Monday, January 10, 2011

The rush for ratings

It should be said to begin with that this weekend's shooting in Arizona that left six innocent people dead and many more wounded, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was a terrible atrocity. The tragic loss of life is stunning, and the prayers of a nation are with the families who are grieving today.

The reckless and irresponsible reporting of this tragedy by the mainstream media is, however, an insult to those most directly impacted by this terrible crime. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, not only did many media outlets erroneously report that Congresswoman Giffords had died, but many such outlets also raced each other to place blame for the tragedy on right-wing political rhetoric, specifically on the Tea Party and on such right wing figures as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin.

My regular readers know that I'm not a fan of Rush Limbaugh or of Glenn Beck; as for Palin, while I've not written much about her since she left public office, my opinion is that people who want to lead should not aspire to become reality TV celebrities, as we have quite enough of that sort of narcissism in public office already. But I would have to agree with this UK analysis of the problem of blaming right-wing speech for a tragedy when there's no evidence that the tragedy was in any way precipitated by such speech:
But within 24 hours of the shooting, the media had taken a clear turn from the necessary, matter-of-fact reporting of the incident to further fear-mongering, partisan storylines and conspiracy theories. The actions of Jared Lee Loughner, apparently an extremely troubled young man, have been portrayed as the direct and inescapable result of a vitriolic political climate where hate-speech regularly incites violence on this scale.

The reality is that it is far too early to be making such inferences. Jared Loughner may have had political interests, but they were far from coherent, let alone consistent with Tea Party doctrine, as suggested by many in the mainstream media. His social media pages cited favourite documents as Mein Kampf and the Communist Manifesto – hardly political volumes consistent with a coherent ideology.

But that confusion is not stopping the media. One consistent cry has been that the shooting is the fault of Sarah Palin. MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann empitomised this sentiment, saying "If Sarah Palin … does not repudiate her own part … in amplifying the violence … she must be dismissed … Repudiated by members of her party." Olbermann went on to blame Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck for the violence, arguing that silence on their part was tantamount to support of the actions in Tucson. [...]

Certainly, nobody can deny the increased vitriol in American politics. Absolutely, movements like the Tea Party have contributed to that partisan rancor and figures like Palin have become lightening rods for controversy. But at a national time of crisis such as this, ascribing an explicit political motive to the actions of an individual who may be mentally ill is premature, if not downright irresponsible.

Calling this a politically motivated crime, one that certain politicians are charged with having inadvertently encouraged, is not only inaccurate, but also risks fanning the fire and inciting copycat violence by other, unstable individuals who may be looking for a pretext to commit unspeakable acts. For the truth is that, at this moment, we cannot call Loughner a political terrorist. Nor can we point the finger of blame at any specific party or movement.

Read the rest here.

Many conservative blogs and websites are reacting with outrage to the suggestion that conservative political speech is somehow responsible for this crime. Some bloggers have, as Gerry Nadal has done here, shown that left-wing speech is just as likely to be violent and given examples of that speech. Others have pointed to the gunman's reading list which includes the Communist Manifesto and to statements by acquaintances that the gunman was enamored of left-wing issues as proof that if any speech inspired Loughner, it was likely to be coming from voices on the left.

I think it's just far too soon to tell exactly what inspired Loughner; he will likely tell us himself at some point during his trial, either directly or indirectly--assuming he is capable of telling a coherent story, which is something we still don't know for certain. But in our culture of 24/7 news broadcasting, the talking heads who appeared on television while the last reverberations of the final gunshots were still echoing across the parking lot outside that grocery store, there had to be something more interesting to say than "We still don't know why the gunman acted." Outrageous speculation that the criminal might somehow have been inspired by the EIB network or by Sarah Palin or by some other right-wing figure was way, way out of bounds by any reasonable journalism standard, as the article from the UK Guardian points out; but it did fill a lot of otherwise dead air with the kind of titillating palaver that would keep viewers or listeners tuned in much longer than they might otherwise have paid attention.

The MSM didn't so much rush to judgment as they rushed for ratings. Blaming right-wing rhetoric for the tragedy not only satisfied the media's desire to make everything fit their unintelligent yet standard "left = good, right = bad" template; it further ensured that liberal viewers would remain glued to coverage waiting for that "smoking gun" of a Palin poster or some Tea Party paraphernalia to be found at the gunman's home, while conservative viewers would likewise stay fixed to their TV sets, waiting for the triumphant "egg on their faces" moment when the talking heads would have to admit that no evidence whatsoever linked the shooter to right-wing politics. The fact that the right-wing viewers will wait in vain, as the media's preferred message in these circumstances will be, "Okay, technically there's no proof that this Loughner was in any way influenced by the right, but it's only a matter of time before their hateful, violent, knuckle-dragging speech (so unlike our erudite and irenic way of communicating!) sets off some other nut, so we're not so much wrong as we are prescient..." in no way dulls the sport of hoping for an MSM apology, so plenty of conservative viewers will watch anyway.

But all of this calculated ratings-boosting activity is, as I said above, an insult to the memory of those who have died and to the very real grief their families are enduring right now. The national pastime of talking a tragedy to death is bad enough when a killer's motives are known all too well, but this exercise becomes indefensible when paid bloviators tell us solemnly that right-wing speech made Loughner pull the trigger for no reason other than that this is what they desperately want to believe, and sincerely hope is true--and because they know it will keep a lot of people hooked to their coverage of this unspeakable event. This kind of commercially-crafted outrage at a fallacious interpretation of an as-yet-unknown motive for an all-too-real horror is an offense against the truth, and should be rejected as such.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A brief perusal of the young man's writings is reminiscent of Sirhan Sirhan and Ted Kascynski (sp) aka Unabomber - not in content but in disorganization. In this case, except for voting for the Obama health care initiative, the representative in question is on the conservative end of the Democratic party - so-called Blue Dog Democrat, not a raging leftie. Even if his motivation is political, it is not clear what politics were being expressed. And who shoots grandmas and children to make a statement? Terrorists or the deranged.

It isn't fair to ascribe blame to any particular cause when a demented mind gets hold of material. No one will be surprised if this guy gets a major psychiatric diagnosis - he doesn't appear to function or think normally, from descriptions in the press.

Anyway, a very sad case. I lived through the rash of very public political murders in the 1960s as a child and young teen. Then Reagan and his press secretary caught bullets in the 80s. This is not a direction we want to go in.