David Zurawik: Mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton are one narrative President Trump cannot control

David Zurawik: Mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton are one narrative President Trump cannot control
President Donald Trump speaks alongside Vice President Mike Pence about the mass shootings from the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 5. Trump described mass shootings in Texas and Ohio as a "crime against all of humanity" as he addressed the nation on Monday after the attacks that left in 31 people dead. "These barbaric slaughters are ... an attack upon a nation, and a crime against all of humanity," he said. (SAUL LOEB/Getty)

So far, the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, have proved to be one narrative that President Donald Trump can’t control or move the media off with his words or actions.

In fact, he can’t even a make a dent in it, due in part to his disgraceful record of pandering to white supremacists and his inability as a leader to rise to those occasions when citizens need a president who feels their pain and tries concretely to do something about it as Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama could.


Try as he disingenuously did Monday with a teleprompter address from the White House that went down in flames before it hardly started when he mistakenly extended condolences to Toledo instead of Dayton, it was clear by Monday night that Trump had totally lost control of the story to the media and local officials in Texas and Ohio. And neither showed any signs of ceding control back to the man who spent the weekend golfing at one of his luxury courses while dozens were slaughtered by assault weapons. By Monday night, the death toll stood at 31 and the best Trump could do was shut his mouth for the moment and try to still his twisted Twitter thumbs.

The media stepped up and tried to fill the huge void in national leadership that Trump and his Republican enablers have left us with. After a weekend of solid coverage, both network and cable news went into a higher gear Monday using virtually all the tools in their TV kits to focus attention on the two horrible attacks — and explain what the events mean to our lives as they remember and honor those who lost theirs in the shootings.

The evening news anchors from all three networks went to El Paso — Lester Holt for NBC, Norah O’Donnell for CBS and David Muir from ABC. CNN had show host Brooke Baldwin anchoring Dayton, with Chris Cuomo out of El Paso.

Sending anchors to the scene of a story might seem old-timey or journalistically irrelevant to some in this digital age, but it still says to millions of viewers: “We believe this matters, and we are putting everything we have into covering it. Please pay attention.”

This is not to say correspondents cannot cover the story as well or better without the telecast being anchored on the ground. MSNBC correspondent Phillip Mena, who grew up in El Paso and still has family members there, movingly personalized the Texas shooting in a Sunday morning report, explaining what it felt like to have relatives at the mall where the shooting occurred as reports of the attack became known.

CNN did something Monday morning I have never seen on network or cable news, and I applaud the channel for it. The anchors said they invited 50 Republican lawmakers to come on during the day and talk about the shootings, and that only one agreed to do so. CNN responded by putting the names of the 49 who declined on screen.

Yes, call them out. Trump could not get away with his racism and hate if members of his own party stood up to or turned their backs on him, but instead they have cowered in silence. Let America know who the cowards are.

Both CNN and MSNBC brought on some of their best and brightest analysts to try to place the horrific events in perspective, especially the shooting in El Paso by a gunman whose online postings mimicked Trump’s racist rally rhetoric of an “invasion" at the southern border.

Princeton professor Eddie Glaude lit up the 4 p.m. hour on MSNBC with a brilliant and passionate explanation of the racism that lives at the underbelly of America life. While he has bitterly denounced Trump’s exploitation of that dark and deep current within the American soul, he also says: “It’s easy to place it all on Trump’s shoulders. ... This is us.”

Host Nicolle Wallace was wise enough to get out of the way, ignore the clock, and let Glaude roll.

CNN, MSNBC and CBS were all smart enough to give plenty of time to Democratic presidential candidate Tim Ryan, who has skin in this story as an Ohio congressman.

“This is the same speech he gave after Parkland,” Ryan said to CBS when asked for reaction to Trump’s words from the White House. “So, it means nothing to me. It’s nothing but a bunch of rhetoric. And the only time he got off script, he didn’t even know the name of Dayton.”

Cable and network TV repeatedly played the archived videos of Trump at his rallies and in media sessions dehumanizing and demonizing people of color, while laughing with rallygoers at the notion of doing violence to them. The news shows played those soundbites as interface to the president’s hollow teleprompter words Monday denouncing racism and hate.

I also heard the word “morality” and the term “moral authority” more than I have in years Monday on cable TV. I hope I keep hearing it in days to come. And I hope the clips of Trump’s racist speech keep getting played and replayed.


Most of all, I hope the major news organizations in the country will not let Trump move them off the story of these shootings and the role the president’s rhetoric has played in creating a climate of hate and breeding ground for white supremacists and domestic terrorism.