Backlash Mounts Over Biased Coverage of Arizona Tragedy

Monday, 10 Jan 2011 02:06 PM

By David A. Patten

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President Barack Obama and the first lady shared a dramatic moment of silence on the south lawn of the White House at 11 a.m. ET Monday in observance of the tragic Arizona shooting that left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords fighting for her life, even as a major conservative backlash mounted against media outlets who blamed the shooting on inflammatory right-wing rhetoric.

The shooting spree at a Tucson Safeway on Saturday was allegedly the work of 22-year-old Jared Loughner, an Armed Services reject who had a previous history of mental issues. Various sources report Loughner had exhibited increasingly bizarre behavior in recent months. Thirteen others were wounded and six people were killed in the shooting.

An initial NPR report erroneously announced that Giffords had passed away. NPR apologized for that error on Monday, calling it a “grave error.” Regardless, pundits and politicians immediately pounced Saturday at what they apparently saw as a political opportunity.

media,arizona,shootings,mistakes,conservatives,backlash,olbermann,kristol,krugman,bullseye,liberals,sheriff,daily,kos,democrats,howard,kurtzA variety of news outlets pointed to a Sarah Palin Facebook post nine months ago that listed a number of Democrats the GOP hoped to defeat, using what appeared to be crosshairs symbols, which were soon removed. Giffords’ district was one of those listed, and Giffords later made a cable TV appearance cautioning that heated political rhetoric could have serious consequences.

What those outlets overlooked: The left-wing Daily Kos blog also had targeted Giffords for her centrist positions, and wrote of putting her in the “bull's-eye.”

The New York Times’ headline for the story was “Bloodshed Puts New Focus on Vitriol in Politics.” Times columnist Paul Krugman blamed “political hatred” and recalled a recent federal report on the danger of right-wing extremism.

MSNBC's Keith Olbermann remarked: "If Sarah Palin, whose website put and today scrubbed bullseye targets on 20 representatives including Gabby Giffords, does not repudiate her own part in amplifying violence and violent imagery in politics, she must be dismissed from politics."

Appearing on CSPAN Monday, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol said efforts to link the shooting to conservative political dialog amounted to practicing “McCarthyism.”

Noting that both parties had used words such as “targets” in political discussions, Kristol said, “The attempt to exploit this tragedy is distasteful."

Efforts to link 22-year-old Loughner to conservative political rhetoric soon collided with reality, as the nature of Loughner’s own remarks and writings emerged.

His online rants appeared to reflect a muddled, possibly left-wing viewpoint that embrace anarchy. Intellectually, his influences appeared to range from Karl Marx to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Kicked out of Pima Community College for his bizarre behavior, he wrote in a YouTube video: “I can’t trust the current government because of fabrications. The government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar."

Conservatives and media commentators expressed revulsion and how the tragedy seemed to be used in some quarters as political fodder.

“In all my years as a working journalist, I have never seen more shallow analysis from liberal commentators than I have now, with this terrible tragedy in Arizona,” Fox News contributor and author Bernard Goldberg told Newsmax.

The spark that initially touched off the anti-conservative tenor of the news coverage began with remarks from Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik, 74, who stated just hours after the tragedy: “To try to inflame the public on a daily basis, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, has [an] impact on people, especially people who are unbalanced people to begin with."

For anyone in the media who bothered to do an Internet search, there could be little doubt whom Dupnik was blaming for inciting the masses. A 50-year veteran of law enforcement, Dupnik, a Democrat, has been dubbed the “anti-Arpaio” — a reference to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has won national attention for his tough stance enforcing laws against illegal immigration.

Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl took Dupnik to task on "Meet the Press," saying, “First, I didn't really think that that had any part in a law enforcement briefing last night. It was speculation. I don't think we should rush to speculate.

Dupnik later told Fox News his remarks weren’t based on fact but rather on “opinion.”

Dupnik is leading the local investigation into the rampage committed Saturday. He has denounced his own state as a “Mecca for prejudice and vitriol.” After Arizona passed its controversial law against illegal immigration, he declared his department would refuse to enforce it, and called it a “stupid law.”

One criticism widely voiced in conservative circles is that the media coverage ignored mention of the verbal firebombs the left has lobbed with equal vigor. In the run-up to the midterm elections, President Obama remarked during a Philadelphia fund-raiser, “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.” And in October, a homeowner in the liberal bastion of West Hollywood, Calif., hanged an effigy of Sarah Palin in his front yard as a Halloween display. The city’s mayor noted doing so was legal but asked that the display be taken down.

Jeff McCall, Depauw University communications professor, tells Newsmax the media coverage of the incident was “probably overdone.”

“I think there is a tendency for the media to be predisposed to go after the right-wing media when there are events like this,” he said. “But heaven knows over the years Republicans and conservative politicians like Dick Cheney, George Bush, and Sarah Palin have been subjected to a number of threats. And I don’t think it’s fair in those cases to lay the blame for all those things on the passionate discussions of somebody like [MSNBC host Ed Schultz]. And he’s been pretty angry at times too over things that were brought about by the Bush administration and so forth."

Tobe Berkovitz, a communications professor at Boston University, tells Newsmax: “I think there’s careless, inflammatory rhetoric on both sides. And it just depends on what the big news story as to which side drives the conservation and how the conversation gets framed.”

Some mainstream media pundits also objected to the coverage.

Daily Beast Chief Washington bureau chief and long-time media critic Howard Kurtz wrote the treatment was a “sickening ritual of guilt by association.”

“I hate to say this,” he wrote, “but the blame game is already under way."


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