After Giffords tragedy, fingers point to the media model of confrontation

Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot in the head Saturday morning while hosting an event outside a grocery store. Six people died, and 14 were injured.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 9, 2011

On Saturday night, hours after a shooting spree in Tucson, Ariz., left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords shot in the head and 19 others wounded or dead, Keith Olbermann weighed in.

Staring earnestly into the camera, he blamed Sarah Palin's rhetoric, saying that if she did not "repudiate her own part, however tangential, in amplifying violence and violent imagery in American politics, she must be dismissed from politics." He argued that Glenn Beck "obsesses nearly as strangely" about the gold standard as the alleged gunman, Jared Loughner, and accused Bill O'Reilly of using violent imagery. Olbermann, who chooses a nightly "Worst Person in the World," apologized for his own extremism, like the time he said something that "sounded," by his own admission, like a call for physical violence against Hillary Clinton.

"For tonight," he said grandly, after the shooting, "we stand at one of the cliched crossroads of American history."

Or not.

"It may modify somewhat in the short run," said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.). "But despite the enormity of this tragedy, probably, and too soon, we'll be back to the screaming and yelling."

In the media marketplace, vitriol has value. Shows and outlets that emphasize confrontation, histrionics and vehement partisan slants attract ever-larger audiences than traditional news operations. And bemoaning the lack of civility in political discourse is inevitable after the Arizona tragedy, but so is a return to the hyperbole that attracts so many viewers.

Arianna Huffington, a creator of one of the most successful new partisan outlets, the left-leaning Huffington Post, argued that forums such as hers aren't to blame.

"My view," Huffington wrote in an e-mail, "is that there are lots of ways to be lively and put forth a strong opinion without demonizing one's opponent, or saying that he or she is an enemy of the United States and should be targeted. It's the demonization that is the problem, not the liveliness."

King, a famously blunt politician, is certainly not shy when it comes to public sparring. "People think I shoot my mouth off," he acknowledged. But he added that his reluctance for the personal attack (he is a friend of the Clintons and supported the embattled Charlie Rangel) had often kept him off television.

"Basically, large parts of the media are driven by oversimplification and confrontation," said King, who now chairs the Committee for Homeland Security. He argued that the problem in the political culture - whether it be in the tea party or antiwar camps - is a lack of exposure to politics.

King said that his newer colleagues in Congress are sometimes political novices motivated by a "midlife crisis" who are simply handed talking points. The media, he said, has a preference for such characters, and that "people watching television and going on the Internet believe that their side is right and the other side is evil," by King's estimation.

As the horrific scale of Saturday's shooting became clear, the calls for cooler heads competed with a return to the usual battle lines. This time the ammunition of choice was evidence of reckless and polemical uses of gun imagery.

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