violating the First Amendment, but numerous other observers have reached that conclusion. (Uvalde’s city manager acknowledged to the Express-News last week that some officers may have been “overzealous.”) Condemnation of the police’s conduct has gradually swelled on regional op-ed pages and among local and national press-freedom watchers. Yesterday, the Express-News published a letter from Jeff Cowart, the vice president of a local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, who thanked the paper for shining a light on the issue of press freedom in Uvalde. “As a journalist,” Cowart wrote, “I find it stunning that so many of those who vehemently defend the Second Amendment seem to have no problem throwing out the First Amendment, which explicitly protects the right of the press to do its job.”

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Another letter writer, Ed Farmer, argued that First Amendment rights have largely been overshadowed by “the debate over Second Amendment rights” that has followed the shooting. Over the weekend, the latter debate came to the fore again in national media: on Saturday, demonstrators marched in Washington to demand that Congress act on gun reform; then, yesterday, negotiators in the Senate announced the outline of a deal, apparently with enough Republican support to pass, that would strengthen background checks for gun buyers under the age of twenty-one, incentivize states to implement or enhance “red flag” laws, and pump money into mental health services and security at schools. Prominent headlines hailed the potential deal as a “breakthrough” and the removal of a “logjam,” but other stories centered the modest scope of the package and the fact that the bill hasn’t even been written yet. “The proposal,” Carl Hulse wrote in the New York Times, “still has a long way to go before becoming law, and focuses less on the ‘gun’ part of gun control and more on other factors.”

In the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting, I wrote that coverage of such atrocities often follows a sadly predictable, if reliably sickening, script. A vocal call for lawmakers to do something is usually part of it, as is that call quickly fading into the background of the news cycle as lawmakers do nothing. The Senate deal presents the press with a fresh chance to flip that part of the script. It’ll be our job, now, to carefully and prominently scrutinize the likely effectiveness of the proposals on the table, whether the language in the bill reflects its stated ambitions, and whether the supermajority in favor of passing it holds under fierce criticism, not least from right-wing media.

Better covering the policy response to a mass shooting isn’t the only part of the script that we should seek to flip: the broad media practice of flooding, then largely abandoning, a grieving community is another, as is the credence that many journalists have traditionally been wont to give to police narratives. Uvalde is a reminder of all that. It’s a reminder, too, that our basic freedom to write our own script cannot be taken for granted—and that, even in the absence of official threats to our work, the task of rewriting itself invites no easy answers.

In his interview with the Tribune, Arredondo claimed that he’s had to vacate his home for now because so many reporters have remained camped outside. The Tribune’s article situates him, in various other ways, as a member of his grieving community: he grew up in Uvalde and attended the school where the massacre took place; one of the teachers killed in the attack was married to Arredondo’s second cousin, who himself died of a heart attack two days later. Of course, Arredondo is also the rightful subject of the same community’s scrutiny and questions. In addition to finally relaying his side of the story, the Tribune asked seven experts to comment on his description of the police response. All but one said that something went badly wrong.

Below, more on Uvalde and shootings:

  • Language is messy, too: In the aftermath of the shooting, NPR’s Isabella Gomez Sarmiento wrote about a newsroom debate over how to pronounce Uvalde, with options ranging from the anglicized “you-VAL-dee” through “oo-VAHL-deh,” which is closer to the original Spanish pronunciation. “Landing on a ‘correct’ pronunciation is tricky—the language of the people who live there exists on a sliding spectrum between Spanish and English, and often consists of a combination of the two,” Gomez Sarmiento wrote. “But how we say Uvalde matters, because it represents a long lineage of how Latinos have been racialized in the US and in South Texas, specifically.”
  • An ‘Emmett Till moment’?: Recently, media industry figures (including me, in this newsletter) have debated whether news organizations ought to publish graphic photos of victims to shock their readers into demanding action. Proponents of such a step have often invoked Jet magazine’s 1955 images of the brutalized body of Emmett Till and their lasting effect on the civil rights movement—so Marissa Evans, of the LA Times, invited members of Till’s family to weigh in on the debate. They said they were unsure that publishing graphic photos today would have the same effect as back then.
  • Buffalo: Parker Higgins, the advocacy director at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, points out that police haven’t just obstructed journalists’ coverage of the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting of late, with authorities in Buffalo also limiting at least one reporter’s movements following a massacre at a supermarket there last month. Their actions “can’t be written off as the missteps of a particular agency or official, given the similar events we’ve seen in Uvalde,” Higgins writes.


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: A missing journalist in Brazil, and the ghost of press freedom at the Summit of the Americas

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Uvalde School Police Chief Pete Arredondo, third from left, stands during a news conference outside of the Robb Elementary school in Uvalde, Texas Thursday, May 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)