Viewpoints: Race, Russian bots and the angst around #AustinBombings

Five bombings in the past three weeks, with two dead, four injured and the culprit still at large, is plenty to put all of Austin on edge. But another incendiary layer to this saga is playing out on social media.

The hashtag #AustinBombings has been trending on Twitter in part because of all of the media coverage — and in part because of complaints about the perceived lack of media coverage, even as the bombings have dominated the Statesman’s online and print editions, not to mention all of the reporting from local and national TV and radio outlets.

Yes, there’s the obvious: Some people aren’t exactly keeping up with the news, especially in their self-contained social media bubbles.

But go deeper, and you’ll find real anxiety about race and distrust of the media.

Go deeper still, according to NPR, and you’ll find Russian bots amplifying the whole thing.

The first three bombs killed two African-American men and injured a Hispanic woman, raising the specter these might be hate crimes, particularly because the two slain men belonged to prominent East Austin families connected to Wesley United Methodist Church. The Statesman has provided extensive coverage of those bombings and the growing investigation, including the latest explosion that injured two white men in Southwest Austin and the early Tuesday explosion of an Austin-bound package at a FedEx facility in Schertz. But for some observers in other cities who, for whatever reason, initially heard little about these bombings, the storyline tapped into longstanding concerns that the media does not cover tragedies in communities of color with the same vigor as calamities affecting whites.

“In general, people don’t trust the media,” Mia Moody-Ramirez, a University of Texas journalism grad and Baylor University professor specializing in media and race issues, told me by phone this week. “They think some stories will be highlighted more than others.”

These reactions reminded me of the social media outrage in 2015, when some indignant posts asked why the terrorist attacks at a Paris concert hall and restaurant drew far more media coverage than did the  slaughter of 147 people in a Kenya school attack. Only the facts didn’t bear that out. Every major news outlet did cover the Kenyan terrorist attack and in great detail.  

Some critics don’t understand why the Austin bombings haven’t drawn the same kind of round-the-clock national TV coverage as other big stories, such as Hurricane Harvey or the contentious 2016 election, Moody-Ramirez said. But these bombings are the subject of an intense investigation that has produced very little information to sustain the cable news channels’ attention.

The American-Statesman has memorialized the victims of these bombings, chronicled the anxiety of a community, illustrated how other bombing suspects were eventually caught and questioned the Austin Police department’s early efforts to tamp down fears by suggesting the first bombing was an isolated incident.

But we don’t know who’s unleashing these attacks and why, or how the victims were chosen — if they were purposely chosen at all.

“I think regarding the bombing, people want a different kind of coverage,” Moody-Ramirez said. “They want answers the media can’t give right now.”

And thanks again to social media, what would normally be the complaints of a few become retweeted and “liked” tens of thousands of times with the help of another divisive force.

NPR’s national security editor Philip Ewing reported Monday evening that some of the activity on Twitter “appears initially to be connected with the Russian social media agitation that we’ve sort of gotten used to since the 2016 presidential race.”

How can we tell?

“There are dashboards and online tools that let us know which accounts are focusing on which hashtags from the Russian influence-mongers who’ve been targeting the United States since 2016 and they, too, have been tweeting about Austin bombings today,” Ewing reported.

And as they did after the Charlottesville protests, last year’s Alabama Senate campaign and the tug-of-war over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, Ewing said, the Russian bots are jacking up the volume on social media debates to make Americans feel even more bitterly divided. All of this comes amid new reporting on the alleged Facebook abuses by Cambridge Analytica to potentially sway elections.

When people distrust reporters and feel overwhelmed by the conflicting noise on social media, some tune out altogether. Jena Heath, a former Statesman editor who now teaches journalism at St. Edward’s University, is glued to current events, but she can understand why some people opt out.

“We live in a surreal time,” she said. “I think people feel bombarded, I think they feel overwhelmed, less in control of the levers of their society, less able to affect change. And so when people feel this way, they pull back, they stop participating.

“Then something really directly relevant to their lives happens, and there’s a sense of, Why didn’t anybody tell me about this?

Reasons, voices opposing ban on sanctuary city outweighed support

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday May 1, 2017. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Gov. Greg Abbott made it clear soon after taking office in January 2015 that eliminating so-called sanctuary cities was one of his priorities for the 85th Texas Legislature.

Today, Abbott is one step closer to achieving that goal as Senate Bill 4, which punishes local jurisdictions that decline to assist with federal immigration enforcement, is en route to his desk.

After the Senate accepted on Wednesday the House’s controversial bill, Abbot took to Twitter to post: “The Texas sanctuary city ban wins final legislative approval. I’m getting my signing pen warmed up. #txlege #tcot

However, the measure is wrong for Texas — even if our leaders refuse to acknowledge it.

The negative effects associated with this bill could be troubling. For instance, companies in the tech and medical sectors might think twice before relocating to Texas if they perceive an anti-immigrant measure will affect their recruiting efforts. And in some areas of the state, policing could become more about harassing people who look a certain way than about focusing on the worst of criminals in a community. Those ramifications just scratch the surface.

As the American-Statesman editorial board has written on several occasions, such a measure will hurt Texas more than keep it safe, as Abbott and proponents of the bill proclaim.

But the board was not the only voice against Senate Bill 4, as Texas law enforcement leaders went before state lawmakers to testify that the measure will be a burden for taxpayers and officers. Many more individuals testified about the potential this law presents for law enforcement officers to intimidate immigrants.

For now, the voices of so many have gone unheard.

We reflect some of those thoughts on the issue with these editorials:

We also present a sample of guest commentaries by community members who wrote against a state ban of sanctuary cities:

Not all were opposed banning sanctuary cities:

Time will reveal the impact this measure will have on the Lone Star State. One thing is certain: It won’t do much for Texas’ reputation as a ‘friendly state.’

A Trump immigration curveball? More like whiplash

FILE- In this March 3, 2015 photo, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers escort an arrestee in an apartment building, in the Bronx borough of New York, during a series of early-morning raids. New York City leaders are trying to strike a balance between purging dangerous criminals and protecting some of its roughly 500,000 undocumented immigrants. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
In this March 3, 2015 photo, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers escort an arrestee in an apartment building, in the Bronx borough of New York, during a series of early-morning raids. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

When the stunning news broke late Tuesday that President Trump said he is open to an immigration overhaul allowing millions of undocumented immigrants to stay in the country legally, one news organization called the president’s abrupt shift on immigration “a curveball.”

Curveball? More like whiplash maybe.

After all, what else are we to make of such a sudden reversal from the president’s hard-line crackdown on illegal immigration during his first weeks in office? Take, for example, last month’s sweeping Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids in Austin and across the country. And just last week, the administration unveiled new deportation rules allowing federal agents to go after anyone living in the country illegally, even if they haven’t committed serious crimes — a stark contrast to the Obama administration’s policies that placed a priority on deporting criminals.

RELATED EDITORIAL: Toughened Enforcement policies overlook immigrant contributions

“The time is right for an immigration bill as long as there is compromise on both sides,” the president reportedly told TV news anchors at a White House meeting over lunch Tuesday.

Did this herald a new softer tone on immigration? Remember, this is the same Donald Trump whose rock concert-like campaign rallies reverberated with supporters’ chants of “build the wall!” on the U.S.-Mexico border. And Trump’s run for office began with a pledge to deport the nation’s estimated 11.1 million immigrants, something even those in his own party have described as unrealistic and bordering on fantasy.

Only a few hours after that meeting with the TV anchors, however, the president didn’t even mention in his first joint address to Congress that he might be receptive to an immigration overhaul giving legal status to millions of unauthorized immigrants.

In fact, Trump doubled down on aggressive enforcement, reiterating his campaign promise to begin building a border wall. “A great, great wall,” he called it.

And the president fell back on the familiar refrain of highlighting the crimes of undocumented immigrants, announcing that he has ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to work with victims of crimes committed by immigrants who are in the country illegally.

After the speech to Congress, news analysts pounced on the chance to speculate why the president had not brought up his remarks earlier in the day about immigration. One said the president obviously had been reined in by his inner circle, who advised him that now is not the time.

But if not now, when? If the president couldn’t talk about immigration reform to a cheering audience dominated by those of his own party, then when? Certainly not at one of his rallies in places across the country, which Trump continues to hold even after his election, and where his legions of supporters continue their full-throated chant, “Build the Wall!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Haruka Weiser’s death and the right to know

A University of Texas police officer stands nearby as students gather at the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center near Waller Creek to lay flowers and pay their respects for slain student Haruka Weiser. RODOLFO GONZALEZ /AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN
A University of Texas police officer stands nearby as students gather at the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center near Waller Creek to lay flowers and pay their respects for slain student Haruka Weiser. RODOLFO GONZALEZ /AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

As we at the American-Statesman have reported on the death of University of Texas student Haruka Weiser, we’ve received some pushback on social media and in story comments from readers who think we’re going too far.

Last night, Statesman reporter Tony Plohetski was the first to report that Weiser had been strangled and sexually assaulted. The report, based on carefully vetted sources whom we did not identify because they were not authorized to publicly disclose these details, answered one of the basic questions surrounding the case a week after Weiser’s death. It also raised the possibility of additional charges related to sexual assault, pending DNA results.

To us in the Statesman newsroom, this was a newsworthy development. Some readers weren’t so sure, as this story commenter put it:

I hope at some point in time the press and media will stop sniffing for yet more and more information about this woman’s demise to blab to the purient public.  If necessary, pls put all such information in supermarket rags or TMZ and not in legitimate press.  It is no one’s business other than officials and family about the grisly details of how she died.

We understand such concerns, of course. We have those very same discussions in the newsroom. We take the public’s right to know seriously, and we’re not just talking about a “prurient public” interested in horrific details. We’re talking about public safety, university security, law enforcement and prosecutorial accountability and, yes, even ensuring that the rights of the accused are protected. Manner of death in a high-profile homicide is the most basic of questions — one that had been asked by our readers for a week.

We understand that reading about any case will be difficult for the victim’s family. Like you, we feel for their loss. But we also have a responsibility and a mission to inform, and, unfortunately, that sometimes means reporting information that the victim’s family will not want to read. In a case like this, that will happen countless times as the case goes through the legal system. We took that into account with Tuesday’s story, making sure that law enforcement had a chance to notify Weiser’s family before our story published. We also exercised restraint in which crime-scene details to publish and which to omit at this time.

Today, some on Facebook took offense to our posting of an interactive timeline tracing the events outlined in Meechaiel Khalil Criner’s arrest affidavit. Others have requested that we not run Criner’s mugshot. Of course, those are the basics of a story that will continue to be reported out and followed by media not just here in Austin but around the world.

We understand that the details are not pleasant, but we believe that pursuit of those details is vitally important.

— John Bridges, managing editor

From the notebook: Travis County Sheriff candidates’ platform on ICE detainers

Candidates look on as they hear from community members who have experienced the impact of sheriff’s policies firsthand about the issues they have deemed most critical at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin on Saturday, Feb 13, 2016. from left to right: Todd Radford,Don Rios, Debbie Russell and John Sisson. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Candidates look on as they hear from community members who have experienced the impact of sheriff’s policies firsthand about the issues they have deemed most critical at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin on Saturday, Feb 13, 2016. from left to right: Todd Radford, Don Rios, Debbie Russell and John Sisson. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

At a public forum last week, Democratic candidates for Travis County Sheriff traded barbs over whether they would fully comply with a controversial federal immigrant detention program.

One candidate even invoked a conversation during the candidates’ endorsement interview with the Statesman’s editorial board, where the candidates were also asked what their position was on cooperating with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in detaining immigrants, American-Statesman’s Nicole Barrios reported. Of the six candidates seeking to succeed Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton, only one said he would keep the sheriff’s most controversial policy.

During the forum held at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin on Saturday, former Austin police Lt. John Sisson, a Democratic candidate, told the audience that he’s been advocating to end Travis County’s participation in the ICE program since 2007, when he ran against Hamilton.

“I was sitting with the editorial board, and the question was, ‘Will you cooperate with immigration officials?’ Todd (Radford) and Sally (Hernandez) said yes, they would, except for minor violations; Don (Rios) and I said no,” Sisson said at the forum. “You cannot pick and choose who goes and who stays.”

Two things from Barrios’ story stood out to me: Hernandez taking offense to Sisson’s claim and Rios’ telling Saturday’s audience that the first goal of his campaign was to end ICE detainers.

So, I listened to my recording of the interview to see where Sisson’s memory (or notes) and mine didn’t match and to see if Rios made it clear to us his intention with ICE detainers.

To Sisson’s point, he and Rios were the only two candidates who stated that they would not comply with ICE at all, while Radford and Hernandez said they would draw a line in certain cases.  But Rios never mentioned his position on ICE detainers until he was asked directly.

Yes, the topic of ICE came up several times, but it was during a specific portion of our hour-long conversation where each candidate gave details to their position on the issue. Sisson was the only candidate who made the issue part of his introduction.

Off the bat, answering a question of why he was running for the position, Sisson said: “What I want to do for Travis County is end our collaboration with immigration officials, I want to put body cameras on all deputies and consistent training, de-escalation training, sensitivity training cultural diversity training , mental health training.” No other candidate referenced ICE in their answer to the same question.

Later in our conversation, the candidates were asked to name three important planks of their criminal justice reform or platform. Rios was the only candidate who did not mention cooperation with ICE as a reform. The others mentioned cooperation to some degree in their platforms.

When editorial board member Alberta Phillips asked John Sisson to name any sheriffs in Texas who are not currently cooperating with ICE officials, Sisson pointed to Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, who as Sisson explained, is “cooperating somewhat, she’s just not holding (immigrants) for minor violations.” And when asked if he would cooperate at all, Sission responded, “No ma’am”.

Hernandez told us her platform would mirror Sheriff Valdez’s program in Dallas.

When asked the same question, Radford replied, “this broad brush stroke effect that we’re going to send everybody to ICE and cooperate in that fashion doesn’t make sense to me.”

Since Rios was the only candidate who had shared his views on cooperating with ICE, we him directly if he would. His answer: “ I would not cooperate at all.”

The candidates then were given the opportunity to explain their position on ICE detainers. Their responses included:

Radford: “The issue for me is [that] it’s not equitable. When we start to infringe upon issues of inequity, that’s when we have to take a stance. For me there are two issues: One, crossing: coming into our state which is an illegal act and federal illegal act. But the issue staying past, is more an administrative issue, more of a civil issue. ..if we have people in our facilities who have answered for our state issues and they’re ready to be released (but aren’t because of an ICE retainer), it would be very much akin to someone calling and saying the person violated the tenants of their contract I need you to hold them 28 more hours. I wouldn’t do that to anybody else nor should I be expected to do so with this one person just based on their immigrant status.”

Rios: “It’s not a criminal act it’s actually a civil violation of the immigration law. That’s what we’re talking about. We are also talking about people who have been arrested but not convicted of anything…We are talking about who are innocent. We are not talking about people who are guilty. Those people who are guilty will get deported.”

Rios continued: “When a judge has that affidavit, it is his or her responsibility to ensure the safety of our community and that particular bond setting of what they feel that crime…This comes truly down to a violation of the Fourth Amendment, for me. If ICE would have probable cause and get that reviewed by a judge, having judicial review, then we wouldn’t be talking about this issue.”

Hernandez said her choice of non-cooperating with ICE was about making everyone in the community feel safe, including the immigrant community. Sisson agreed with Rios’ response.

Sisson was correct to say that during our endorsement meeting he and Rios were the only candidates to take a firm stance against cooperating with ICE detainers, while Hernandez and Radford suggested they would cooperate with ICE in violent criminal cases. But it took reading Barrios’ story for me to understand that eliminating ICE from the Sheriff’s office was a priority for Rios.