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

By Jason Horowitzand Lisa DeMoraes
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.

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."

(RELATED: A trail of heated political rhetoric)

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."

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