Three interviews, two press conferences, and an editorial on Uvalde

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.

Related: A massacre in Uvalde, and the ‘numbing script’ of gun-violence coverage

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 told 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.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

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. HuffPost described 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 Monde editorial, 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.

Below, more on Uvalde:


Other notable stories:

  • After the Southern Baptist Convention released a third-party report finding that church leaders covered up sex abuse and “vilified” survivors, the Washington Post’s Elahe Izadi explores how the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News teamed up in 2019 to break open the story. At the time, church leaders insisted to the papers’ journalists that they could not compile data on ministers accused of abuse, but the new report revealed that leaders actually did keep such a list in secret. Yesterday evening, they published a version of it; it has more than two hundred pages, and includes hundreds of names.
  • Politico assessed the runners and riders to replace John Kirby, who is headed to the White House, as press secretary at the Pentagon. J. Todd Breasseale, Kirby’s deputy, will succeed Kirby on an interim basis and could do so permanently, though other contenders are in the frame; David Butler, the top spokesperson for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is one, though his appointment would be controversial since he remains a serving military officer. Kirby’s role could also be split in two, Politico reports.
  • The city of Minneapolis agreed to pay six hundred thousand dollars to settle a lawsuit brought by Linda Tirado, a photojournalist who was permanently blinded in one eye after a police officer shot her with a projectile while she was covering the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in the city two years ago. City officials continue to deny wrongdoing in Tirado’s case; Tony Webster has more for the Minnesota Reformer.
  • Early on Wednesday morning, Joanie Lum, a reporter at WFLD, a TV station in Chicago, was reporting live on air about the problem of local gun violence when a man walked behind her, pulled a gun, and aimed it at WFLD’s crew before walking off. No one was hurt in the incident, though a colleague said that Lum was “understandably shaken,” noting that the gun was a foot away from her head. The Chicago Sun-Times has more.
  • Undark’s Teresa Carr explored the “thorny ethics” of the Online News Association, a digital-journalism nonprofit, partnering with 3M, a company that previously withheld evidence about the effects of chemicals in its products and is now sponsoring an ONA award dedicated to “truth in science.” ONA insisted that 3M will not judge submissions, but Carr writes that the award’s name falsely implies an alignment of interests.
  • Yesterday, the Palestinian Authority said, following an investigation, that Israeli forces shot and killed the Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh using an armor-piercing bullet. Independent observers including CNN have reached similar conclusions, but Israeli officials continue to reject them. Yesterday, Israel reiterated its request that the PA hand over the bullet that killed Abu Akleh for examination. The PA again refused.
  • This week, journalists in the Solomon Islands spoke out about the high levels of official secrecy around a visit by Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, who is touring the Pacific region to advance economic and security deals. A local media association called on its members to boycott a press conference after officials selectively invited journalists, and said that Wang would face a single question from a Chinese state broadcaster.
  • And the Australian state of Queensland passed a shield law protecting journalists from having to identify anonymous sources in court proceedings, though the law will not extend to hearings convened by a corruption watchdog. Queensland was previously the only jurisdiction in Australia to lack such laws. The country’s ABC News has more.

ICYMI: Facebook’s new data-sharing plans raise old concerns

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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: Beto O'Rourke, Democratic gubernatorial candidate for Texas, confronts Greg Abbott, governor of Texas, not pictured, during a news conference in Uvalde, Texas, US, on Wednesday, May 25, 2022. President Joe Biden mourned the killing of at least 19 children and two teachers in a mass shooting at a Texas elementary school on Tuesday, decrying their deaths as senseless and demanding action to try to curb the violence. Photographer: Eric Thayer/Bloomberg