Should America Tone It Down a Notch?

Television pundits blame each other for the shooting in Arizona that wounded a congresswoman and left six people dead.

A shooting of twenty people in Tucson, Arizona last week which killed six, including a federal judge and a nine-year old girl and left a congresswoman, Democrat Gabrielle Giffords severely injured, has revived a discussion about the tone of political discourse in the United States. Commentators on the left have alleged that the inflated rhetoric of their right-wing counterparts is in part to blame for creating a climate in which the shooting could occur. Conservatives have criticized them in turn for using the tragedy for political gain.

In an editorial Monday, The New York Times admitted that it would be “facile and mistaken” to blame conservatives for one madman’s actions yet, “it is legitimate,” according to the newspaper, “to hold Republicans and particularly their most virulent supporters in the media responsible for the gale of anger that has produced the vast majority of [death] threats, setting the nation on edge.”

The rage is stirred by talk radio hosts, the Times claimed explicitly, and Fox News pundits, presumably. “They seem to have persuaded many Americans that the government is not just misguided, but the enemy of the people.”

On his Fox News broadcoast that night, Bill O’Reilly denounced the Times‘ stance as “flat out reprehensible.” Republicans had nothing to do with the murders in Arizona, he declared. “The New York Times does this all day long. If you would disagree with their far left view you are hateful.” He similarly condemned NBC News for allowing “vicious personal attacks” to be issued on MSNBC. “The hatred spewed on that cable network is unprecedented in the media,” said O’Reilly.

On the night of the shooting, Keith Olbermann, on MSNBC, professed that, “We need to put the guns down.” He spoke of “politicians and commentators who have so irresponsibly brought us to this time of domestic terrorism” and said that if conservatives including Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Sarah Palin “are not responsible for what happened in Tucson, they must now be responsible for doing everything they can to make sure Tucson doesn’t happen again.”

Reporting on the tragedy in Arizona has if anything painfully exposed the deep divide between left and right that exists, not so much in American society or even politics, but among its media class. MSNBC commentators on the one hand and Fox News contributors on the other have lambasted one another for feeding, 24 hours a day, a discourse that might have inspired politically motivated violence.

Before any details of the attack were evident, on the left, bloggers and talking heads blamed the Tea Party, former vice presidential contender Sarah Palin in particular, for “targeting” political opponents and deploying rhetoric that was draped in gun related metaphors. But liberals have done the same. The demonization of President George W. Bush by leftists was no less spiteful than the smearing of his predecessor by some Tea Party activists. Campaign speechcraft has become more heated and hyperbolic. Punditry has become more outspoken across the political spectrum.

On Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, Jon Stewart, who has rallied against cable news hysteria, suggested that even if the political climate in America is “toxic” and “unproductive”, it cannot simply be blamed for the shooting in Arizona. “Boy would that be nice,” he suggested, “to be able to draw a straight line of causation from this horror to something tangible because then we could convince ourselves that if we just stop this, the horrors will end.” But they probably won’t. “You cannot outsmart crazy. You don’t know what a troubled mind will get caught on.”

Which is not to say that the discourse cannot be improved. Americans should not conflate their political opponents with enemies, said Stewart. “If would be really nice if the ramblings of crazy people didn’t in any way resemble how we actually talk to each other on TV.”

“For all the hyperbole and vitriol that’s become part of our political process” though, “when the reality of that rhetoric; when actions match the disturbing nature of words, we haven’t lost our capacity to be horrified,” he concluded. People hear about crazy, “but it’s rarer than you think.”