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From AJR,   December/January 2011  issue

Blaming the Rhetoric   

Web exclusive
The media, the politicians and the bloodbath in Tucson. Posted: Tue, Jan. 11 2011


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

We hold this truth to be self-evident: The political climate in the United States is polarized, nasty, ugly, (add adjective of your choice here) and desperately needs to be cleaned up. There's way too much irresponsible rhetoric in the air, way too many firearms-flavored references, too many bold declarations that sound like veiled calls for armed resistance if the evil government doesn't back off.

And it is also true that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is a Democrat who barely survived a stiff challenge from the Tea Party last November; who infuriated some of her constituents by voting for President Barack Obama's health care measure as well as his stimulus and cap-and-trade proposals; and who received threats and had her office vandalized after her health care vote.

That doesn't mean that these two factors are the reason that Giffords was shot in the head at point blank range on Saturday as she met with constituents at a Tucson shopping center. But if you got that sense from the coverage of the carnage, it would be hard to blame you.

After news of the shooting broke, much of the political reaction and much of the reporting focused on the nation's overwrought political atmosphere. This despite the fact that there was no indication then nor is there any now that the shooter was a partisan stirred to action by crosshairs on political maps or references to "Second Amendment remedies."

There are a number of reasons for this phenomenon. First, it's both human nature and deep-seated journalistic instinct to want to know as soon as possible why something happened, particularly something as odious and disturbing as an attack that killed six people and injured 14 others.

Then there's cable. With a story of this magnitude, the cable news channels go wall-to-wall, 24/7. That's a lot of airtime to fill. And often new developments don't emerge as quickly as news outlets and their audiences would like.

Put those factors together and you're going to get a lot of premature speculation, often unburdened by actual knowledge. Remember the instant analysis that the Oklahoma City bombing seemed like the handiwork of Middle East terrorists?

At the same time, the very existence of the incendiary environment and the specifics of Giffords' political orientation made putting one and one together a very tempting idea. It seemed so logical. It was low-hanging fruit.

And there's no doubt that much of the focus on the rhetoric was thanks to public officials. Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik was quick to point his finger at Arizona as a "mecca of prejudice and bigotry" and to blame the news media for spreading "vitriolic rhetoric." Many other pols weighed in on the sorry state of civic life in America.

Not surprisingly, most of them were Democrats. Republicans were more apt to counter by responding that there was absolutely no indication that the gunman was a card-carrying conservative pushed over the edge by over-the-top exhortations.

In fairness, much of the reporting didn't say flat-out that there was cause and effect between rhetoric and bloodshed. But the prominence of the coverage certainly suggested it.

It's easy to see why this happened. And it no doubt will happen again. But that doesn't mean it's right. In the hectic process of covering huge news, it's hard not to reach for the knee jerk. But that's when discipline and perspective are so crucial. Without them, it's easy to end up with a distorted picture of reality. And that's not good journalism.

Four days after the fact, we really have no idea what made Jared L. Loughner do what he did. What has emerged is a picture of a deeply troubled, paranoid, erratic young man. His political orientation remains elusive. His favorite books ranged from "Mein Kampf" to "The Communist Manifesto" to "Aesop's Fables." Hard to put those in a neat package.

Human behavior is a hard thing to explain. The motives for assassination attempts often are not the obvious ones. John W. Hinckley Jr., after all, shot President Ronald Reagan because he wanted to impress Jodie Foster. Don't think that one would have emerged in the early cable speculation.

Reporting what you know. Being upfront about what you don't. There are worse ways to go.