The frightening incident in which a man held a Panama City, Florida school board at gun point (he was ultimately shot and killed by a security officer) is somehow being used…or is being perceived as being used…to discredit both the Right and the Left in ultra-polarized America. Yet it has absolutely nothing to do with either.
Clay Duke, who had planned the assault for December 14 for quite a while (though none too well, I’d say), evoked the film and graphic novel “V for Vendetta” by spray-painting a giant “V” on the Wall. His computer was apparently festooned with references to the story, a science fiction, Orwellian fantasy about a repressive government being terrorized by a masked vigilante. News reports identified Duke as an “anti-government zealot,” leading some conservative commentators to accuse the media of an orchestrated anti-Tea Party smear campaign. D.C. conservative radio talk show host Chris Plante, for example, devoted much of the next morning to a breathless and indignant attack on CBS, which led with the story on its evening news. He accused Katie Couric and Friends of covering up the fact that Duke was really a class warfare guy, based on what he had posted on his Facebook page. In Plante’s interpretation, he had been motivated by the anti-rich sentiments pushed by the Obama Administration, and that, not his antipathy to government, is what really pushed him over the edge.
At a low point in President Clinton’s Administration, when the small government advocates had taken over the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich was flying high and Bill’s approval ratings were sinking, Timothy McVeigh helped turn things around by reminding America of the dark side of anti-government fervor. Unfairly but predictably, Democrats succeeded in connecting the Oklahoma City bombing to the excessive rhetoric of the Republicans and talk radio, and the rightward momentum of popular opinion was halted. Some liberal commentators haven’t been shy in opining that President Obama could use a similar game-changing event (not that they would wish for a terrorist attack or anything, of course…that would be wrong). On the other side, conservatives remember the McVeigh backlash, and are, shall we say, jumpy. Fearing that Duke is being trotted out as McVeigh Jr. by the Obama-loving press, the Right showed that it is primed to counter-attack.
But Clay Duke isn’t like Tim McVeigh, except that they both were deranged. He didn’t kill anyone. Hardly anyone saw “V for Vendetta,” and it was a lousy movie. As Plante points out, it was intended as an anti-Bush film, though it just made me hate Natalie Portman. How does threatening a school board connect someone to the Tea Party? How does threatening a superintendent of schools, a middle-class job if there ever was one, constitute class warfare? Clay Duke was a sad, angry man whose financial troubles caused him to snap. Aren’t both political parties responsible for the fiscal mess? Most of the public thinks so. If the media was trying to make Clay Duke the new poster boy for anti-government mania, it picked a really bad model.
Still, one has to wonder: why did CBS lead with the Duke story? It was a strange choice. The tax compromise fight on Capital Hill was raging; the Wikileaks drama was still playing out— this was hardly a slow news day. Meanwhile, the event itself was hardly in the category of critical news. What did it mean to anyone outside of that room, and Mrs. Duke? If CBS wasn’t trying to suggest that the story had greater significance than its raw facts, what was it doing?
Here is my conclusion, based on Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” The tragic episode had really good video, including an excellent view of the woman who tried to brain Duke with her purse. Since the networks officially regard their audience as morons, and no longer believe them capable of comprehending substantive news, they will happily elevate minor stories to major status if they are good water cooler fodder, regardless of whether broadcasting them takes up time that could be better used informing us and giving us information that we can actually use.
In other words, the news media is lazy, irresponsible and incompetent.
Those who trust the media least, however, seem to have an enhanced regard for their judgment and determination to pursue sinister motives. They believe the news media is stupid too, but that the stupidity is manifested in ridiculous plots to slander conservatives, plots that are so harebrained that the likes of Chris Plante can quickly expose them and substitute a harebrained theory of his own.
All of this could be avoided, of course, if CBS and its industry hadn’t blighted all public trust with stunts like Dan Rather’s forged National Guard letter, and if they respected the public enough to display responsible journalistic instincts in choosing what to report.
When nobody is interested in reporting the news fairly, all that’s left is spin. That, and trying to figure out who is to blame for the death of objectively reported facts.