Monday, January 10, 2011

Partisan media helped pull trigger in Tucson

The partisan media helped pull the trigger when an apparently deranged young man gunned down Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a crowded supermarket on a sunny Saturday morning.

It is time for everyone from Fox News to MSNBC to amp down the hateful hyperbole that created the toxic atmosphere that likely helped push the Tucson shooter over the edge.

There is little doubt that the partisan media share blame for the tragedy because they fed – and feed off – the increasingly virulent environment that made it perfectly acceptable for the likes of Sarah Palin to literally put political opponents like Giffords in the crosshairs on her website. Palin scrambled to cover her tracks over the weekend, but the evidence (left) will be well preserved on the web.

In a more civilized time in the not-so-distant past, Palin would have been marginalized by the mainstream media and responsible politicos as the intellectually bereft and pandering opportunist that she is. Instead, Palin got a Fox News contract, not to mention endless free ink and airtime across the media spectrum.

The legitimization, if not to say celebration, of an unsavory figure like Palin is but one example of how the ascendant power of the partisan media has warped the coverage of public affairs at one of the most sensitive moments in the history of the American republic.

With the nation facing economic, social and global challenges as daunting as any in history, we are at the point of political gridlock. Yet, the media — which once served to moderate and modulate the political discourse – instead have been co-opted by the hyper-partisanship fanned by the blogosphere, talk radio and cable news.

Although Fox News attracts an audience on a typical night of no more than 3 million viewers – barely 1% of the nation’s population – for its most popular show (Bill O’Reilly), the network commands a disproportionate influence over what makes news and the way it is covered.

Using mandatory talking points distributed by senior management to the hosts of its programs, Fox News unambiguously pursues a partisan, right-leaning political stance with language, graphics and on-screen attitude that are calculated to raise the blood pressure of its audience.

This single-mindedness not only effectively advances the political agenda of network bosses Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes but also has achieved ratings domination for the channel over all the other cable news competitors. Fox News on a typical night attracts more viewers than CNN, MSNBC and Headline News put together.

Perversely, Fox’s success has forced the rival cable channels to become increasingly opinionated in order to compete. MSNBC counter-programs Fox by adopting a strident, progressive line that is contributing nearly as much to the polarization of the nation as Fox itself.

Having found its once-successful, middle-of-the-road approach to the news to be commercially untenable, CNN is groping, embarrassingly, for a formula that will enable it to compete. Who knows where that might lead?

While cable news is the most eminent example of partisanship in the news, it is far from the only one. The highly successful Rush Limbaugh has been copied by any number of commentators who, though less articulate, are as abrasive as the master hater himself.

And the web is filled with shrill and irresponsible commentators of every stripe, who seldom let the facts get in the way of the party line or point of view they happen to be pushing.

This isn’t how it always was. And it isn’t how it has to be.

In the days when there were fewer media outlets, publishers and broadcasters for the most part hewed to a generally constructive approach that favored neutrality over partisanship and reasoned debate over unguarded invective.

Back in the day, the nation certainly produced media misfits like Father Charles Coughlin, an anti-Semitic radio commentator in the 1930s who eventually was silenced by the Vatican, and Westbrook Pegler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist in the New Deal era whose conservative politics became so virulent that he was banned from the publications of the John Birch Society.

So, yes, we have had our share of media wingnuts in the past. But here is the difference:

Even though they had formidable followings at the height of their popularity, they never had the power to hijack the national news agenda the way the partisan media routinely do today. (As related here, even the New York Times felt obliged in 2009 to assign an editor to keep tabs on Fox and other “opinion” media.)

In kinder and gentler times, the media collectively had a decency, proportion and civility that have been lost in the modern-day sprint for shock value, political leverage and ratings points.

We need to get common courtesy back in the media. Or, we’ll all be sorry.

26 Comments:

Blogger Gerry said...

I find it fascinating that you say there is "little doubt" the media pushed this guy over the edge... but don't actually provide any evidence that it did.

The police haven't either.

So what are you writing about, exactly?

I think there is probably a good point to be made about how vitriolic political rhetoric has become, but this post is a major reach.

5:07 AM  
Blogger boho said...

It is time for everyone from Fox News to MSNBC to amp down the hateful hyperbole that created the toxic atmosphere that likely helped push the Tucson shooter over the edge.

It's debatable whether or not the gunman was influenced by the rhetoric in the media or hateful rhetoric overall. But one thing is clear: You don't have make false equivalencies in the pursuit of "balance" by dragging in MSNBC or other news outlets outside of Fox to make your point. The type rhetoric you speak of that is presented on Fox is far more "hateful" than anything that can be heard on MSNBC or any other news outlet.

That's a demonstrable fact, and by pretending that all news networks are participating in "toxic" rhetoric in an equal manner is not only false, it's highly dangerous because it places truly hateful, militant rhetoric at the same level as rhetoric that is simply hyperbolic or snide.

Just one example: Fox's Bill O'Reilly repeatedly calling physician George Tiller a "baby killer" on his program before Tiller was murdered. You don't have to believe O'Reilly was responsible for Tiller's death to know that those type of comments are a far degree different from the satrical, snarky rhetoric that Maddow and Olberman engage in. I challenge you or anyone else to find an equivalent example on any other news outlet.

8:09 AM  
Blogger Matthew Montgomery said...

I'm in the same boat as Boho — I acknowledge that there is a tendency on all sides for rhetoric to be inflammatory, but it would be a mistake to ascribe these sorts of actions to it.

That said, I'm not entirely sure mainstream media had much role in this, aside from what it may have done to feed the flames of some more radical outlets. It doesn't seem Loughner was entirely interested in your typical Fox News rhetoric — no, he was much more radical, indeed. His YouTube videos provide some evidence of this.

He does have some common stock with the Tea Party movement — currency concerns, by and large — but the picture painted by what is known about him paints somebody more paranoid and, perhaps, delusional.

8:34 AM  
Blogger Melissa Bower said...

I think you are oversimplifying this to the extreme. There is no proof that this young man, a 22-year-old, even watched/listened to any of the partisan media you mention. I think it's horrible you blame them for a real and heinous crime.

You can blame partisan media for for keeping the American people from learning about important aspects of how their tax dollars are spent, lying about bills that are introduced in Congress and making us believe that news about politicians is more important than news made by politicians. You can blame them for creating a divide among us. You can blame them for all of this, but without proof you can't blame them for causing this man to pull the trigger. It was his decision to do this, and no one else.

10:07 AM  
Blogger Admin said...

Alan, I'm taken aback that you are blaming FOX News and Sarah Palin for "helping pull the trigger" in the Arizona massacre. That is reckless and inflammatory, since investigators have found zero evidence the shooter was part of the tea party, a FOX news viewer, or a follower of Sarah Palin.

Maybe you should take your own advice after the 2009 Fort Hood shooting:

"Media executives ought to closely review their coverage of the Fort Hood massacre to develop sufficient organizational discipline to avoid spreading in the future the sort of inflammatory information they irresponsibly aired and published as the tragic event unfolded."

[and]

"Thus, an already alarming event was cast in a far more sinister light than it should have been. The most distressing consequence of the misguided early coverage is that the shootings were portrayed as an act of organized Islamic terrorism."

Reporters should wait til the facts come in and avoid jumping to irresponsible and inflammatory conclusions.

11:51 AM  
Blogger prwiley said...

One would not say to a child "Go over to that store and take all of the candy you want, the owners won't mind" because its possible that the child, being a child, might believe what he or she was told.

We'd accuse someone saying such a thing to a child of playing a rather mean trick, and perhaps ask how could they do such a thing. We'd feel this way because we know children don't have a fully developed capacity to distinguish right from wrong, esp. if the wrong is articulated by an adult in authority. We'd call such behavior child abuse and think the adult had abdicated a very basic social responsibility.

Of course there are many people in society besides children, such as the mentally ill or disabled or otherwise weak, who lack the capacity to discriminate right from wrong and the truth from fiction.

If one has been given a high public soap box -- like a radio show or a TV network or newspaper column -- part of behaving responsibly is recognizing there are some who will hear or read one's words and lack the capacity to understand them in proper context and perhaps even act on them.

If one keeps pushing people toward an abyss, one should not be surprised when some fall in.

In reporting on the gunman's madness (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/10/us/10shooter.html?ref=jaredleeloughner) it appears that at least some of his notional world was populated with concepts from some ideas gleaned from the right and left.

12:44 PM  
Blogger G said...

Gee, another slam of Fox News.

Funny I don't see you slamming any other media that bends to the left over this tragic shooting.

Could it be that your hatred of Fox News has blinded to you the garbarge and crap that spewed from the other side?

3:11 PM  
Blogger newslook.com/blog said...

Bravo Alan. I yearn for the days of the Fairness Doctrine when we in the media were required to present both sides. Now they yell fire in a crowded world and run behind a first amendment barrier.

It is time our media be held to a standard of professionalism that those of us over 40 grew up with.

6:22 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

It is still to early to put this in context. Could Fox, Limbaugh, Beck, et. al., have influenced a vulnerable person battling mental illness to commit these unconscionable acts? Even as we learn much more, psychiatrists and behavioral analysts will continue the debate.
True enough, none of the chatter from Olbermann, Maddow or their guests invokes a plea for violence or even the call-to-arms metaphors common among Fox entertainers masquerading as news personalities, not to mention speakers at some, but not all, Tea Party rallies and other neo-conservative gatherings.
Then again, left-wing leaders and media outlets have inspired protest and defiance to policies throughout history, notably the property destruction and violence leading, often inadvertently, to injuries and deaths at ROTC buildings and other installations on U.S. college campuses in the '60s and '70s.
If Fox chatter empowered Loughner, did JD Salinger somehow influence Mark Chapman's plot to kill John Lennon?
The more salient question is whether liberals' eagerness to draw a line from Fox News to Loughner's acts is as reprehensible as the moral depravity that allows Rupert Murdoch and his hired entertainers to laugh all the way to the bank as they exploit the fears of their vulnerable white male audience.
Too many questions, too few answers. But time may bring some clarity.

6:28 PM  
Blogger Steve Ross said...

Lost in all of this is the fact that Giffords is a moderate -- a so-called blue dog Democrat. Palin took aim not because of Gifford's voting record or political philosophy, but because she was vulnerable at the ballot box. She beat a far-right Republican in a Republican-leaning district last time. If the Republican primary had coughed up a right-leaning centrist, Giffords would be out of office.

As much as I detest the very fact that Fox calls itself a "news" organization, though, Giffords was shot by a nut, not a wingnut. A nut with a gun he bought legally.

And that's what's nuts.

6:33 PM  
Blogger Sharon S. said...

I have followed your blog for quite a while and this is unbelievably ignorant of you. There is no proof of what you say. You dragged Palin into the mix and that's irresponsible and unfair from a journalist of your stature. The guy was a nut case and evil.

You have exposed yourself to your readers as extremely biased in my opinion.

What do you say about the democratic party and their support of abortion? Who makes them kill babies in the womb?

I'm a conservative and I own a gun for protection. I have a concealed permit. Nothing Palin or Chris Matthews can say or any network can report can provoke me to violence.

Thank God for Fox News and talk radio. I'm also glad that Matthews and Maddow are out there also because I watch them all and make up my own mind.

That dumb-#&ck Sheriff was using air time to blame Limbaugh. I did not hear any disparaging comments against the shooter.

Since you so skillfully entered the mind of the shooter and shared the reason he went over the edge, would you care to tell me what I'm thinking right now?

6:34 PM  
Blogger The Dickster said...

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.
This guy went nuts, built an altar in his back yard and should have been intercepted before it got to this. He was crazy, and you have no proof of what made him go over the edge, if anything. You aren't free if you can't speak your mind. I for one plan to continue to harshly criticize trash like you wrote. 40 years in the biz

7:40 PM  
Blogger Just an observer said...

"(T)hat likely helped push the Tucson shooter over the edge." Really? And you call yourself a journalist? There are many things wrong with this tilted rant of yours, but that was as good a place as any to start. You, like Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann, are of course entitled to your opinion, no matter how foolish. But I'm all done with your blog. Enjoy your misty memories of the "mainstream" echo chamber.

8:19 PM  
Blogger Brian Chorley said...

Wow! I don't know how one could be so arrogant and ignorant at the same time! You might as well just ask, so when did you stop beating your wife!
First, to think that the media in general has such control over people is very arrogant. If the media had such persuasive powers, you'd think they'd tell people to buy more newspapers. This guy had a decision to make - shoot or don't shoot, and he made the decision to shoot. Blaming it on someone else is where the ignorance comes in. Our society wants to blame everything on someone else. Where does personal responsibility fit into all this?? Well, this guy was crazy and everyone around him knew it. To take this tragedy and use it for political purposes is incredibly self-serving. Call it what it is, a tragedy of national proportion. A guy who was insane and had it out for this politician since 2007, got his chance to do her harm. It was a very unfortunate tragedy, not a political event to be picked apart and used by both sides.

10:44 PM  
Blogger Racoon said...

There is no proof that this young man, a 22-year-old, even watched/listened to any of the partisan media you mention.

Oh, c'mon now -- how does one even *breathe* in today's society* without some awareness of such media? It's not a matter of 'control' (someone else's term); it's simply a matter of influence.

As for me, I turned off Hannity in the '08 election and recently opted out of Rush and Beck. Classical music is a better value. (P.S. I'm not sticking my head in the sand, I'm quite well informed. I'm just trying to retain my sanity.)

*much less in southern Arizona

5:08 AM  
Blogger MAYBELLINE said...

Ridiculous.
I believe you may be profiling...and that's a bad thing.

7:38 AM  
Blogger Senor said...

Please go back to writing about the newspaper industry.
Four points:

The whole Palin map is such a joke, this mad man would still have pulled the trigger if there were donkeys instead of crosshairs on the graphic. It is totally irrevalent and is only mentioned becasue it has Palin's name attached to it. If the map was produced by Dan Quayle would the media even care?

The reason why Fox News is so successful is because they do show the other side of the story that went missing from mainstream media.

The term "hate speech" has now been redefined as anything opposing the left/progressive agenda.

The credibility of this blog took a big step back today.

7:51 AM  
Blogger nice said...

Rather than playing the blame game, how about just setting some time aside to mourn.

7:54 AM  
Blogger Sparkr said...

Sorry, but you got it all wrong. Good thing you're not in the newspaper business anymore, remember "Freedom of Speech". It's our society that's all messed up not taking advantage of our freedoms.

8:28 AM  
Blogger Todd said...

I find it interesting to see the quick defense of "FOX News", it seems G didn't read your posting where you mention MSNBC and other "Liberal Leaning" media. I agree with boho that FOX is by far the largest "Megaphone" for the viewpoints of the right and in some cases the far right.

I do not believe the shooting in Tucson on Saturday has a direct correlation to FOX News or any other media outlet, I do believe "words have consequences" and when we see a 24/7 airing of the "angry voices" mostly from the right, it does create an atmosphere where acts beyond "angry outbursts" can occur.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Karl said...

Immediately before reading your column, I happened to view this video by commentator Jack Hunter: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_zQEfgCBfLU&feature=player_detailpage

It's as though he made it to demonstrate how wrongheaded you are. He notes, for example, that both political parties have used targeting motifs for years, and the left-wing Daily Kos used a target image when opposing Gabrielle Giffords for opposing ObamaCare. Maybe, then, you hold that the Daily Kos is responsible for this shooting spree?

When you write about newspapers, you make a contribution to public affairs. But not today. After you apologize for posting such a foolish column, please vow to stick with what you know and to leave your prejudices unvoiced.

9:26 AM  
Blogger gus said...

The saddest thing here is the virulent response Alan has gotten for speaking his mind and positing his opinion, however farfetched. As much as it can be said that this guy DID NOT act because of the way the FOX Co. and attendant media has whipped people into a frenzy, it cannot be DISPROVEN either. So everyone on the comment stream that has attacked Alan's opinion is as wrong as he is, if there is anything on the order of "wrong" which there is not when free speech is in play. I think Alan was giving much food for thought here. But it seems that the Palin-coddlers that read his blog have proven, once again, that they are reactionaries first and open-minded thinkers last.

10:07 AM  
Blogger jbullard said...

Alan's post is doing exactly what he professes to abhor. This post is just ratcheting up the level of name-calling on his blog.

I'd like to think Alan did this on purpose to drive traffic - there seem to be a record number of comments.

Lastly, why would any journalist want to limit speech?

2:40 PM  
Blogger Sweaty said...

Amazing. I trust you will publish a retraction later.

4:17 PM  
Blogger Admin said...

Arizona Republic: "There is no evidence that politics in any way contributed to this atrocity."

jbullard @2:40 is right: accusing Sarah Palin and partisan media of "helping pull the trigger" is doing what you claim you are against.

5:02 PM  
Blogger Bradley J. Fikes said...

"And the web is filled with shrill and irresponsible commentators of every stripe, who seldom let the facts get in the way of the party line or point of view they happen to be pushing."

Congratulations to Mr. Mutter for subtly satirizing those commentators by writing a piece that embodies precisely those characteristics.

2:00 PM  

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