TV news reflexes kick in as yet another shooting rends the airwaves
"I was at bat and Will, one of the pitchers who was throwing to us, threw me a great fastball, and we heard a loud bang. And I stopped and said, 'What was that?'"
Rodney Davis, a southern Illinois congressman, was calmly telling Fox News anchor Bill Hemmert about the response to his early-morning inquiry during baseball practice at an Alexandria, Virginia park.
"Everybody said 'Run! He's got a gun.'"
If the stunning event was only the latest tale of too many guns and too much violence in American life, it was parenthetically a window onto the media's depressing facility in covering such happenings.
By now, we have it down pat. It's almost like the repetition of swinging a bat, time and time again, fastball, curve, slider, another five, another 20, keep the elbow in, don't move your head. Practice may not perfect, but it makes the physical act easier.
In this case, it's the act of covering violence. Wasn't it just yesterday we were covering the Manchester, England arena terrorism? And then, again, the even worse events in Kabul? Or murders in Chicago? Or some story about some violence streamed live on Facebook.
For sure, the proximity to Washington and its armies of media made it a story instantly dealt with. But, regardless, the now reflexive questions and mode of coverage kicked in.
What actually happened? How many gunshots? What were the law enforcement imperatives? What were the medical hazards facing the congressman who was shot? And, of course, it's impossible to not give in to what was speculation about motives and the politics of the tragedy.
There were those initial reports of the gunman asking about the political affiliation of the congressmen. Was it possible that if Democrats, he might have taken his gun and ambled away?
You just knew you wouldn't have to wait long for ideologically driven analyses of what had played out. Talk of a new Trump-inspired polarization. The inevitable disclosure of whether the gun was lawfully purchased and, whether or not it was, what that meant, if anything at all.
Suspect James Hodgkinson, the resident of Belleville, Illinois who later died in an area hospital, was a frequent letter writer to the Belleville News-Democrat, as it quickly reported. He was clearly of a left-leaning ideological bent, arguing for higher taxes on the rich, deriding Republicans, urging legalization of marijuana and indicating that he watched "The Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC.
Coverage consumed all three cable networks and the four major broadcast networks. There were the conflicting first reports, the eyewitnesses, the posturing elected officials (such as Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe), live coverage of press conferences, interviews with Capitol Hill police, hospital reports and the impressively sober accounts of T-shirted congressman back at the Capitol.
Brian Williams was front-and-center at MSNBC in his no-longer-new role as facile, efficient host of breaking news stories. CNN beckoned Wolf Blitzer. Newspaper websites were fast and informative, including the hometown Washington Post, with their absorbing running accounts.
"I believe without the Capitol Hill police, it would have been a massacre," said Sen. Rand Paul, one of the players in tomorrow's evening scheduled annual Republican vs. Democrat baseball game.
He alluded to the fact that Rep. Steve Scalise, the third-ranking Republican in the House and a member of the team, is afforded 24/7 security. They were nearby, though it remained unclear why the incident played out for as long as it did (some claimed as long as 10 minutes).
One eyewitness told CBS News that he thought there'd been as many as 50 shots. But he wasn't exactly sure. There was the ambiguity of any such incident and the need to sort that and many other matters out.
One was left, ultimately, with the unnerving images, such as that of Rep. Gary Palmer of Alabama. He was playing shortstop. He thought the gunmen was perhaps not more than 20 steps from him and would have killed a lot of people were it not for fire being returned by Scalise's security.
As I watched, I couldn't help but relate to the awful juxtaposition of gunfire and a classic American ritual: a baseball practice in a public park.
Last night I was hitting ground balls to a team of 7th and 8th graders in a North Side Chicago park. It was in the 60s, a bit cloudy, a threat of rain, but it was the most implicitly joyous of routine experiences.
There was laughter. There were parents sitting nearby in folding chairs, chatting or playing with their smartphones, as we prepared for a game, just like the congressmen and staff on Wednesday morning. A guy was hawking ice cream on a nearby sidewalk.
The notion of that placid scene being interrupted by violence was unimaginable. Perhaps less so now.
How many shots did Davis of Southern Illinois hear, Fox's Hemmert had asked. He had the appropriate and simple response.
"One is too many," said the congressman.