Sandy Hook Massacre Ethics Train Wreck Special: Distortions From The Media, Excuses From The Biased, And A Call For Accountability

The Daily Beast, through the words of columnist David Frum. calls the latest disgraceful example of the news media bending the truth to manipulate public opinion regarding gun control, “The Newtown Heckling Controversy,.” This places that website on this train wreck as a Big Lie player. The classic formula for a Big Lie smear, for those of you who have read your Goebbels followers, is to make a blatantly false assertion, make the target of the unfair accusation deny it, and then treat it as a legitimate “controversy.” There is no controversy here, only liars and those who want to benefit from the lie, because there was no “heckling.” The real news story here is that the United States has not only developed an arrogant and ethics-free media establishment that no longer can tell true from false, it is getting more brazen by the day. There must be accountability.

The incident—or, as journalists who have decided that their jobs are not to report the news but to drive public policy in their favored direction would call it, the opportunity—occurred during the testimony before the Connecticut legislature by a parent of one of the Sandy Hook victims. [Note: I believe strongly that such testimony is itself unethical. Sorry. Legislation should be based on research, analysis, balancing, and objective analysis of what is in the best interests of the the public. There is literally nothing these parents contribute to this process, other than confusion, emotion, and dramatic video footage. They are not experts on guns, violence, the culture, the Constitution or the law. Their position is the epitome of bias. Their opinions are accorded undeserved weight by the media and mush-headed lawmakesr because they have suffered a personal , as if suffering confers sudden wisdom and balanced perspective. I know the practice is virtually routine, but it does no good, a lot of harm, and should be opposed by anyone interested in competent government.] Tearful and distraught, the grief-stricken father, Neil Heslin, said,

” I don’t know how many people have young children or children. But just try putting yourself in the place that I’m in or these other parents that are here. Having a child that you lost. It’s not a good feeling; not a good feeling to look at your child laying in a casket or looking at your child with a bullet wound to the forehead. I ask if there’s anybody in this room that can give me one reason or challenge this question: Why anybody in this room needs to have an, one of these assault-style weapons or military weapons or high-capacity clips.”

He waited, and glanced around the room. Then he said, “Not one person can answer that question!” Whereupon one clear voice with a several  others behind it call out,“The Second Amendment shall not be infringed!”

A moderator then says, “Please no comments while Mr. Heslin is speaking. Or we’ll clear the room. Mr. Heslin, please continue.”

This is what happened..this is what obviously happened. Heslin asked the occupants of the room a question posed as a challenge. Pro-gun advocates did not answer, assuming that despite the ambiguous form of the query—Heslin is not a skilled public speaker—it was a rhetorical question. Apparently Heslin didn’t think it was rhetorical, however, because he waited, as if for a response, and then made a statement that concluded unfairly, inaccurately and misleadingly that nobody in the room “can answer the question.” Predictably, a few then did answer his question, only to get slapped down by the moderator.

The headline writer at the Connecticut Post described this scene—falsely—as “Father of Newtown victim heckled at hearing.” That is a lie. Anyone who watches the video and equivocates in calling it a lie is allowing their judgment to be completely liquified by confirmation bias, or trying to facilitate a deception.

The audience listed quietly and respectfully to Heslin until he (unintentionally, I’m sure) pulled a bait and switch, asking a question that should have been rhetorical, then waiting for an answer and claiming inaccurately that the lack of one (because it would be a breach of decorum) proved his point. Such a sequence would always be a catalyst for an audience reaction. I would have been surprised if there was not one. Hypothetical: “I ask if one person in this room can give me convincing evidence that the Holocaust occurred.” <Pause> “See? Not one!” Voice from audience: “The films! The survivors!” Moderator: “Please, no comments while Mr. Holocaust Denier is speaking. Or we’ll clear the room. Please continue.” Heckling? If the audience respondent had said in response to this baiting, “The films, you racist moron!,” then heckling might be be fair description. But in Connecticut there was no disrespect to Heslin intended or displayed by answering the question he himself posed, especially after he remarked on the lack of a response. A fair and competent moderator would have also interjected, “And Mr. Heslin, please refrain from soliciting responses from the audience.”

Yes, that’s right: even a grieving father can make a mistake, and the mistake should be acknowledged. The first component of this press-created lie, however, is the myth that a grieving parent can do no wrong, say no wrong, and has “moral authority” to be incompetent. Heslin was completely responsible for the outburst.

Ah, but the false headline worked its magic. Indeed, it worked its magic on me: when I read one of the dozens of news site headlines ( Gawker, the Daily Beast, Slate, the Huffington Post, MSNBC, The Raw Story) aping the Connecticut post, I believed it. They couldn’t all be just following the lead of a smear-artist in Connecticut, could they? No, of course not; that would mean that the U.S, news media is just a biased gossip grapevine.  I thought, ” What is the matter with these people? They are despicable!” Mission accomplished! The main-steam media push to frame gun-control advocates as white-hatted good guys and opponents of their proposals as moustache-twirling villains had worked! Everywhere, media outlets and reporters expressed outrage at the “heckling” of this good and shattered man. On Twitter, Piers Morgan called the incident “Sickening;” David Frum called the imaginary hecklers “Horrible human beings.” The hashtag #awful people was created for the hecklers, and by extension for anyone who thinks the anti-gun advocates have lost their collective minds. Having been told that it was heckling, and sooooo wanting it to be heckling, many of these supposed journalists even watched the video and agreed that it was heckling, though there was no heckling whatsoever.

Someone at MSNBC, however, got a little nervous about the fact that Heslin…well, I’m sure he didn’t mean it, but it does sound like he asks for someone to answer his question. So, in the finest tradition of the late Andrew Breitbart and James O’Keefe, who that network marked as devil’s spawn for selective and misleading video editing, MSNBC posted a version of the exchange that began in the middle of Heslin’s sentence, with “…why anybody in this room needs to have an, one of these assault-style weapons or military weapons or high-capacity clips.” That’s right: it left out “I ask if there’s anybody in this room that can give me one reason or challenge this question:”!  Pretty cagey, MSNBC! Also, in the words of Piers Morgan, “Sickening.” (UPI also posted a deceptively edited version) Post Media reporter Eric Wemple, hardly a Fox type himself, blogged, “Those 18 words of context are crucial to the alleged heckling. They show that Heslin made a pointed attempt to rope in members of the Hartford crowd. His was apparently not an idle or rhetorical question.” If you want to disagree with that interpretation of Heslin’s words and actions, fine (you are dead wrong, though). You cannot deny, however, that reasonable, non-awful, non-heckler condoning people could interpret his words that way, here (me), there (Wemple) and in the hearing room.

What is truly sickening, and infuriating, and frightening, is that so many of the Left’s integrity-free warriors refuse, even now, to admit that there was no heckling, that no “#awful people” harassed a stricken father, and that this non-incident really wasn’t an indictment of the character of anyone who dares to believe that the post-Sandy Hook anti-gun hysteria is foolish and misguided.

Here, for example, is David From of the afore-mentioned Daily Beast, spinning himself back into the lie:

“So, in retrospect, I’ll concede this: the CTPost’ s use of the word “heckling” was misjudged, and it was not the right word for me to have repeated. I didn’t see and wasn’t influenced by the MSNBC video, but I’ll agree: it was edited too tightly and in a way that made treatment of Neil Heslin look worse than it was. Yet it remains most fundamentally true: people in that room interpreted their gun advocacy as license to shout at a grieving father. Whether you call it “heckling” or something else, it’s just wrong. And the impulse to parse, excuse, condone that we saw in blogs and on Twitter afterward was very nearly equally wrong: a substitution of ideology for basic human sympathy. When you write in the rapid media of the digital age, it’s inevitable that you will make mistakes. “Heckling” was not the exact word to describe what happened in this case, and I made a mistake in repeating it. However, that mistake is not the only – or most significant one – to occur in the public debate over this incident in Hartford. There were gun advocates in that room who waited for their turn to be heard and who refrained from confronting a grieving man. A few did otherwise. They did wrong, and whether you call that wrong “heckling” or something else does not alter its wrongness.”

My first question to all is this: how can anyone who writes such dishonest, ratioanlization-polluted swill have a paying position as a pundit anywhere? My second question, to Frum, is, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

1. OK, Mr. Frum, if “heckling” was the wrong (more correctly misleading and dishonest) word, and it was, what was the right one? You never say, because the right word wouldn’t be pejorative or properly, for your purposes, damning. They were answering a question after being challenged to do so. How about “responding”? But then, “Father of Newtown victim responded to at hearing” wouldn’t provoke the same kind of outrage, and even Piers Morgan would have a hard time calling it “Sickening.” I get it.

2. The MSNBC video was “edited too tightly”?  Is that what you’d call it? Is that what you called Breitbart’s editing of the Shirley Sherrod video too, when he made Sherrod sound like a racist although she was making a pointedly non-racist argument? Was NBC editing George Zimmerman’s 911 tape “too tightly” when it omitted the question from the operator that caused him to opine that Trayvon Martin looked black? Those tapes weren’t edited “too tightly,” they were edited deceptively, dishonestly and unethically, and so was MSNBC’s. Your use of a covering euphemism makes you, Mr. Frum, an accessory after the fact, as well as an unethical journalist.

3. That “people in that room interpreted their gun advocacy as license to shout at a grieving father” is notfundamentally true,” you spinning, biased, disgraceful hack. Heslin’s question and challengehe used that word—to everyone assembled to answer the question he posed, his subsequent pause, as if for an answer, and his misleading conclusion that “Not one person can answer that question” was what was interpreted as license, and reasonably so.

4. This was not “just as wrong as heckling.” It was not wrong at all.

5. “And the impulse to parse, excuse, condone that we saw in blogs and on Twitter afterward was very nearly equally wrong: a substitution of ideology for basic human sympathy.” I’ll give you the #awful human being label being for this despicable statement. The gun advocates were called “hecklers” and they were not hecklers. They were called every disparaging name imaginable, and they had done nothing wrong other than fall into a rhetorical trap—Answer me this!… I’ll wait for an answer!See, nobody can answer!… How dare you interrupt me? Pointing out this fact is not “to parse, excuse, condone,” but rather to insist on fair reporting and fairness. It is not in any way “a substitution of ideology for basic human sympathy.” Heslin has no right to be accorded any more deference or respect than any other witness, and to assert otherwise is to give him license to misbehave. Sympathy does not excuse him if he lies or makes irresponsible statements, and it does not mean that audience members are bound to accept a misleading, if unintentional, effort to put words in their mouths.

6. “When you write in the rapid media of the digital age, it’s inevitable that you will make mistakes,” is true, Mr. Frum, but it is not applicable here. You cannot use this to excuse the fact that you and all the other media outlets repeated the newspaper’s lie when the video was available, and clearly showed, if you were capable of an ounce of objectivity, that there was no heckling.

7. “However, that mistake is not the only – or most significant one – to occur in the public debate over this incident in Hartford.” DINGDINGDINGDINGDING! Congratulations, David Frum! You have revealed the watermark of the rationalizing ethics miscreant you are by resorting to the most horrible of all rationalizations, “It’s not the worst thing!” Take a bow!

8. “There were gun advocates in that room who waited for their turn to be heard and who refrained from confronting a grieving man. A few did otherwise.” Very impressive! You have used the rare but ridiculous Reverse Golden Rationalization, which is even more invalid than the original, “Everybody does it, so that makes it right!” Your theory: everybody didn’t do it, so that makes it wrong. Thus, you presumably believe that if the entire chamber had decided to shout out answers to Heslin’s challenge, that would have validated the handful who did, but absent this, they must have been doing that awful thing that isn’t heckling but that you can’t seem to come up with a word for.

What a terrible, dishonest, miserably argued post.

Over at MSNBC last night, Lawrence O’Donnell tried a different, more sinister tactic, redefining the word “heckling”:

 “Heckling’s when you say something stupid from the audience. And when a speaker rhetorically or directly asks an audience why you need 30-round magazines and assault weapons, and you yell a response which is basically ‘I think the Second Amendment says I can have them,’ you have not answered the question about why you need them.”

Ah. So in the same scenario, if the responders had given an answer O’Donnell approved of in the same tone, the same way, it wouldn’t have been “heckling.” O’Donnell has essentially provided a self-diagnosis of confirmation bias: if he agrees with the responders, their conduct is acceptable; if he doesn’t, they are #awful people.

Wemple notes, “Clever thing that O’Donnell has done here — redefine the term “heckling” to apply narrowly to what happened in that hearing room.” Not clever. Deceptive. Misleading. Dishonest. Unfair.

Such shameless and increasingly habitual journalistic malpractice poses a danger to democracy, as I am getting almost as sick of writing as you must be of reading it. The objections to it should be bi-partisan and across the political spectrum, but are not. They have to be. I challenge journalism ethics organizations like the Poynter Institute to start doing something other than navel-gazing, and to do something pro-active to force journalists to meet ethical standards.

There should be tangible consequences for headlining false accounts of events, deceptively editing video, and repeating lies because a journalist was too lazy or too excited by the implications of a report to make sure it’s true. Poynter, the Columbia School of Journalism or another organization that can be trusted to be objective needs develop a panel to publicly brand news organizations with black marks for outrageously unethical practices in reporting, and keep a running tab on each organization. When any reader can check a reputable source and discover that the New York Times in a given month has 17 black marks, the Washington Post 12, USA Today 10, CBS 28, CNN 47, ABC 36, NPR 14 (I heard one this morning!), NBC 76, Fox News 289 and MSNBC 6,769 (I’m just estimating here),  I think the public might begin to get a sense of the problem, start seeking out alternative and more reliable sources of information, and the news organizations will have some motivation to start being professional again, or for the first time.


Sources: MSNBC, Twitchy, Connecticut Post, The News, Washington Post

13 thoughts on “Sandy Hook Massacre Ethics Train Wreck Special: Distortions From The Media, Excuses From The Biased, And A Call For Accountability

  1. I couldn’t agree more with your assertion that greater accountability is needed and, in my opinion, most, if not all, news sources prioritize ratings (and thus sensationalism) over accuracy. Why are there NOT ethical principles to which these organizations and their employees must adhere? In other professions where the public is open to risk of harm, professionals have licensing boards that monitor them by receiving & investigating complaints, then doling out appropriate consequences where warranted. Surely the phenomenon of rampant misinformation, biased reporting, and all-out lies we hear/read daily is causing enough harm to merit such a process.

    Just curious, what are your sources for the tally of black marks against the various news organizations you list, and 2) what ARE the “more credible sources of information” to which you refer those of use who wish to hold them accountable? Even a natural skeptic with above-average critical thinking skills such as I am hard-pressed to identify them.

    • The black marks were entirely imaginary and satirical, reflecting my rough relative respect for the sources involved regarding their trustworthiness. Mostly it was designed to show that MSNBC at this point makes Fox News look like the uber-trustworthy news source Edward R. Murrow believed the CBS News of old was, although it really wasn’t.

    • Why are there NOT ethical principles to which these organizations and their employees must adhere?

      Their industry indeed does claim to have ethical principles. Humorous indeed. I don’t doubt that they clearly adhere to a set of principles they do consider ethical.

      In other professions where the public is open to risk of harm, professionals have licensing boards that monitor them

      Wouldn’t these boards be composed of the high ranking members of the industry whose ethicality is in clear doubt?

  2. O’Donnell’s remark really irritates me, since apparently any political argument that cannot be summed up in a five-second slogan is invalid.

  3. Ever since Watergate, every reporter aspires to be Woodard and Bernstein and hence cannot conceive of, much less write, an impartial article.

  4. I saw the entire, painfully long deposition by Mr. Heslin, and while I have the utmost empathy for him and his need to vent his anguish over the loss of his child, especially in a most heinous and violent way, there was indeed a challenge made by him to the audience to reply. My only critique was that the replies to Mr. Heslin’s challenge were those of the most predictable. In my view, neither his testimony, or the responses to his question furthered the gun debate one iota.
    However, I would imagine that advertisers were having a field day.

    • No, if anything such testimony muddles the debate, just as Cindy Sheehan was nothing but an impediment to coherent discussion about Iraq. The responses to Heslin’s challenge were predictable, but to be fair, they were spontaneous—the responders weren’t planning on saying anything. And it was, O’Donnell notwithstanding, a legitimate absolutist response: “Who cares about what you think we “need” or what the government thinks? 2nd Amendment!” In a debate over pornography, if he had said,” I challenge anyone to explain why we need porn,” I’d consider a recitation of the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law …abridging the freedom of speech”) a legitimate answer.

  5. My thought is, what are the “ethics” of having a “hearing” like this *in the first place*? Was this guy the first person to ever lose someone close to him? If not, what gives HIM the right to dictate national policy? By what mechanism does HE get such a huge audience? If I use an AR15 to SAVE my life and my 8 hypothetical kids, should I be granted a NATIONAL AUDIENCE to push my agenda on whether or not that device should remain legal? How is MY say any greater than anyone else’s? Give me ONE REASON why I, or anyone else, should not be able to own such a device. (I’m waiting).

  6. Unfortunately, they have been grieving parents who have tried to block or eliminate too many things over the last couple of generations (games, music, tv shows, etc in their desperate belief there are simple answers and to assign blame. These crusades, some of them very silly to more impartial observers, should then forbid dating or team sports too because there are some deaths. Grieving parents and their supporters should not be allowed to use their grief to become demagogues.

    Some journalism does involve a call to action, and that is valid. But with the ability to rabble rouse also comes the responsibility to do it right. Bullying those who answered an open question is not a right.

    While I don’t think people outside the military need assault rifles, the sensationalism and almost lynching attitude of the gun-control advocates is even more disturbing. This is a dangerous fad, distracting from many other important issues. To the Roman ‘bread and circuses’ we can now add scapegoats to distract and galvanize the mob.

  7. Just a quick note to say that for once, I agree – the use of ‘heckling” to describe what happened is indefensible, and whoever edited that footage for MSNBC should be fired.

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