In February 2003, French President Jacques Chirac insulted Eastern European governments after they backed the imminent invasion of Iraq by the United States, accusing them of acting irresponsibly and "frivolously" by speaking up. "They missed a good opportunity to keep quiet," Chirac scolded. His comments created a backlash in the European Union and became a new standard of French arrogance. The criticism, however, is a fitting judgment of the media's performance in covering the Tucson shootings, which killed six people and wounded fourteen others, including Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat who had just won re-election to the House in a hard-fought midterm race.
Almost from the moment the story broke, the press attempted to fit it into a narrative about incendiary political rhetoric. Never mind that no evidence arose to connect the shooting to any particular political campaign, movement or organization in the first few hours after the massacre, nor has any come to light in the days since. Like most people behind these types of attacks, the suspect turns out to be a loner with a history of mental illness and scrapes with the law. This one has held a grudge against Giffords since 2007, when she failed to give him a satisfactory response to his questions about how the government uses grammar for mind control. Even after these facts came to light, the media and the commentariat decided that political rhetoric simply had to be the cause of the shooting, whether evidence for that theory existed or not.
To some extent, this is a byproduct of the news cycle in the internet age, as well as the result of human nature. When a disturbing tragedy occurs, people attempt to make sense of the insensible by fitting it into their preferred paradigm. When the people in question are delivering news analysis and commentary by the minute, the temptation to make the shooting of an elected official into an act of political passion can be powerful, especially since delusional madness as an answer is so unsatisfying.
But that element of human nature doesn’t explain it all. For instance, when the news of the Fort Hood shooting in November 2009 broke, CNN repeatedly warned its viewers against jumping to conclusions. Their reporters and guests, including former Gen. Wesley Clark, reporter Jane Velez-Mitchell, analyst Robert Baer, and anchor John Roberts repeated these warnings for two days. The New York Times editorialized the next day to warn readers to wait "until the investigations are complete" before drawing any lessons from the shooting and predicted that "there may never be an explanation."
Fast forward to January 2011, where jumping to conclusions is no longer discouraged, but appears to have become an Olympic sport. The New York Times called it "legitimate" to blame the GOP and its supporters for "the gale of anger that has produced the vast majority of these threats," even though no evidence at all has been produced that the Giffords shooting was provoked by political anger at all. CNN spent its time this weekend not warning viewers from assigning blame without evidence, but instead providing examples of supposedly extreme rhetoric from Sarah Palin, who once used crosshairs as icons on a map showing "targeted" Democratic Congressional districts as she raised funds for GOP challengers. One of those districts, AZ-08, was Giffords'.
What CNN and most of the media failed to mention in this orgy of blame throwing is that Democrats used target symbols on their campaign literature as well. The Democratic Leadership Council and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee used bullseye symbols for exactly the same purpose as Palin’s map, which was to "target" districts held by Republicans. While the media hyperventilated about Palin’s exhortation to followers of "Don’t retreat – reload" from the midterm cycle, almost no one mentioned the politician who told a Philadelphia audience in June 2008 that "If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun." Perhaps that’s because the politician in this case is the current President, Barack Obama, which would ruin the Republicans-are-violent-extremists rhetoric.
The truth is that we often use war analogies in politics and sports, not because we are all seething with violence, but because they are clearly understood – and understood as analogies. Ironically, the use of these war analogies started mainly in the media because they are immediately understandable. The height of irony and hypocrisy in that sense came from Steve Kornacki at Salon, who wrote on Sunday that, despite the utter lack of evidence that the shooting had anything to do with campaign rhetoric, "it still makes sense to encourage political leaders to ditch violent rhetoric." Where did this advice appear? In the "War Room" blog.
This brings us to the fallback notion that even if this shooting wasn't caused by Palin or Tea Party activism directly, it still provides a teaching moment for the dangers of political rhetoric and that we should take advantage of it with some kind of national debate. That is nothing more than an attempt to impute blame where none exists and causality where it clearly hasn't been established, or even suspected. The time to criticize "extreme rhetoric" is when it occurs. We don’t need more political correctness to constrain adults who understand analogies on the off-chance that there might be one or two in a million who don’t. What this moment does teach is that the media scolds have a clear agenda, and that agenda puts a big target on conservative backs — analogy intended — and in pursuit of that agenda, the media will consistently miss opportunities to wisely keep quiet.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How U.S. special forces are preparing for the worst-case scenario in North Korea
- I hate Ayn Rand — but here's why my fellow conservatives love her
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- The 11 worst fast food restaurants in America
- Hey, Paul Ryan's new poverty plan isn't completely terrible!
- The secret to Gabrielle Hamilton's amazing grilled cheese sandwiches
- Deficit scolds are the most crazed ideologues in America
- The weird obsession that's ruining the GOP
- 7 things the world's happiest people do every day
- The disturbing lessons of Arizona's un-American execution
Subscribe to the Week