Chaos, alternate realities and media narratives

Some of the journalism being produced in the wake of the Tucson tragedy had been terrific. Much, of course, has been abysmal. I'm still trying to wrap my head about just what went wrong and why it continues. To that end, a few thoughts on how the media choose to frame different issues. A few days ago, Abe Greenwald at Commentary posited the following question:

Quick question: If the media really thinks Sarah Palin's political map with crosshairs encourages political violence, why do they keep showing it? Aren't there more potential victims "targeted" on that map?

The media never showed the Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad because they really were scared it would trigger violence (against them). So we know they'll self-censor when they truly believe violence can happen. That they keep reproducing the Palin map suggests they know it doesn't inspire violence after all.

That comparison brings to mind another. When Army doctor Nidal Hasan killed 13 of his fellow soldiers, early stories attempted to explain Hasan's actions as being motivated by mental health problems rather than his extremist religious views. There was even some Journolist action discouraging discussion of the role religion played in the shooting (despite early reports indicating it played a serious role). As the days continued, we saw what happens when journalists do the painstaking research and connecting of dots. It turned out that even Anwar al-Awlaki was involved in the story.

In this Tucson shooting, which almost immediately suggested serious mental health problems, that was not the narrative the media chose. In fact, some outlets are still pushing a narrative that has roughly zero connection with reality.

So why is it that so many in the media rushed to the "mental health" defense in the previous shooting and begrudgingly accepted it -- if they have -- in this case? I have no idea, but I did come across this comment to a fascinating post about some media mistakes:

They simply can not process, on an intuitive level, that he operated in a completely different reality from them. They assume that his world had the same day-to-day storyline that theirs did, with all the same big memes and touchstones defining his social context. The "atmosphere" marked by tea parties and Sarah Palins and Barack Obamas and hot stories churning in the news cycle didn't have to be the atmosphere he lived in. It's not the atmosphere for a LOT of people, but because it is the atmosphere of these pundits and hobbyists, it's what they naturally attribute. It's a classic "fish in water" category error.

To employ a bit of journalism lingo: His day-to-day world didn't have the same nut grafs as theirs. And it's been really telling that they're incapable of grasping that.

Does that help explain why so many messed this story up? If so, does it tell us anything about why their early narrative-setting attempts on the Hasan shooting were also messed up? Does it say anything about general media coverage of religion news?

One of the best early reports about Jared Loughner was in Mother Jones. In it, a friend describes his take on the alleged shooter:

Since hearing of the rampage, Tierney has been trying to figure out why Loughner did what he allegedly did. "More chaos, maybe," he says. "I think the reason he did it was mainly to just promote chaos. He wanted the media to freak out about this whole thing. He wanted exactly what's happening. He wants all of that." Tierney thinks that Loughner's mindset was like the Joker in the most recent Batman movie: "He f***s things up to f**k s**t up, there's no rhyme or reason, he wants to watch the world burn. He probably wanted to take everyone out of their monotonous lives: 'Another Saturday, going to go get groceries'--to take people out of these norms that he thought society had trapped us in."

Earlier in the story, we're told of Loughner's views that words have no meaning. With the media choosing and pushing a narrative with no basis in facts -- that, essentially, certain political elements are to blame for what happened in Tucson -- it almost seems as if they're choosing an alternate reality, too. Over at Slate, Jack Shafer had some provocative thoughts about the mainstreaming of alternate realities. I think his words are also worth considering:

As long as we're using Jared Lee Loughner's tastes in philosophy and literature to probe his psyche--and I'm not saying we shouldn't--let's scrutinized (sic) our own tastes, too. I'm not suggesting a Mailerian equivalence between Loughner and the average man, so stop composing that irate e-mail to me right now. But Loughner's obsession with alternative realities, his idea that the universe is malleable and a function of an individual's will, is mirrored almost everywhere we look in pop culture.

He goes on to discuss everything from "Inception," "Lost" and "Harry Potter" flicks to the life and works of Philip K. Dick. I wonder, too, if this embrace of alternate realities wasn't also on display in the media coverage we were subjected to for much of this week. The normal barriers of relying on facts and evidence before reporting were easily overcome. The world in which some journalists hoped to live (one in which political opponents are blamed for the worst crimes), became the world we lived in.

Speaking of alternate realities, this Jesse Walker piece in Reason discusses the New Age ties of the Zeitgeist Movement (which Loughner was interested in). Sarah Posner at Religion Dispatches reported on some Christian opposition to that movement. It seems the Zeitgeist Movement includes 9/11 conspiracy theories and teaches that Jesus never lived.

Here is a good discussion of media framing problems in The New Republic. And here's a bit more on flat-out errors.

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