Even before anything at all was known about Jared Lee Loughner, who went on a deadly shooting spree outside a Safeway in Tucson, Arizona, on Saturday, a narrative was beginning to take shape.
Partisans on the left immediately blamed the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, “talk radio,” and Republicans more generally. That’s regrettable but probably inevitable. Agitators like Markos Moulitsas, whose Twitter feed on Saturday is full of such charges, make fact-free accusations as a matter of course. So he wrote: “Fucking American Taliban” and “Mission Accomplished, Sarah Palin.” He wasn’t alone. Paul Krugman blamed talk radio for a “climate of hate” and Keith Olbermann blamed Sarah Palin and others.
The mainstream media has operated with the same assumptions. And so despite the lack of evidence that Loughner had political motivations, journalists have wondered aloud whether – or to what extent – “political rhetoric” on the right is to blame.
One of the most important things journalists can do is to provide context for major events, to take a seemingly disparate set of facts and explain their meaning in a way that allows readers, viewers and listeners to understand better what has happened and perhaps even why. Providing such a framework is usually helpful. But not always. Sometimes you cannot make sense of the senseless.
In their attempts to provide such context many journalists – at prominent newspapers and magazines, at the networks, and on cable – are doing more to obscure the truth than to reveal it.
The resulting stories are often incoherent with reporters and commentators acknowledging that Loughner did not appear to have been driven primarily by politics but nonetheless offering vague indictments of political rhetoric on the right. So rather than actual reporting we have lots of “simmering” and “swirling” in “a climate of hatred and fear” or “today’s inflamed political environment.”
The New York Times reported: “While the exact motivations of the suspect in the shootings remained unclear, an Internet site tied to the man, Jared Lee Loughner, contained antigovernment ramblings. And regardless of what led to the episode, it quickly focused attention on the degree to which inflammatory language, threats and implicit instigations to violence have become a steady undercurrent in the nation’s political culture.”
And after quoting a denunciation of the shooting by a Tea Party leader, the Times noted, “others said it was hard to separate what had happened from the heated nature of the debate that has swirled around Mr. Obama and Democratic policies of the past two years.”
As a consequence, Republicans spent the day after the shooting responding to requests from print reporters and Sunday talk-show hosts to defend “Tea Party rhetoric” and to explain the culture of violence it has allegedly produced.
George Packer, writing in the New Yorker, provides an example:
Judging from his Internet postings, Jared Lee Loughner is a delusional young man whose inner political landscape is a swamp of dystopian novels, left- and right-wing tracts, conspiracy theories, and contempt for his fellow human beings. He refers to the gold and silver standard; that doesn't make Ron Paul responsible for the shootings. He is fond of “Animal Farm”; George Orwell didn't guide the hand that pulled the automatic pistol's trigger. Marx and Hitler produced a lot of corpses, but not the ones in Tucson.
Packer, though, is determined to use the incident to criticize conservatives.
But even so, the tragedy wouldn't change this basic fact: for the past two years, many conservative leaders, activists, and media figures have made a habit of trying to delegitimize their political opponents. Not just arguing against their opponents, but doing everything possible to turn them into enemies of the country and cast them out beyond the pale. Instead of “soft on defense,” one routinely hears the words “treason” and “traitor.” The President isn't a big-government liberal—he's a socialist who wants to impose tyranny. He's also, according to a minority of Republicans, including elected officials, an impostor.
Let’s momentarily set aside the calumny in that paragraph and deal with the confusion. Packer writes that the “tragedy” doesn’t change the “basic fact” that conservatives have tried to delegitimize their opponents. He’s right, in a very limited way. The tragedy in Tucson doesn’t change his “basic fact,” because if Loughner was not motivated by politics the tragedy has very little to do with his “basic fact.”
And what of his claim that conservatives “routinely” speak of opponents as traitorous and treasonous rather than merely “soft on defense?” If such rhetoric is so common, one might have thought Packer could produce an example of a prominent conservative doing this.
He goes on to claim: “This relentlessly hostile rhetoric has become standard issue on the right. (On the left it appears in anonymous comment threads, not congressional speeches and national T.V. programs.)”
Really? Senator Dick Durbin compared U.S. soldiers to Nazis and defended his comments for days before eventually apologizing. Last month, Senator Robert Menendez compared discussions with Republicans on the tax compromise to negotiations with “terrorists.” Representative Alan Grayson claimed that Republicans want old people to die. Later, he ran a campaign ad comparing his opponent to the Taliban. And during the 2008 presidential campaign, President Obama, speaking in Philadelphia, said of Republicans: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.”
The point here is not to suggest that Democrats do this more than Republicans, or that liberals do it more than conservatives. Who cares? Let’s stipulate that fringe elements on both sides do this and that some of the rhetoric is irresponsible.
The question is whether in this specific case such rhetoric played a role. The facts may change, but at this point the answer is no.
But Packer isn’t building his argument so much as laying two separate points next to one another. The result, of course, is to create an impression that the two are related even when the facts don’t support such a conclusion.
Packer seems to understand this, but it doesn’t keep him from making the association. He concludes his piece: “The massacre in Tucson is, in a sense, irrelevant to the important point. Whatever drove Jared Lee Loughner, America's political frequencies are full of violent static.”
Similar “logic” flowed from virtually every mainstream news outlet throughout the weekend.
The lead piece from Politico included this passage: “By day’s end, the argument that the political right—fueled by anti-government, and anti-immigrant passions that run especially strong in Arizona—is culpable for the Tucson massacre, even if by indirect association, seemed to be validated by the top local law enforcement official investigating the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D).”
Validated how? Did this official provide evidence that Loughner was fueled by anti-government and anti-immigrant passions that run especially strong in Arizona? The article quotes him.
When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government—the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous,” said Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, an elected Democrat, at a news conference Saturday evening. “And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.
Unsubstantiated accusations from an authority figure do not “validate” the irresponsible claims of conservative culpability; they merely echo them. Unless he has seen evidence he is not sharing with the public, Dupnik was little more than Markos Moulitsas with a badge.
We will certainly learn more about Jared Lee Loughner. And it’s possible, perhaps likely, that some more coherent political ideology will emerge. But until it does, journalists would do well to stick to the facts available to them.
Sometimes a crazy guy is just a crazy guy. And sometimes a tragedy is just a tragedy.