I’m not a media critic and never will be, but this has not been a shining 48 hours for my profession. Following the shooting that left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., gravely wounded and six bystanders murdered at a Tucson shopping center, the media have spent as much time trying to assign political blame for the cause of the shooting as they have trying to unearth facts. As it turns out, the murderer is a mentally unstable individual, with no coherent political ideology.
For all the blame placed on politicians for their aggressive political rhetoric, the media have been just as guilty in promoting crude political discourse and conflict. I’m not just talking about the Glenn Becks and Keith Olbermanns of the world, but news coverage that elevates conflict over substance and encourages contentious arguments over thoughtful discussion.
And in the aftermath of the Tucson shooting, the media’s worst tendencies were on display, from the onset of the crisis when several outlets inaccurately reported that Giffords had died, to the immediate, unwarranted assumption that the killer was associated with the tea party.
Ironically, even as politicians have been scrutinized for overheated rhetoric, it's the political class that reflected the country's mood best in the aftermath of this weekend's senseless shootings. From President Obama's pitch-perfect speech to the nation, to House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi working together to reassure members and staff, there was little hint of the blame game that fueled much of the media's coverage.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that overheated political vitriol played virtually no role in Jared Lee Loughner’s shooting spree. His political thinking is hardly coherent, and his obsession with Giffords predated the tea party and Sarah Palin’s emergence in national politics. One of his few close friends told Mother Jones that he became fixated on the congresswoman when he asked her a question at a 2007 town hall about "the government having no meaning" and felt she didn’t answer. His killing spree wasn’t motivated by disagreement with her positions on health care or immigration.
Based on the available evidence, Loughner sounds like someone with untreated mental illness, whose grasp of reality grew ever more tenuous with time. He fits the profile of someone whose horrific shooting spree didn't have to be triggered by any provocative political rhetoric in the news.
But even with those facts out there, it didn’t stop numerous media outlets from connecting his beliefs to politics -- and isn’t stopping the continued rush to politicize this tragic event. The fervor to fit such craziness into a political matrix is regrettable, and, sadly, contributes to the overheated political environment that many in the media are condemning in the first place.
Much of the broadcast and print coverage over the weekend was devoted to decrying the state of political discourse, despite its tenuous connection to the shootings. Politico immediately ran several stories putting the shooter and his rampage in a political context, including one quoting a Democratic strategist -- anonymously -- arguing that this was a golden opportunity to “pin this on the tea partiers.” This, just 24 hours after Giffords was gravely wounded. Where’s the outrage?
To be sure, the increasingly strident tone of politicians -- on both sides of the aisle -- is a worthy topic of discussion. But in the aftermath of the shooting, there are much more relevant issues that should have been debated: in particular, how to better identify and treat those afflicted with serious mental illness and how to prevent guns from getting into their hands. I heard very little of that discussed in the aftermath of the shooting.
Violent metaphors are all over our culture, in politics and outside of it, and that won’t be changing anytime soon. The political lexicon is awash in gun metaphors -- from campaign committee lists of top “targets” to political “showdowns” to “battleground districts” to challengers “playing defense,” just to name a few. If this were a crime, the political media would be as guilty as anyone.
(In fact, on the morning of the shooting, the New York Post ran a front-page photo of Peyton Manning with a bull's-eye over him, before the day’s big playoff game. No one blinked an eye, or thought it was a call for New York Jets fans to murder the Indianapolis Colts quarterback.)
The other lesson learned from the coverage of this awful tragedy is that it’s better to be right than first -- a challenge in a journalism culture that increasingly rewards speed over substance. In the rush to break news as the crisis unfolded, several major media outlets inaccurately reported that Giffords had died. Others later inaccurately reported that Giffords was speaking after her surgery on the day of the attack. It raises questions about news organizations' standards for what’s allowed on air or online.
Those standards have been in decline, and go beyond reporting inaccurate information. Far too often, we give serious leeway for sources to anonymously attack their opponents. It makes for sexier stories but further coarsens the discourse in Washington.
Far too often, we rush to report campaign attacks on candidates without verifying their validity and without even getting a response. Campaigns and national party committees know that news outlets are hungry for sensational material, and they exploit that.
By all means, let’s encourage civility in politics; it’s long overdue. But let’s also take steps to ensure that the same rules of engagement apply to a 24-7 media culture that has fed off the conflict culture that it decries.
This article appears in the January 11, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.