Fight on impact of Giffords' shooting becomes partisan battle over media freedoms
Let's admit one thing up front: The facts known so far seems to indicate that Jared Lee Loughner was a deeply troubled individual whose mental instability may have led him to shoot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 other people on Saturday.
But even acknowledging that reality, the Giffords shooting plopped an ugly question on the table for certain increasingly partisan and aggressive media outlets.
Does such bitter fighting in media create a climate that makes crossing the line into physical harm easier?
Liberals suspect the overheated rhetoric of conservatives for spurring violence; conservatives see a political attack coming and resist with all their might. As usual, one need look no further than cable TV news for the best examples of this partisan tug-of-war; liberal MSNBC pundit Keith Olbermann Saturday criticized conservative stalwarts such as Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck the Tea Party and Bill O'Reilly (also apologizing for his own missteps), while Fox News anchors spent lots of time shrugging off such notions as a partisan attack on conservatives.
Beck defenders cited the host's long history of warning his followers against violent action, without noting that he often contradicts himself -- joking about strangling liberal filmmaker Michael Moore or poisoning Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi while ratcheting up his audience's fears that President Obama is creating a private army based on a speech about the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps.
And of course, there are liberal pundits who have crossed a line as well, including MSNBC anchor and radio host Ed Schultz, who once fumed about ripping out former vice president Dick Cheney's heart and kicking it around like a political football.
But it seems disingenuous to compare fleeting references using violent metaphors -- President Obama calling political fights "hand-to-hand combat" for example -- with pundits and politicians who repeatedly excite their audiences with rhetoric that references gun imagery or urges "second amendment remedies" to political problems.
That, for example, may be why Palin has received so much scrutiny for the graphic she once featured on her website showing Giffords' district in crosshairs. The former Alaska governor has rarely been shy about using hunting and shooting metaphors in her speeches to supporters, urging fans "don't retreat, reload" after health care legislation was passed last March. That comment drew criticism then from Democrats who were already getting death threats from those hysterically opposed to President Obama's signature bill.
As I have often written before, what counts most in evaluating media isn't a fleeting mistake or excess, but steady deliberate actions made repeatedly to achieve a certain effect.
And for many years, the conservative playbook has included feeding fantasies of the patriotism inherent in resisting an oppressive government with violence, if necessary. Perhaps now, it long last, it is time for leading conservative media and political figures to retire that language once and for all.
Indeed, even the constant belief that the President will somehow take people's guns away from them -- used to ratchet up gun sales and support for conservative politicians despite having little basis in fact -- can be traced to a similar tactic. Or the way a Libertarian radio talk show host staged an interview with a black man carrying an assault rifle at a speech by Obama, advocating for "open carry laws" at an event where a dozen other demonstrators carried unconcealed weapons.
Does it take an Einstein to realize these are dangerous combinations? Or that the hysterical rhetoric used to demonize political opponents and urge aggressive action might have consequences? Anyone can use such language destructively, but there are some politicians and pundits who have made it a habit, and that should be confronted, regardless of ideology.
It reminds me of a time in this country when people refused to believe that smoking causes cancer. Despite the logic of the notion that burning a blend of plant leaves as sucking the fumes into your lungs might not be the healthiest pastime.
The sad truth is that violence-laced rhetoric often gets results. And it probably won't decrease substantially until some violent act is directly connected to the tactic in a way different than Loughner's actions.
But we will likely have a pause in the wake of the Giffords shooting, allowing us all to decide just what kind of media environment we truly want to live in.
Perhaps we could, just once, decide that smoking causes cancer before the terminal cases start rolling in.