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After Giffords tragedy, fingers point to the media model of confrontation
Most of the immediate focus fell on Palin, the former Alaska governor, whose Facebook page offered a map that placed cross hairs over Democratic districts, including that of Giffords. The Arizona congresswoman, it was widely noted, had spoken in the past about the dangers inherent in the target imagery. Palin's political adversaries quickly sought to tie the GOP presidential contender to the shooting, in ways, to use Olbermann's construction, "however tangential."
On Sunday, Palin's camp issued an awkward response: "We have nothing whatsoever to do with this," Rebecca Mansour, an aide to Palin, said in a radio interview on Sunday. "We never ever, ever intended it to be gun sights. It was simply cross hairs like you'd see on maps," like, she suggested, a "surveyor's symbol."
The media dug into the toxic-talk theme, referencing the penchant of tea party candidates for artillery imagery. Or the time Palin said "don't retreat, reload." Or the time House Speaker John Boehner said a Democrat "may be a dead man" because he voted in favor of President Obama's health-care overhaul. Or the time Obama, on the campaign trail, said, "If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun."
Some venerable voices in the media used the day as a teachable moment.
"Dangerous, inflammatory words are used with no thought of consequence. All's fair if it makes the point. Worse, some make great profit just fanning the flames," said Bob Schieffer on his CBS Web site. The "Face the Nation" host added that "new technology insures a larger audience. Those with sick and twisted minds hear us, too."
At a semiannual conference of television executives and the press that covers them at the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena on Sunday, PBS correspondent Judy Woodruff chose optimism when asked how politicians and the political media might react to the shootings. She expressed confidence that they would prompt a "long-overdue conversation about the kind of political discourse we have been having for the last several years in this country."
The hardened chroniclers of the political news business in the audience expressed their doubts, noting that partisans had already begun capitalizing on the killings and that there would be no tangible long-term impact on news values.
When pressed, Woodruff conceded that the current vocabulary of anger and hyperbole might, she said, "be great for ratings."