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The Giffords Tragedy: Is the Media Partly at Fault?

POSTED:
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords speaks on election night at Democratic Election Headquarters at the Tucson Marriott University Park ballroom November 2, 2010 in Tucson, Arizona.
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords speaks on election night at Democratic Election Headquarters at the Tucson Marriott University Park ballroom November 2, 2010 in Tucson, Arizona.
Tom Willett/Getty

Greetings, folks. Have a bit of a shorter mailbag this morning because of multiple deadlines -- also a bit distracted by the Giffords business.

About that story... Watching the coverage yesterday I was genuinely revolted by the reflexive ass-covering efforts by virtually everyone involved in either the politics or political media businesses. I turned on Fox just out of curiosity last night, and saw one pundit after another point out that Jared Loughner was probably a schizophrenic, a statistical aberration, and that no wider conclusions can or should be drawn by the actions of one lone nutcase. We can already see that the "Jared Loughner acted alone" defense is going to be widely employed.

But I don't think that explanation is really going to fly. Understanding that we don't know enough yet to completely explain what happened, and that there were severe and mistaken overreactions after events like Oklahoma City, the early evidence suggests that there's a real media-culpability story here, that this person (and others who've made threats or committed politically-motivated acts of violence in recent years, especially this year) was driven in part by heated rhetoric.

Which makes sense. If we're being honest with ourselves, we in the media understand that our job descriptions do not entirely overlap with the requirements of good citizenship. If you're in a marriage, or are a parent or living with parents, or have brothers or sisters or close friends, when you argue over a difficult issue, you don't just take out all the weaponry in your arsenal and blast away. In the interests of preserving the relationship, and because you respect and love the other person as a human being, you argue as politely and respectfully as possible. And your goal in arguing is always to fix the actual problem -- there's no other, ulterior motive.

That's just not the case in either journalism (and I should know-- more on that momentarily) or politics. In politics, you don't need to treat everyone with decency and humanity, just 51% of the crowd. Actually, given that half or less than half of all people don't vote, the percentage of people who require basic decency and indulgence is probably even lower than that, maybe 20-25% of the population. There's plenty of power and money to be won by skillfully stimulating public anger against some or all of the rest, and there are few rewards for restraint. 

In the media, the situation is even worse. You can make vast fortunes riling up mobs. And because it's a fiercely competitive market, there's an obvious and immediate benefit to using superheated rhetoric -- it's more entertaining, gains more attention, and definitely gets more viewers and listeners and, er, readers.

And not only is there no incentive for restraint, there's actually a huge disincentive for restraint, because for many of us in the punditry world, our livelihoods depend upon cultivating audiences who come to expect a certain emotional payoff for tuning in. If you've trained them to expect to have their prejudices validated and their sense of Superiority Over the Other stroked every time they turn on your program, they're not going to like it when the show comes on and the editorial storyline is completely opposite. For the same reason audiences checked out when Mork married Mindy, or when a straightforward detective show like House became a sappy relationship drama, political audiences who get off on anger will start turning the channel when their needs aren't met.

So when you the pundit start admitting to being wrong, and forgiving your enemies, and questioning yourself, and making your message that even people with views different from your own are thinking, feeling human beings who deserve your respect -- well, none of those things tend to help you keep your market share. What does win market share is bashing the living fuck out of people your audiences love to hate (and most of the time, it's you who've trained them to hate those people). That's just a fact, and anyone in this business who's honest with himself knows that. That's why Rush Limbaugh can't come on the air today and start telling his Dittoheads that his whole career isn't serious at all but rather a schtick, a thing he does to make money, and that while he maybe does believe some of the things he says, most of the venom is a wholly fictional additive, that the liberals he spends all day implying to you are not really human and don't love their country are citizens just like you, who in reality want all the same things for themselves and their children that you do. He can't do that, because it would be professional suicide for him to say so.

For my part, as a member of the political media, and a vitriol-spewing one at that, the Tucson shooting immediately made me ask myself the question: do I personally do anything to add to this obvious problem of a hypercharged, rhetorically overheated political atmosphere? And the unfortunate answer I came up with was, maybe. I've always told myself that what I do is different from what someone like Rush does, because I don't target classes of people and try not to exempt anyone (even myself) from criticism, or favor either party.

I've also counted on the belief that anyone who's willing to devote the mental energy to even follow whatever wild rhetoric I'm using is probably also smart enough to tell the difference between reality and hyperbole. I also hope that anyone reading my articles will get the underlying message that I'm pretty sure -- I hope I'm sure, anyway -- I'm conveying at all times, i.e. that violence is irresponsible, that we should use our brains instead of baseball bats to solve problems, etc.

But while I tell myself all these things, I also know that I would never talk to my wife or my mother the way I talk to Lloyd Blankfein. Is it ever right to just wind up and let someone have it with all you've got? That's a question that I think has to be asked. It's certainly possible that we've all become too used to unrestrained rhetoric as a form of entertainment, and people like me live right in the middle of the guilt parabola there. Most all of us are grownups and can handle extreme argument, but clearly some people are not, and obviously I'm not just talking about Jared Loughner.

To see that, all you have to do is attend almost any family gathering, where once-loving relationships have been completely lost because of the overheated right-left culture war. If real family relationships are being lost to this kind of political debate, if someone on TV can reach into your living room and break up your family without knowing anything about you or even knowing that you exist, that tells us that this mechanized mass-media rhetoric has been almost unimaginably successful at dehumanizing whole classes of people.

Anyway, I think the reason that many people are going to be criticizing right-wing rhetoric in particular in the wake of the Giffords incident is not for what people like Rush and Sarah Palin say openly, but precisely because their underlying message is suspect. I think it's pretty clear that in many cases, and especially with people like Beck, their hottest rhetoric is delivered with a conspiratorial wink, as in, "I'd be more explicit about the threat your political enemies pose, but I can't. But you know what I'm trying to say about them, and about what has to be done." Beck in particular gets his market share by going further in that direction than his competitors.

But identifying and proving the truth about those unspoken messages is difficult to impossible, and it's going to be denied in the usual quarters, which shouldn't surprise anyone. Moreover, even asserting that that hidden agenda exists will inevitably elicit a paranoid response that might exacerbate the situation. So I'm not sure what needs to be done. A good start, though, might be for all of us in the media business to admit that this might be on us, that the built-in professional incentives in our field are often wrong for society, and that we should at least start talking about what we need to do to change that.

But enough about that -- how about those Seahawks? And could the Colts choke any more? On to the mailbag.

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Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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