Partisan Opportunism: The Media and the Arizona Massacre:

The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Federal judge, and 18 others yesterday has exposed media bias and unfairness at its despicable worst. That so many reporters, commentators and bloggers learned of  Arizona parking lot carnage and immediately thought, “Wow, what a chance this is to pin everything on Sarah Palin and the Tea Party!” speaks volumes about the ethics and integrity of America’s journalists. The Daily Beast, for example, began a column this way:

“No motives have emerged from today’s senseless shooting in Tucson, but Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has a long history of being targeted by the Tea Party—sometimes in violent terms.”

Is there a shred, an inkling, a hint or a clue anywhere that the man who did the shooting had anything whatsoever to do with the Tea Party? No. Is there anything at all linking Tea Party rhetoric to his motives for the shooting? No. So how can this paragraph be explained? Easy. The Daily Beast doesn’t like the Tea Party movement, and saw this horrific shooting as an opportunity to discredit it. As a special bonus, the shooting presented an opportunity to indict Sarah Palin too, the favorite villain of liberals everywhere. She, in her typically over-the-top way, had used a gun-sight graphic to designate which  House Democrats the Tea Party was “gunning for.” That meant Giffords was literally (if only two dimensionally) placed in the cross-hairs by Palin! Brilliant! So the shooting is her fault! Never mind that no one has suggested that the shooter ever saw Palin’s website, or that he cares what she thinks, or at this point, even that he was specifically trying to shoot the Congresswoman.

There is so much hysterical, dishonest, self-serving nonsense being spewed out at the moment on cable news and the Internet, much of it ignoring this: The issue of civility in political discourse and the shooting in Arizona are absolutely distinct and separate. The motives and/or reasoning ability of anyone who suggests otherwise should be regarded as suspect.


  • Civility in political discourse is desirable for its own sake. Demonizing opposing views and using fear and hate as tools of persuasion is wrong because it makes reaching societal accord more difficult. It is no more important or less important because of the acts of a mad shooter in Arizona, and his actions should not serve as the rationale for a change in behavior.
  • Incivility and heated rhetoric does not cause sane people to start killing, and we cannot and must not, as some actually were suggesting on the Sunday talk shows, decree that advocates, commentators and politicians calibrate their words to avoid inciting the looniest and most unstable among us.
  • The intolerable level of incivility is not a partisan problem. It is a cultural problem, and the current effort to turn a tragedy into one more reason to hate the Tea Party is as much of a manifestation of that problem as any rant by Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann.
  • Even if it is ultimately shown that the shooter in Arizona did consider himself a Tea Partier, or frequented Palin’s website, using those facts to implicate Tea Party rhetoric in the shooting would be pure consequentialism of the worst sort, and consequentialism is backwards ethics. The fact that one madman is set off by extreme rhetoric does not make that rhetoric objectionable if it wasn’t objectionable already. If it is determined, for example, that the killer took action after watching Robert Altman’s film “Nashville,” in which a loner shoots a singer at a political candidate’s rally, would that act mean that “Nashville” provokes violence and should be censored? Former Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson told the nation that Republicans wanted people to die. If an individual stressed with health care costs and the absence of insurance decided to shoot up a Tea Party rally, would that have made Grayson’s conduct (which Nancy Pelosi specifically refused to condemn) worse than it was from the moment the words left his mouth? No, and no.
  • Much has been made of the fact that Palin took down the cross-hairs graphic on her site after Giffords’ shooting, as if this was an admission of guilt. Obviously, leaving the crosshairs graphic over the Congresswoman’s name after she had been shot would have been in atrocious taste. Taking it down was simply right, whether or not putting up the original graphic was appropriate. Related tip to the Snickers people: Running that TV ad where Aretha Franklin says “I’m dying back here” after it has been reported that the singer is, in fact, dying of cancer, is in questionable taste. Related tip to the media: If Snickers does stop running the ad, it doesn’t mean that the candy bar-makers think that they gave Aretha cancer.

Let me end, for now, with a quote from another Daily Beast column, this one from media critic Howard Kurtz, who does an excellent job reviewing past instances when violence was exploited to score cheap political points (always against the Right), and clearly senses, as do I, that another assault on political speech in order to stifle dissent (look out, Rush!) is in the wind:

“This isn’t about a nearly year-old Sarah Palin map; it’s about a lone nutjob who doesn’t value human life. It would be nice if we briefly put aside partisan differences and came together with sympathy and support for Gabby Giffords and the other victims, rather than opening rhetorical fire ourselves.”

19 thoughts on “Partisan Opportunism: The Media and the Arizona Massacre:

  1. Jack, I won’t even try to debate any of this with you, as my response is merely personal and not a result of the kind of care you take in researching and analyzing your topics. And frankly I don’t disagree with any of it. However, I think that the most important point that you make is your third bullet. The “intolerable level of incivility” is a cultural problem that seems at least as important as any other ethics issue out there. Bullying, the issue du jour, is just one manifestation of it. What, if anything, is being done to address this?

    • It’s clear, really: stop allowing incivility to be profitable and successful. Defeating Grayson was a good start. Now stop listening to Beck, Olbermann, Schultz, Levin, Crowley, Savage and the rest—stop buying books by Ann Coulter; stop paying attention to Howard Stern and shockjocks; stop paying hate-mongers’ salaries. (By the way, Rush Limbaugh is very, very seldom uncivil. He’s just effective, which means those he targets call him uncivil.)

  2. Jack,
    “The fact that one madman is set off by extreme rhetoric does not make that rhetoric objectionable if it wasn’t objectionable already. ”

    Reading this, I was reminded of your comments about the ethics of Islam, though I suppose that’s why you included the “.. if it wasn’t objectionable already” disclaimer. Then again, neither is Islam depending on your perspective. Were it to turn out that Loughner was a Tea-Party regular, should Rand Paul and others apologize for, and speak out against such violence?


    • Neil, I don’t think the analogy is apt. Despite the rhetoric of irresponsible dolts like Sharron Angle, nothing in Tea Party ideology calls for violence of any sort, or contains the equivalents of jihad or fatwah. Rand Paul has no more reason to apologize for a rogue Tea Party member than Marylanders had to apologize for John Wilkes Booth. Rand Paul will have his hands full apologizing for Rand Paul, anyway.

      • One more thing: there is no reason for the Tea Party to even be mentioned, hypothetically or otherwise, in connection with this matter, any more than radical Islam, Swedish meatball-lovers or Muppets. The sole apology that is likely to come due is one to the Tea Party, Sarah Palin and talk radio, from the likes of Paul Krugman. They won’t apologize, of course; they succeeded in making this the Oklahoma City Moment they admitted they were searching for. The facts? Fairness? Irrelevant.

  3. Neil,
    If it turned out the shooter had visited the website of the Democratic Leadership Counsel (link below) which had crosshairs over Republican districts, or Daily Kos which had crosshairs over Rep. Giffords, should they apologize? I think the answer is no. I and anybody who is not insane knows that Kos and the Dems were not suggesting that political opponents should be shot. This is typical rhetoric used in politics on both sides — remember any heated rhetoric coming from the left during George W’s presidency? What seems to be one-sided, however, is the left using tragedies like these to try to score political points. If find that disgusting.

    Please scroll down the page to see the crosshairs map:

  4. Dear Jack: I visited the Daily Beast just today and observed Kurtz’s latest column on the Tucson shootings. I must have missed this writing of his that you mentioned. From what I read, he was actually making many of your own points. Also (as I pointed out on my Facebook page) the terms “crosshairs”, “crossfire” and “targetting” are old political terms used by politicians on both sides and the media as well. No reasonable person could ascribe any incitement to violence from it. And, of course, Loughner was hardly reasonable! Everything seems to point to him being a drugged-out, delusional psychopath who wanted to make a big splash for the sake of his own twisted need for recognition. Like Hinckley and the Columbine killers, he went after a target of opportunity to achieve this. I also made the same point you did insofar as this creature probably never accessed Sarah Palin’s website. As I said, he probably seldom got beyond MTV’s! He’s likely far more the product of a rotten popular culture than he is of rotten politics. But, in numerous early cases, rotten politicians (to include some elected officials) immediately tried to play this into political capital. Pima County Sheriff Dupnik and State Senator Lopez did so unabashedly. Even Senator Durbin of Illinois is now calling for restraint, as he now sees that this could backfire on his party.

    • No, Kurtz has been excellent on this story throughout. The other DB story I referred to was by the Daily Beast staff. It looks as if the shooter may be a left-leaning, pot-smoking, America-hating anarchist, which will leave those who have tried to use a tragedy to make villains of the right looking as dastardly and irresponsible and biased as they are.

  5. As much as i agree that it’s not right to point fingers at anyone, we all must agree that, whether it’s Democrats, Republicans, Independents, or the Green party, using imagery that is by nature markedly violent (I’m not sure there is anything that has cross hairs as such, that isn’t a scope for a gun, or something round with alternating concentric colors that isn’t used as a target), to identify what is considered ‘opposition,’ is at the least, slightly distasteful. With the amount of hate in this world, why give someone even the slightest reason to go unhinged?

    • The short answer is that if we confine our dialogue to what is palatable to the unhinged, we are forced to avoid strong arguments, hard truths, and perceptive criticism. Then all public discourse is designed for the ignorant, violent, bigoted, hyper-sensitive and stupid.

    • He’s too late, at least for his party’s allies in the media. They got too far out in front of the facts this time, and their bias is exposed for anyone to see who is willing to see it.

  6. When I heard that this had happened, I expected the media to try to blame Republicans for it. It didn’t take long. When my in-laws (staunch Democrats) weighed in on why we allow rhetoric that might make a mentally unstable person do something rash, I replied “We still let Jodie Foster make movies, don’t we?”.

    • Tell your relatives to read the WSJ editorial this morning, which nails their “logic”.

      The key passage:
      “Ponder the implication of this. A deranged soul shoots a public figure and we are supposed to change our political discourse and rule certain people and opinions out of bounds based on whatever incoherent ramblings Mr. Loughner published on his website?…This line of argument is itself an attack on democratic discourse, and it is amazing that it even needs to be rebutted. Taking such an argument seriously will only encourage more crazy people to believe they can trigger a national soul-searching if they shoot at a political target. We should denounce the murders and the murderer, rather than doing him the honor of suggesting that his violence flows in any explainable fashion from democratic debate.”

      • Jack: I think that article puts it well in perspective. Unfortunately, there’s a long history of ambitious politicians and media people using such tragedies for political gain. You can go back to the Lincoln assassination to see that. To this very day, in fact, people try to malign the South in suggesting that John Wilkes Booth was commissioned by Jefferson Davis to commit the deed. At the time, it proved useful for Senator Sumner and Congressman Stevens in their bid for power by “waving the bloody shirt” and imposing a harsh occupation on the Confederacy. What followed was one of the most sordid and corrupt periods in American history. That’s why these tragedies, when they inevitably occur, should be swiftly dealt with in a professional manner; both by law enforcement and by a responsible press. Otherwise, it can degenerate into a wider (and political) tragedy through mismanagement and deliberate misinformation.

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