I want to talk about media coverage of the man who was convicted today of shooting up the Family Research Council. But let's first go back to the horrible story about the murderous rampage that one disturbed individual went on in Arizona. The mainstream media narrative, initially, was that a right wing Tea Party supporter acting under the orders of Sarah Palin had assassinated a sitting member of Congress. Precisely none of that was true or even close to true, but it didn't keep the media from pushing a particular narrative about it for some time. (It wasn't the biggest religion story, per se, but see our posts here, here and here) I also wrote a post about the role that alternate realities played in the shooting and media coverage of same. The shooter was said to engage in alternate realities. But, I argued, the same might be said of the media, feverishly trying to create a world where political opponents could be blamed for the most brutal crimes imaginable even if the facts didn't support that.
For days the media focused on the need for civility, and how this shooting was the result of conservative political rhetoric. Some media outlets suggested that campaign and battle words be avoided when talking about politics. See, a PAC associated with Sarah Palin had put out a map with races to "target" and had identified those "targets" with crosshairs. The Atlantic Wire highlighted some of The Atlantic's writers on the matter in a piece headlined "Did Sarah Palin's Target Map Play Role in Giffords Shooting?"
In the wake of his shocking and senseless attack, a number of commentators are asking, as The Atlantic's James Fallows put it, "whether there is a connection between" such "extreme, implicitly violent political rhetoric and imagery" as that published by Palin and "actual outbursts of violence, whatever the motivations of this killer turn out to be." In other words, did Palin's map cross the line famously described by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as "falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic?"
The Washington Post wrote a story headlined "Palin caught in crosshairs map controversy after Tucson shootings." The story acknowledges that it's written as the "result of a national tragedy in which there is no known connection between anything Palin said or did and the alleged actions of Jared Loughner, who is accused of fatally shooting six and severely wounding Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and 13 others."
More from The Atlantic (which also included folks who didn't blame Palin):
Palin at Fault
- What Palin Did Wrong The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan clarifies, "No one is saying Sarah Palin should be viewed as an accomplice to murder. Many are merely saying that her recklessly violent and inflammatory rhetoric has poisoned the discourse and has long run the risk of empowering the deranged. We are saying it's about time someone took responsibility for this kind of rhetorical extremism, because it can and has led to violence and murder." He points out that Giffords herself had expressed concern about Palin's map.
- 'Imagery of Armed Revolution' The New York Times' Matt Bai writes, "it's hard not to think [Loughner] was at least partly influenced by a debate that often seems to conflate philosophical disagreement with some kind of political Armageddon." Bai explains, "The problem would seem to rest with the political leaders who pander to the margins of the margins, employing whatever words seem likely to win them contributions or TV time, with little regard for the consequences." He says Palin and other used "imagery of armed revolution. Popular spokespeople like Ms. Palin routinely drop words like 'tyranny' and 'socialism' when describing the president and his allies, as if blind to the idea that Americans legitimately faced with either enemy would almost certainly take up arms. "
- The Psychology of Incited Violence At Psychology Today, neurologist David Weisman writes, "The question is not 'did Sarah Palin's violent rhetoric cause this shooting?' The question is 'does inciting violence factor in a multi-factorial process?'" Weisman explores the decision-making process and role of unconscious biases, concluding, "Although there is little clear evidence in this case, the data highlights the importance of butterfly events on human actions. Jared Loughner is clearly deranged. He drank deeply from internal insanity and external stimuli. His actions did not take place in a vacuum."
So yesterday, Floyd Lee Corkins II pleaded guilty to three criminal counts involving his August 2012 attack on the Washington D.C. headquarters of the Family Research Council. He told the FBI that he picked his target from a "hate map" (!) on the web site of the Southern Poverty Law Center. That's the liberal group that is frequently used as a legitimate source in news reports (I sort of thought they jumped the shark when they identified "pick-up artists" as hate groups but this Reason archive might be worth a read for developing a tad of skepticism of their treatment by the media).
OK, so we have a real criminal who cites a real "hate map" as a key factor in his violence. How do you suppose the media treated that story?
Well, when I first read the Washington Post story on his plea, it didn't even mention the group. It also had some typos so I figured that it was a very early story and decided to hold for a day. The story has since been updated, mostly about ... gun control, to include this curious phrase:
A detail sure to reignite the culture wars that erupted around the shooting is the fact that Corkins told FBI agents that he identified the Family Research Council as anti-gay on the Web site of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The day after the shooting, Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, suggested that the law center’s labeling of the organization as a hate group had given Corkins a “license to perpetrate this act of violence.” On Wednesday, Perkins said the revelation had validated his earlier comments.
Emphasis mine. Excuse me? What is that supposed to mean? I mean, you have an actual shooting in the culture war -- an actual shooting -- and you dismiss this aspect of the story as a "detail" that is "sure to reignite the culture wars"? The gall. The chutzpah. The .... hypocrisy of our media. The story doesn't mention, by the way, that the shooter had a list with other groups whose names he got from the Southern Poverty Law Center.
This ABC story only mentions SPLC at the end of the story in order to mention that the group targeted by the shooter blamed them, in part, for the shooting. This NBC story didn't get around to mentioning the SPLC. The Associated Press mentioned it, very mildly, at the end of the story.
Really, only CNN handled this story in a way that wasn't completely weird:
Washington (CNN) -- After years of thinking it over, Floyd Corkins finally had a plan.
He'd bought a gun and learned how to use it. He'd loaded three magazines. And he had stopped by Chick-fil-A to pick up 15 sandwiches, which he planned to smear in the dying faces of staffers he expected to kill at the Family Research Council in Washington.
It would be a statement, he said, "against the people who work in that building," according to documents filed in U.S. District Court, where Corkins pleaded guilty on Wednesday to three charges related to the August shooting at the conservative policy group.
Corkins told Judge Richard Roberts that he hoped to intimidate gay rights opponents....
Corkins, 28, pleaded guilty to committing an act of terrorism while armed, interstate transportation of a firearm and ammunition, and assault with intent to kill while armed.
Now, if you're a reporter, you might try calling up the SPLC and asking them to review their hate map and their stories blaming their political opponents' rhetoric for violence. As Mary Katherine Ham writes:
Funny thing, though: The SPLC itself was verrrrry quick to try to tie Jared Loughner to the “far right”, and kept at it long enough that they were posting speculative pieces about “political rhetoric” and its role in the Tucson shooting as late as 13 days after it occurred. Not only are they comfortable with a free-speech slippery slope when it’s right-wingers who are at risk, they’re willing and eager to add some grease.
Maybe a reporter could call up SPLC and ask them about those things. Or even just ask them about this line in their article "Who is Jared Lee Loughner?":
Ideology may not explain why he allegedly killed, but it could help explain how he selected his target.
Or maybe a reporter could ask the Southern Poverty Law Center why they have a "Hate Incident" list that doesn’t include FRC shooting.
But something tells me that the media won't press them on this and they won't have to explain themselves to anyone. So interesting how that works.
For what it's worth, I checked on those media outlets mentioned above that "asked questions" about Palin's culpability -- I even forced myself to read conspiracy theorist Andrew Sullivan, to show you the depths to which I'll descend on behalf of this blog -- and couldn't find anyone asking the same questions or making the same allegations. I wonder why that is.