The sudden rise of violent rhetoric

Furious Woman

Last week our powerful and very effective Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said, of the health care legislation the House was considering, that "we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it." Well, we've passed that bill and some of us wish the media would have concerned itself with what was in the bill a bit more before the vote, much less after. But even before the House voted in support of the bill, most stories dealt with politics. And now that has descended into some pretty partisan media coverage. The media obsession of the moment is that health care legislation's opponents are a violent and uncontrolled mob, the likes of which we've never seen (or something). Like all of you, I hope, I really abhor violent rhetoric. One of the strongest memories I have from the 2004 March for Women's Lives came from the dozens of signs I read that said President George W. Bush should have been aborted or should be aborted. The anti-war rallies I attended during that era featured calls for the assassination of the president. Such rhetoric really harms civil discourse. And after your 100th rally, you tend to appreciate puns, humor and general creativity in signs rather than the ones showing Bush dripping with blood or with a bullet to his forehead. By contrast, I still chuckle when thinking of the Hillary Clinton/PUMA rallies in Denver.

Anyway, in the wake of the health care vote, the mainstream media has apparently decided that violent rhetoric is suddenly a problem. There are so many media outlets leading with these stories, I don't even know where to begin. But let's just note one small example of how the media seems to be gaming this issue in a manner that tars folks who are one side of this new culture war. And it happens to deal with a topic we cover here at GetReligion a lot: abortion.

Okay, so yesterday CBS News had as its top story something headlined Bart Stupak Received Threatening Messages for Health Care Vote And being that Stupak went from being a pro-life champion to, well, something else, that narrative is not surprising. The story talks about all of these hateful messages he's received. I buy it. I go to church with a woman who works for one of the leaders of the opposition effort and she said (before the vote) that the messages they were getting from advocates of health care reform were hateful, threatening and very difficult to listen to. But check out how CBS carefully delineates whether the Stupak grief began before his vote (when pro-lifers still liked him) or after (when, well, they felt betrayed):

In the wake of his vote in favor of health care reform legislation, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), a strong opponent of abortion rights, has been on the receiving end of a string of extremely hostile and threatening messages, including death threats.

In the wake -- as in, after the vote. So let's go to the supporting statement from Stupak:

Stupak said last week his life had become a "living hell" because of the onslaught of threatening messages he has received. Numerous other congressmen who backed the bill also report receiving threatening messages and seeing violent actions from citizens.

The only problem is that Stupak changed his vote on Sunday, not last week. Last week he was still the bane of health care reform supporters -- not tea partiers. Pro-lifers and tea partiers would not have been making his life a living hell because he was one of their only hopes. And while that link included in his quote above takes you to a CBS story from last week, I'll only note that that the previous story was not placed on the front page. It didn't lead -- or even appear? -- in broadcasts. Apparently the violent rhetoric didn't matter then.

There have been many reasons why civility has seen better days. This bill passed over bipartisan opposition and I know that doesn't exactly make folks want to buy candy for their Congressmen. I know mainstream reporters tend to be liberal -- and the ones I know who cover Congress certainly cheered the passage of the bill -- but they have to be able to separate their own feelings and partisanship from their coverage of the fallout.

It's wrong to engage in violent rhetoric. It's also wrong to unfairly characterize the larger political climate in order to smear a larger group of people.

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