- By Ken Herman American-Statesman Staff
“Three days ago,” Vice President Mike Pence said at a Wednesday night memorial service for those killed at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, “evil descended on a small town and a small church.”
And where evil goes, journalists follow, descending on and often overwhelming the scene, especially among small-town folks who would otherwise never come face to face with people from The New York Times or national TV networks.
May God protect these people from any damage or indignity inflicted by journalists just doing their jobs.
Sutherland Springs is a small community, one with this friendly reminder in the bathroom of the convenience store across U.S. 87 from the First Baptist Church: “You’re in the country! Be kind to our septic systems! Do not flush personal products. Toilet paper only.”
On the church’s side of U.S. 87 on Thursday, the media throng lingered had dwindled appreciably from the horde it was in the immediate aftermath of the Sunday shooting that killed 26 and wounded 20. Having been part of this kind of media swarm in the past, I’ve been curious about why some people in tragic situations find catharsis in talking to us and others want no part of us.
I understand both reactions. So does veteran journalist Dave Montgomery of Austin, who’s in Sutherland Springs covering the story for the Times.
“I was pulling up at a house just the other day and a gentleman — I was about to get out of my car and talk to him — asked if I was a reporter,” Montgomery said. “And I said ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘Get the f-bomb off my yard and get out of here.’ So I did. I can’t blame him. That’s what I would have told me.”
“I can definitely understand people just feeling like the media are just a bunch of vultures,” Montgomery told me. “But a lot of other people say, ‘Hey, that’s their job and we want to be able to talk to you and we want you to get the story out, too.’”
Michael Ward wants the story out, but he told me Thursday his brother had told him to stop talking to reporters. I came upon Ward in his front yard a few blocks from the church as he was preparing to join his family in heading to the hospital to visit his nephew, 5-year-old Ryland Ward, who was wounded at the church. Ward’s sister-in-law Joann Ward, who was Ryland’s stepmother, was killed in the church. So was Joann’s daughter Brooke, also 5.
“I guess it really ain’t reached reality yet,” Michael Ward told me when I asked if talking with reporters had helped or hurt. “I’m just really worried about my nephew.”
As I wrapped up so Ward, 32, could head to the hospital, he had a request for me, one I misinterpreted. “Maybe you can help,” he said. “My brother, at his house, they turned his electric off.”
I reached for my wallet, but Ward waved that off, saying he just wanted the electric company to know what it had done to somebody already dealing with more than anybody should have to deal with.
“They know who he is,” Ward said.
At the convenience store across U.S. 87 from the church, Terrie Smith on Thursday was doing what she does midmorning six days a week, cooking. She owns the kitchen in the store.
“All my food’s good,” she told me. “I’m the taco lady.”
Smith has gotten her share of media attention this week because she was at the store Sunday, though it was closed. She had come by to gas up and check on things. She heard the shots and had a wounded victim come in.
With understandable emotion (though never straying from her task of rolling the chicken enchiladas), Smith said the journalists who came to town have been a comfort.
“You know what,” she said, “we welcome everybody here and we’ve made new friends. And it’s going to be a little sad to see them go, honestly, because they are more friends that we made. But yeah, we’re ready for our quiet little town.”
Just prior to noon Thursday, Charlene Uhl of nearby La Vernia showed up at the line of white crosses with red hearts posted just outside of the crime scene tape. She went to the cross that says Haley Krueger and has a photo of a smiling young woman sporting the kind of hair bow she so enjoyed.
Haley was Uhl’s 16-year-old daughter.
“Loved forever,” somebody wrote on Haley’s cross.
“It’s all part of God’s greater plan,” somebody else wrote on it.
Predictably, as a friend put her arm around Uhl, the lingering media throng encircled her and, respectfully and sympathetically, asked all the right questions.
And Uhl, patient at a moment when impatience would be understandable, had the right answer: “I shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t have to go through this and have to bury your child. Shouldn’t never happen.”
I asked her if talking about it so publicly, cameras aimed at her, helped.
“It makes it harder,” she said.
I asked if she would have preferred if none of us were there to ask questions.
“Yes,” she said. And then she patiently answered 15 more minutes of questions, many redundant.
In the aftermath of this tragedy — while this small community had its decidedly unwanted and involuntary turn in the focus of worldwide media — American-Statesman reader John Collier sent me an email with some valid concerns.
“The sheer volume of reporting associated with events such as these serves to prime the pump for the next event,” Collier told me. “I can envision someone sitting around brooding about something and suddenly thinking — that’s how I can get my 15 seconds of fame, notoriety.”
Worth considering. But it’s important we collect and report the facts and hope they can be part of the elusive equation that helps eradicate or, more realistically, reduces the frequency of such horrors. Please believe us that we understand the delicate nature of what we do at times like these.
“Dear Sutherland Springs, you deserve an apology from the news media,” says the headline atop a thoughtfully written commentary by Lauren McGaughy of The Dallas Morning News’ Austin Bureau, who arrived in Sutherland Springs on Sunday.
“The media presence doubled the size of your grieving community, or so it seemed,” she wrote. “You couldn’t park at the post office. It was jammed with news vans and satellite trucks, its lawn trampled by a half-dozen tents the big networks set up. You couldn’t get a quiet meal at the local cafe, where waitresses trying to get through their shifts were asked again and again to talk about the friends and family they had just lost.”
“It was an invasion,” McGaughy proclaimed. “It was too much. … As a profession, we must have a conversation about how best to chronicle horrors like this. We can do better.”
On Thursday, in a small community forever changed and now so cruelly added to an American dishonor roll where mass shootings have brought journalists to town in overwhelming numbers, the Taco Lady had it all figured out.
“You get occasional ones that are pushy,” Smith said. “But either we soften them up with food, or just tell them we will talk to them as soon as we can.”
And she smiled through her tears, trying to make another difficult day of enchilada-rolling normal as possible.