Media misses a good opportunity to keep quiet

In my latest column for The Week, I recall the observation made by Jacques Chirac in February 2003 that the eastern European nations “missed a good opportunity to keep quiet.”  The remark drew immediate scorn for its arrogance at the time, but perhaps it applies better to the fact-free free-for-all we’ve seen in the media the last three days in response to the shootings in Tucson.  In the column, I sum up a few of the arguments I’ve made in the pushback to the blame-conservatives strategy unleashed during that time, and argue that this was no accident:

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 appear 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.

I also reject the notion, as I did earlier, that this is a particular moment for reflection on extreme rhetoric — unless it is intended as a reflection on the extreme vitriol vented at the Right in general, Sarah Palin in particular, and participatory democracy through the demonization of the Tea Party.  Not one media outlet has produced any evidence of a connection between the shootings and Palin or grassroots conservatives, not a single piece of evidence, and most of them have ignored the use of the same kind of symbolic analogies I note above from across the political spectrum.  Perhaps there is a teaching moment in that sense:

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.

Be sure to read it all.