The Media Today

After massacres in El Paso and Dayton, a false distinction between victims and politics

August 5, 2019

Even by America’s recent standards, it was an appalling weekend. On Saturday, a gunman slaughtered 20 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas; minutes before he opened fire, he reportedly went online and posted a violent screed that spoke of a “Hispanic invasion.” The country was still grappling with the news when another gunman—in Dayton, Ohio, this time—murdered nine more people in a nightclub district. A nation grieved, again. “Fell asleep watching news reports about 20 people killed in El Paso. Slept for four hours. Awoke to find that the news was talking about 9 killed [in] Dayton,” Jelani Cobb, who writes for The New Yorker, tweeted. “Exactly half a night’s sleep between 29 lost lives. #America.”

As is always the case, there’s nothing and everything to say about what happened. In the aftermath of previous tragedies—in the US and overseas—I’ve written that it’s incumbent on the press to focus on the victims. It’s important that we do so: when human beings lose their lives for no good reason, the least we can do is take the time to learn their names and a bit about them. But there’s a balance to be struck here: there are those who use this logic to evade the tough questions tragedies pose, and the media should not help them hide. This weekend, allies of President Trump predictably accused senior Democrats of “exploiting” victims to make an inappropriate political point. At a press conference, Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, bristled at a question about gun laws. “Listen,” he said. “There are bodies that have not yet been recovered. I think we need to focus more on memorials, before we start the politics.”

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Abbott’s answer was patently disingenuous; as Matt Pearce, of the LA Times, put it, “If the gunman had posted an ISIS manifesto instead of an anti-immigrant manifesto, would the governor be saying this?” Even at face value, however, it feels inadequate: we do urgently need to “start the politics.” The fact that these shootings happened back-to-back—one with an apparent hateful motive; the other with no apparent motive, as yet—was a reminder that we face a multifaceted problem; as Pete Buttigieg put it on Fox News Sunday, “What you have here is two things coming together. One, the weak gun safety policies of this country. And two, the rise of domestic terrorism inspired by white nationalists.” It’s about the hate rumbling around our society and Trump’s role in stoking it, but it’s also about failures that go much deeper than Trump. All of it demands our attention. On Meet the Press, Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who represents El Paso in Congress, made clear that her first responsibility is to her grieving community, but added an important point. “It’s not politicizing an event… [to say that] we have not just a gun epidemic in this country, but we have a hate epidemic in this country,” she said.

Ultimately, the implied tension between focusing on the victims and focusing on the politics is artificial, and false. Beyond basic decency, focusing on victims is important because it illustrates, to readers, listeners, and viewers, that there is a staggering human cost to inaction. That’s political: not in the (increasingly pejorative) sense that it’s about horse races or horse trading, but in the sense that politics, fundamentally, is about action and inaction, and their respective costs. Victims are central to politics—at least, they should be. Politics is the tool we have to make lives better; it’s the tool we have to stop there being more victims in future. Focusing on the victims and also the politics isn’t just a coherent approach. The former demands the latter.

Yesterday, in her column for The Washington Post, Margaret Sullivan noted that media coverage of mass shootings has become grimly rote; to improve it, she said, we must acknowledge that it’s OK for journalists to take sides when taking sides best serves the public. “Just as there was in the 1950s and 1960s while covering civil rights, or today in covering the climate crisis, there actually is a right or wrong side on the matter of controlling rampant gun violence,” Sullivan wrote. In other words, the right side is the side of the victims.

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Below, more on El Paso, Dayton, and shootings:

A note from the home front:
All this week, we’re running a special series of pieces about the world of criticism. “Lately, CJR has been thinking critically about criticism—about who gets to critique, to criticize,” we write. In the series, “we’ve considered the role of social media, the responsibility of a critic in the age of #MeToo, and the business of an institution meant to cover art. We’ve looked at what works, what doesn’t, and what’s simply absurd.” The first piece in the series—Tyler Coates’s interview with the food critic Ruth Reichl—is online now.

Other notable stories:

  • Sources tell Nieman Lab’s Ken Doctor that the mooted mega-merger between Gannett and GateHouse could be finalized as soon as today. (The deal will still have to pass regulatory review.) New Media Investment Group, owner of GateHouse, will be the buyer and Mike Reed, who currently leads that company, will be CEO—but the combined entity, which will publish one-sixth of America’s daily papers, will take Gannett’s name and move into Gannett headquarters in McLean, Virginia, Doctor writes. Apollo Global Management, a private-equity firm, will help finance the deal: its involvement “could approach $2 billion and a major debt service to match in 2020 and beyond—limiting how much any cost savings can be invested into newspapers’ future.” I looked at the other likely consequences of the deal in a recent newsletter for CJR.
  • A week ago, Trump nominated John Ratcliffe, a loyalist Texas Congressman, to be his new director of national intelligence, replacing Dan Coats, not a loyalist, who is stepping down. In the days afterward, concerns grew, including among Republican lawmakers, about Ratcliffe’s lack of experience and apparent embellishment of his résumé. On Friday, Trump dropped Ratcliffe; the president tweeted that “the LameStream Media” had treated his nominee unfairly, but told reporters on the White House lawn, “I like when you vet… When I give a name, I give it out to the press, and you vet.” Over the weekend, The Daily Beast reported that Ratcliffe’s proximity to a murky whistleblower-reprisal case may have tipped him out of the running.
  • Last week, Jim Spanfeller, CEO of G/O Media, sent a memo to staff slamming an exposé of his hiring practices that was about to be published by Deadspin, a site that G/O Media owns. On Friday, the article, written by Laura Wagner, dropped. Since his arrival earlier this year, Spanfeller, Wagner reports, has hired former colleagues without a public recruitment process, including “a senior vice president of marketing who last week wrote a baffling reader ‘satisfaction’ survey for Deadspin at Spanfeller’s behest; a sales executive who, sources say, appears unable to give an effective sales pitch; and an editorial director who repeatedly attempted to kill the reporting process for this story.”
  • For CJR, Adriana Carranca reports that Glenn Greenwald, who lives in Rio de Janeiro, has faced legal and death threats since The Intercept’s Brazil edition started publishing leaked messages related to an anti-corruption probe—last month, Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, said Greenwald could “do time” in the country. Bolsonaro’s words were menacing, Carranca writes, but they had “no legal basis. In Brazil, as in the United States, the constitution protects expression from government interference.”
  • Last month, at Trump’s clown-show “social media summit,” Brian Karem, White House reporter for Playboy, clashed with Sebastian Gorka, the Trump aide turned talk-radio host, in the Rose Garden. On Friday, Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, informed Karem of a “preliminary decision” to suspend his pass for 30 days, citing the Gorka incident. Karem will respond today; Playboy has retained Ted Boutrous, the lawyer who helped force a White House climbdown over Jim Acosta’s pass last year.
  • A branding change at Facebook: the company is inserting itself into the official names of Instagram and WhatsApp, making “Instagram from Facebook” and “WhatsApp from Facebook,” The Information’s Alex Heath reports. Given Facebook’s bad rep—and the ongoing antitrust probe into its acquisition of the rival apps—the naming move “has been met with surprise and confusion internally,” Heath writes.
  • Ricardo Rosselló, Puerto Rico’s embattled governor, finally resigned on Friday but the island’s governance crisis isn’t over. Pedro Pierluisi was sworn in as Rosselló’s successor even though Puerto Rico’s Senate is yet to confirm his nomination; last week, Pierluisi promised to step down should the Senate reject him, but he then appeared to walk back the pledge, suggesting the courts should have the final say. Last week, I spoke with reporters covering the crisis about the importance of paying attention to it.
  • And Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai dissident and contributor to The Washington Post, was attacked at home in Japan, where he lives in exile, last month. The incident, the Post’s Christian Caryl writes, echoes a “systematic campaign of violence and intimidation” that Thailand’s military junta has waged against critics living abroad.

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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.