The Media Today

The blame game in Uvalde, and the story it should serve

June 22, 2022
Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw testifies at a Texas Senate hearing at the state capitol, Tuesday, June 21, 2022, in Austin, Texas. Two teachers and 19 students were killed in last month's mass shooting in Uvalde. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

On Monday of last week, I wrote in this newsletter about a lengthy interview—conducted by reporters at the Texas Tribune and republished on the front pages of major papers statewide—with Pete Arredondo, the chief of police for the school district in Uvalde, Texas, where a gunman killed nineteen children and two teachers nearly a month ago. In the interview, Arredondo, who had remained tight-lipped to that point, responded to spiraling public criticism of his slow response to the shooter entering the school, insisting that he wasn’t in charge at the scene but had nonetheless done everything he could do as quickly as he could do it. In particular, Arredondo said that he and a colleague had found that the doors to adjoining classrooms that the shooter entered were locked and impossible to kick in, then described an agonizing wait for rings of keys that he tested, in vain, on an adjacent door before a working key was located.

On Monday of this week, the Tribune published another lengthy story—written by Terri Langford and based on law enforcement transcripts, surveillance footage, and reports in other outlets, from the New York Times to Austin’s American-Statesman and KVUE-TV—piecing together what happened inside the school and casting sharp doubts on many of Arredondo’s most important claims. At least some officers at the scene believed that Arredondo was in charge there. One officer claimed that a tool that might have forced open the classroom doors was available from the first minutes of the law enforcement response, but went unused during the wait for a key. And Langford reported, building on an earlier, anonymously sourced story in the San Antonio Express-News, that no surveillance footage of the incident shows Arredondo or any other officer trying to open the classrooms the gunman had entered. “Some law enforcement officials,” Langford wrote, “are skeptical that the doors were ever locked.”

ICYMI: A tale of two amendments in Uvalde

When I wrote about the Arredondo interview last Monday, I did so as part of a broader article exploring the difficulties reporters have faced in establishing the facts of the shooting and covering its aftermath, with key officials supplying contradictory information then largely staying silent, Uvalde City Hall refusing to fulfill records requests, and police officers threatening to arrest some reporters for trespassing at the local school district and impeding others as they tried to cover funerals and memorial events—apparently, at one point, with the assistance of dozens of bikers. Since then, considerable obstacles to journalism in Uvalde have persisted.

Also last Monday, Motherboard reported that the Texas Department of Public Safety had asked the state’s attorney general to block a public-records request for police body camera footage and other evidence from the scene, citing the ongoing investigation into the incident and arguing, in part, that disclosure might help a hypothetical future gunman to “anticipate weaknesses” on the part of law enforcement. In the days that followed, Motherboard and other outlets reported that officials in Uvalde had themselves asked the state attorney general to suppress swaths of records related to the shooting, citing a litany of grounds for noncompliance, from confidentiality to risks of emotional or physical harm and the “embarrassment” of individuals with criminal backgrounds. Officials have also exploited a loophole in Texas records laws that bars disclosures related to crimes where no one has been convicted—even if, as in the case of the Uvalde shooter, the perpetrator is now dead and thus cannot stand trial. When news stories about the shooting have cited official records, it hasn’t always been explicit where they got them, but they often seem to have been leaked.

The office of Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, has also gone to the attorney general to fight records requests, though it did promptly release Abbott’s handwritten notes from an early press conference at which he praised the law enforcement response to the shooting. The notes appeared to corroborate Abbott’s claim, at a subsequent presser, that he’d been misled, though by whom, exactly, remained unclear. On the same day as that second presser, Steve McCraw, the director of the Department of Public Safety, also gave a press conference at which he slammed the law enforcement response and pointed blame at Arredondo.

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The stream of pressers quickly dried up, alongside other forms of official communication. A state house committee probe of the shooting got underway behind closed doors; on Monday, when members traveled to Uvalde to interview officers, reporters—and, apparently, victims’ relatives—were ejected from city hall by a fire marshal, on the grounds that “someone is intimidated.” Yesterday, finally, a state senate committee held a hearing in public, allowing the press to hear once again from McCraw, who was called to testify and did so at length. Once again, he excoriated Arredondo, accusing him of placing “the lives of officers before the lives of children” and claiming that local police could have stopped the shooter as soon as three minutes after they arrived at the school. McCraw also pledged to publish surveillance and body camera footage of the incident—just as soon as Uvalde’s district attorney gives him permission to do so.

Also yesterday, Don McLaughlin, the mayor of Uvalde, put out a statement defending the city’s decision not to share records about the ongoing investigation into the shooting or comment on anonymously sourced news stories about it, also citing a request from the district attorney. “There is no coverup,” McLaughlin said. “Anyone who suggests the City of Uvalde is withholding information without legitimate and legal reasons is wrong and is spreading misinformation.” Then, last night, McLaughlin appeared at a city council meeting and struck a radically different tone. “I’m gonna be throwing people under the bus tonight in a speech because for too long, we’ve been told we can’t talk, we can’t answer, and we can’t say anything,” he said. “Today, that’s over with.” McLaughlin went on to lambast McCraw, accusing him of a tendency to “lie, leak, mislead, or misstate information” in pursuit of an “agenda,” and suggesting that he has sown a partial narrative about the shooting that damns officers in Uvalde without mentioning his own department and other agencies present on the scene. McLaughlin also promised that the City of Uvalde would be more transparent going forward. “The gloves are off,” he said. “If we know it, we will share it.”

We will see. Whatever information is revealed next, and by whom, it seems certain that the mudslinging between various authorities implicated in the disastrous response to the shooting will continue, and will continue to play out in the press. As it does so, it’s worth reflecting, at what feels like a possible inflection point in the blame game, on why it matters, beyond the brash characters and interpersonal drama. Earlier this month, NPR’s Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with Dannagal Young, a communications professor at the University of Delaware who warned that overly “episodic” coverage of shootings, focused principally on individuals and their actions around a given event (in this case the police response in Uvalde), can obscure “thematic” coverage that puts the whole thing in a wider context (in this case the epidemic of gun violence in America). “Even if the police had responded the way that they were supposed to respond,” Young said of Uvalde, “it is likely that many of the children who died that day would have died that day.”

Young stressed, in the same interview, that it’s possible for news organizations to balance both types of coverage, and we should keep that in mind as the Uvalde story advances from here. Clearly, it’s urgent that the individuals who botched the response to the shooting be held accountable, and the sharp stories that we’ve already seen to this end, a great many of them at the local level, should continue. At the same time, we collectively have numerous opportunities to broaden the lens here. At the state level, this is a story about law enforcement systems in Texas, and, from a media point of view, the ways they try to withhold evidence of malfeasance. It also ties into the much bigger story of law enforcement systems and the narratives they spin nationwide. “As we learn more details about more ways police misled the public about Uvalde,” the journalist Wesley Lowery wrote yesterday, we should all remember that “the vast majority of claims about individual crimes/police interactions that appear in media are based completely on the unconfirmed and uninterrogated word of unnamed police spokespeople.” Uvalde is an opportunity to stress the universal value of interrogation.

The story of the police response is also intimately connected to the broader debate around America’s gun laws—not least because it has been catastrophic for the common right-wing narrative that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. No little coverage has made this point in recent weeks; it has often taken the form of commentary, but this morning, for example, the Times published a rigorous, data-driven visual explainer—under the headline “Who Stops a ‘Bad Guy With a Gun’?”—showing that shooters end attacks themselves far more commonly than the police or bystanders stop them.

Such stories show that news outlets can not only balance episodic and thematic stories, but can wind the two strands together in the same stories. Both can be valid approaches. This morning, several front pages in Texas juxtaposed the story of McCraw’s scathing remarks about Arredondo with a story about a bipartisan coalition of US senators finally releasing the text of a gun reform package then voting to advance it. The front pages of the Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle ran the McCraw story with more prominence, splashing photos and the words “abject failure” in big bold text. Online, as of the early hours of this morning, the homepage of the Tribune was giving slightly more prominence to the gun reform story. “The Senate vote capped a momentous day,” it read. Then it mentioned McCraw and McLaughlin.

Below, more on Uvalde and shootings:

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: The complicated conversation about the impact of the January 6 hearings

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.