Fair point, or misdirected outrage? In the wake of the assassination of Deputy Darren Goforth (and the live-televised murders of Alison Parker and Adam Ward), Morning Joe hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski asked Amy Holmes where this open-season mentality started. Scarborough laid the blame on cable news, with its incendiary and often misinformed coverage of shootings in Ferguson and other similar flashpoints (via Newsbusters):
JOE SCARBOROUGH: And my argument, must have been a year ago is, if you go around and the countervailing attitude on cable news shows 24 hours a day are that there are white cops driving around black neighborhoods looking to shoot teenagers with their hands up in the air while they’re surrendering, then you are going to start a war on cops, that you are spreading a lie that is going to have serious fallout . . . The focus on cops and sort of this 24/7 rush to just basically paint all cops with the same brush has led to this sort of anger. And yeah, I do blame it on cable news. I do blame it on the churning of the past year. Nonstop churning. That leads to people wearing uniforms being a lot less safe today than they were before Ferguson . . .
I was really shocked last week to see that in the Roanoke shooting, they were actually glorifying in a perverse way the shooter. This is what the shooter’s tweet said. This is — this is where his car was. This is —
MIKA BRZEZINSKI: His Facebook.
JOE: Tht this was his Facebook. No. No. That’s exactly what this guy wanted.
AMY HOLMES: There is research actually to back that up. That the shooters are looking to make headlines. Are looking to become famous and are competing with previous mass shooters to —
JOE: So the cable news network that did that, and actually there were a couple that did that, they are promoting the next Roanoke-style shooting. And you can talk to experts and they will tell you that. Why this network felt the need, they were so desperate for a few rating points which really didn’t come around anyway, but were so desperate for a few ratings points that they actually gave the murderer what he wanted —
MIKA: Right, no.
JOE: — is absolutely sick.
It’s an interesting criticism, given that much of that misinformation came from other MSNBC shows, which Joe explicitly acknowledges (“Why this network felt the need, they were so desperate for a few rating points …”). The “hands up, don’t shoot” meme got plenty of support on MSNBC, only to mostly disappear when the autopsy and grand jury probe into the Michael Brown debunked that claim — which originated with Brown’s friend and alleged accomplice in an earlier strong-arm robbery. But it wasn’t just MSNBC either, and not just cable news. The broadcast news agencies, print media, and social media rushed to cover the shootings with poorly sourced information, and perpetuated myths and obscured ambiguities and nuances in favor of the Need A Conversation Narrative. On Ferguson especially, which should be roundly debunked as a Need A Conversation Narrative centerpiece, these media outlets seem less interested in correcting records than they do of arguing that it still Speaks To A Larger Truth.
Did that stoke anger and rage? Certainly. Does that make them responsible for shootings? That’s a more difficult question, especially for conservatives who argue for personal and individual responsibility rather than societal blame for criminal behavior. The specific responsibility for these shootings does not lie with the media any more than it lies with the supposed “gun culture” in the US. The specific responsibility lies with the perpetrators, even if the media has validated some of the extremism of the anti-cop groundswell over the last couple of years. It’s perfectly appropriate to slam the media for its irresponsibility and the resulting misinformation that has fueled that anger, but another entirely to say that the media is “promoting the next Roanoke shooting.”
Besides, it could be dangerous to refuse to criticize police, too. They have a difficult job, usually thankless, and almost all of them perform it with honor and integrity. When they don’t, though, we can’t have the media shying away from covering it and legitimate criticism of abuse and corruption. Otherwise, it’s a power that would be left unchecked, and that is arguably as dangerous for society. If every criticism gets shouted down or buried because it might make people angry, we’re indulging in a form of political correctness that could have very serious consequences for liberty.
Still, that applies to media, too. Scarborough and Brzezinski are right that the media has acted irresponsibly and recklessly over the last few months especially in reporting on these incidents, especially on waiting for the facts to be established before reporting rumor and innuendo. If nothing else, that leaves people ill-informed in life-and-death matters. For that, some public shaming — especially of one’s own network — is long overdue. Media outlets need to get out of the Need A Conversation business, and stick to reporting.