Three nine-year-old children: Evelyn Dieckhaus, William Kinney, Hallie Scruggs. Three adults: Mike Hill, Katherine Koonce, Cynthia Peak. If you are the praying sort, pray for their souls, for they are dead, killed Monday morning by an evil woman who shot her way into a Christian elementary school in Nashville, the Covenant School, armed with three firearms. And if you are not the praying sort, please still keep them and their families and everyone affected by this horror in your thoughts.
It used to be the case that news outlets tended to dwell ghoulishly on the stories of those who kill rather than honoring the victims. For some years, however, dontnamethem.org has led a salutary move to correct this, noting that shooters can be “motivated by a desire for fame, notoriety, and/or recognition” and suggesting that the media “should focus on the victims and the heroes” and leave “shooters/attackers . . . as unrecognized in their deaths as they were in their lives.”
I am sorry, therefore, that The New York Times, in its above-the-fold front-page story yesterday, names the shooter before the victims. Still, the name of the shooter appears only once, which is good. For my part, I’ll give only her first name: Audrey.
The Times article has about 1,400 words. The killer, who was herself killed by the police, is repeatedly described as “the assailant” and “the shooter”—seven times each. Aside from a quotation from the chief of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department that calls her “at one point a student” at the school, the only other description of her is in this paragraph, which comes (I’m sorry to say) right before the names of the six victims:
There was confusion about the gender identity of the assailant in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Chief Drake said the shooter identified as transgender. Officials used “she” and “her” to refer to the shooter, but, according to a social media post and a LinkedIn profile, the shooter appeared to identify as male in recent months.
As of my writing these words, at no point in this or any of the many other articles that the Times has published online do the reporters use any pronouns or honorific titles in referring to the killer. But they have no problem using pronouns and honorifics of other people mentioned. For example, in the main article, a Lisa is called “she” three times and “her” once; three women named Melissa, Rachael, and Rachel are each called “she” twice and referred to as “Ms.”; and the reporters use the phrase “her work” of Dr. Koonce (RIP) and end the piece with a quotation about her from Melissa that contains the pronouns “she” and “her.” Similarly, four men, including President Biden and the father of Miss Scruggs (RIP) are described with masculine pronouns and/or the title “Mr.”
Until we know more about the killer, it would be unwise to speak of her motives, though it is obviously noteworthy that a standard database of mass shootings in the United States since 1966 does not record a single female shooter at a K–12 school. (Bizarrely, the main article in the Times ignores this fact, instead stating that the shooting was “unusual” because Covenant is a private elementary school rather than a public high school.) In addition, I have no wish to sensationalize a tragedy by unnecessarily bringing in a highly sensitive and controversial subject: transgenderism, a matter that caused quite a kerfuffle last month at what Christine Rosen calls “The New York Trans.” (Or, for that matter, anti-religiosity.) But the evidence so far suggests that concerns about the shooter’s transgenderism hampered the paper’s coverage of the tragedy.
The Times is getting itself into a mess. Pronouns are not a matter of life and death, you may think (though progressives often say that they are), but they sure do cause problems these days, as I recently explained in these pages. Because I am writing in standard English, you are unlikely even to have noticed that I described the killer as a woman and used the pronouns “her” and “herself.” By contrast, most speakers of English, however progressive their views, will find the paper’s avoidance of pronouns very strange. This strangeness transcends political views: just as linguistically odd are the majority opinion and special concurrence that the conservative judge Barbara Lagoa of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued last December in Adams v. School Board of St. John’s County, Florida, which largely avoid referring to the transgender plaintiff with any pronouns at all.
I am trying to imagine what it must have been like in the Times newsroom as management scrambled to figure out whether to refer to the killer as “Ms.,” “Mr.,” or something else. Since the Times usually sends out regular breaking-news alerts when there are massacres, it was surprising that, after the initial alert at 12:44 p.m., there was not another one all day long, though I did receive eight further notifications on my phone before midnight, including one with an asparagus recipe. Am I wrong to think that the lack of information was the result of gender panic, which afflicted much of the mainstream media on Monday?
The Times otherwise has no problem with pronouns and honorifics of transgender people. For many readers, the pièce de résistance came just over a year ago, in an article about a serial killer whom the reporters described with feminine pronouns and as “Ms.” The title of the article: “She Killed Two Women. At 83, She is Charged with Dismembering a Third.” The first sentence of the lede: “Harvey Marcelin was charged with murder after a head was found in her Brooklyn apartment.”
To return to Nashville: but for sensitivity to the ambiguous (?) gender identity of the killer, the Times would have used pronouns and honorifics and would not have written prose that doesn’t sound quite like English. I cannot say whether the Times should have chosen to call her “she” and “Ms.,” “he” and “Mr.,” or “they” and “Mx.”—on the basis of what little I know, I’d have gone with the first—but I imagine a decision will have to be made as the story unfolds. Be that as it may, I doubt the paper’s reporting on most of the depressingly inevitable school shootings to come will face the same issue. It did not last May in portraying the evil in Uvalde, Texas: that school shooter, a male who, like the killer in Tennessee, was killed at the scene, was repeatedly spoken of with masculine pronouns and as “Mr.” Perhaps the Times would like from now on to try to avoid gendered language entirely so as to be scrupulously neutral, in this respect at least?
It is bad news when what still considers itself to be America’s paper of record slows down on reporting and publishes intentionally bad prose in order not to incur the wrath of the vocal fringe of its hypersensitive audience—and to spare the sensibilities of a dead killer. Think of this as you think of and pray for Cynthia Peak, Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs, Katherine Koonce, Mike Hill, and William Kinney.