Partisan media helped pull trigger in Tucson
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.