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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Did Journalism Contribute to the Tucson Rampage?

There have been a number of discussions as to whether free speech in America has become so deformed that a free exchange of views is now considered an incitement to violence.

Specifically, Fox News has been named by liberal media sources as being largely to blame for creating an environment where disturbed people like Jared Lee Loughner can get an automatic weapon and murder six people.

Yet many of the many of the more notorious assassins have not been particularly motivated by politics.

Lynette "Squeaky" Fromm and Sara Jane Moore's attempt on President Gerald Ford, Arthur Bremer's shooting of Governor George Wallace and John Hinckley's attack on President Ronald Reagan were all products of diseased minds and not politically motivated.

Other American assassins were more politically driven: John Wilkes Booth (President Lincoln), James Earl Ray (M.L. King) and Sirhan Sirhan (Robert Kennedy), but there is little evidence that they were driven to commit their crimes because of newspapers they read or newscasts they watched.

Foreign assassins, on the other hand, seem more eager than Americans to take their extreme politics to violent ends: Thenmuli Rajaratnam (Rajiv Gandhi), Thomas McMahon (Lord Mountbatten), Khalid Islambuli (Anwar Sadat) and Yigal Amir (Yitzhak Rabin) come to mind.

The recent events in Tucson have unleashed a flurry of finger pointing by the chattering classes, eager to find a simple(r) explanation for this horrible event.

If journalism is to blame because of the harsh tone of political debate, the implication is that Americans are too naive and easily manipulated by the ideas on talk radio and Fox News. This seems too pat an explanation and it's one that unfortunately, Canadians particularly, love to profess.

In my experience, Americans are not a people susceptible to brainwashing from either extreme. They are passionate about ideas - even those that may in fact be ultimately damaging to American society. An obsession and conflation of weapons, money and free speech can result in expressions of mass murder not found in other countries. And US media can contribute to that confusion. Moreover, if there is a weakness in journalism (and not just in American journalism), it is that it tends to be a form of emotional and informational comfort food.

But that is different from blaming the media for the acts of one or more insane persons. The issue is far more complicated. I believe it has to do with the issues of education and health care - two beleaguered aspects of American life that require further exploration and investigation.

Loughner appears to have been delusional for some time. Despite the warnings, his odd behavior in his junior college was never dealt with, even though he frightened many of his fellow students and even some of his teachers. Similar concerns were voiced at Virginia Tech before Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people. Both Cho and Loughner slipped through whatever mental health services might have been available at their respective colleges.

There are exceptions, I'm sure, but in my experience at large news and educational organizations there is a very strong managerial disinclination to deal with individuals who exhibit signs of mental illness. Some of this has to do with the propensity of Americans to sue each other because government too often fails to create institutions that the private sector can't or won't support.

Journalism may have many faults these days. And Fox News should be ashamed of putting the ideas and the faces of fools on television. Now journalism has an obligation step forward to explain why this happened. But as an enabler of mental illness, the media can't be blamed this time around. That blame lies elsewhere.

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