Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Divisive discourse and the media's constant culpability

Do you remember 2011? Specifically, do you remember the aftermath of the Tuscan shootings? On January 8th of that year in Tuscan, Arizona, Jared Lee Loughner came to a political rally at a shopping center being held by U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. He drew a gun and shot her in the head at point blank range, then proceeded to randomly shoot other people. Six people were killed, thirteen were injured by gunfire (including Giffords who miraculously survived) before Loughner was finally disarmed and taken down by some brave bystanders (one of whom had been shot).

While the aftermath of this event led to another spirited round of gun control debates, it also led to some rather vile finger-pointing with regard to who was responsible for this tragedy. Those fingers were being pointed primarily at Sarah Palin, the tea party crowd, and right-wing talk radio. The argument went like this: Sarah Palin and these others were using a lot of violent and divisive rhetoric to inflame people's emotions, Palin was even using targeting crosshairs on maps (to indicate vulnerable seats for upcoming elections), and this kind of stuff caused Loughner to do what he did.

A empty-headed and evidence free argument, to be sure (there's nothing that anyone has found connecting Loughner to Palin, the tea party, or talk radio), but one that got a lot of play in the media. Accusations—eventually withdrawn with various sorts of mea culpas—that Loughner was a member of the tea party were made almost immediately after the shooting, as were ones that he was inspired by radio talking heads like Glenn Beck. And of course all of these accusations led to angry defenses from the right, with many noting various instances of violent talk from the left—like Obama's "bring a gun" comment—and the fact that the DNC had employed maps with bullseye targets on them.

But the hardcore left dug in their heels for a while, even as their arguments collapsed around them, until all that they were left with was a more or less general position of there being too much violent imagery and divisive talk in politics; the specific linkages to the Tuscan shooting were gone, yet the general feeling persisted, that there was something here, despite the lack of any evidence in this regard.

What to do, what to do?

The answer: study the problem with a "blue ribbon panel" and "position papers." And thus, the National Institute for Civil Discourse was born, a mere two months after the shootings, on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tuscon. This birth was accompanied with a great deal of fanfare, with public figures on the left and right sitting on its board and with former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush serving as its honorary co-chairs.

Maybe you remember hearing about all of this, maybe you don't. But if you do, ask yourself this: when was the last time the NICD was in the news? You'll have to dig deep to find any stories on it across the past few years. It's largely faded into a memory hole.

And this is not meant to belittle the NICD. I'm sure the people there are working hard to achieve the institute's missions, to fulfill "a public demand for civil discourse" and to have a "media that informs and engages citizens." The problem is, I don't think that demand is all that significant, not now, not ever. And the media, while its members love to pontificate on subjects like this, well, it's just more interested in selling controversy than it is in informing the citizenry.

Case in point: Dana Milbank's oped yesterday on the subject of Jeb Bush and Donald Trump. In this piece, Milbank takes Bush to task for saying the following recently:
If this election is about how we’re going to fight to get nothing done, then I don’t want any part of it...I’ve got a lot of really cool things that I could do other than sit around, being miserable, listening to people demonize me and me feeling compelled to demonize them. That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that.
Milbank calls the speech "petulant," compares it to Nixon's "you won't have Nixon to kick around anymore," and argues that Bush's lack of fight is exactly why his campaign is faltering so badly.

And Milbank is right.

Bush is not going to get anywhere by taking this tack. But look at the total context here. Trump is attacking everyone, insulting everyone who is in his way, demonizing and "othering" them at every opportunity. And the media—Milbank included—is eating that up. Bush says "I won't sink to that level, it's too far beneath me." Is he congratulated by the media that was once fired up over the need for more civil discourse? Nope. Exactly the opposite. He's catching heat for not engaging in divisive discourse, for not stooping to Trump's level.

Here is Milbank in 2011, ostensibly hoping that the Tuscon shootings will lead to a "McKinley moment" and help tone down the political rhetoric (granted, he's talking more about violent imagery, but then he's conflating that with assassination fantasies, which is something of a leap). Fast forward to 2015 and Milbank is essentially complaining that Jeb Bush is not being mean enough, is not be insulting enough to his political opponents.

So don't tell me that the media is interested in any sort of "toning down" when it comes to political discourse. They're not. They want it as hot as it can be and are more then willing to even light some fires of their own to help it along.

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