Note: This blog draws in part on my experiences and observations interviewing political figures, writers, and analysts for "The Campbell Conversations" on WRVO. To hear past interviews I refer to in these posts, please go to the show's website. The views expressed here are solely my own, and do not represent Syracuse University, the Campbell Institute, or the WRVO Stations.

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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Missing Culpa? Some Reflections on the Discussions Surrounding the Shootings

Predictably, the Arizona shootings have occasioned a flood of reconsiderations of our escalated political rhetoric.  Most of it has been directed at the Right, as conservatives tend to employ military and gun-oriented metaphors in their messages more often than those on the Left.  (As I write that, however, I recall being at a political event late one night in 1988 in which a nationally prominent Democrat pretended to shoot a shotgun as he joked about "hunting Quayle.")  But the tone of our political rhetoric is also being questioned more generally, as it should be, even if the actual connection between verbal nastiness and a madman shooting a bunch of people is unprovable and unlikely. 

Moments like these also bring forth efforts by groups and individuals who are committed to certain policy changes, and are constantly looking for opportunities to make their case and move the political dial.  In political science-speak these actors are known as "policy entrepreneurs."  The opportunities that come their way are known as "policy windows," and tragedies often open them up.  So it is that we are now having a renewed discussion of gun control laws, and in particular the demise of the Assault Weapons Ban in 2004. 

But if we're drawing on this tragedy to push issues, even if they are only tangentially related (or completely unrelated) to explaining and understanding why this event happened--and could have happened--then I want to add this one to the mix.  It's also time to renew our concern over the way political information is presented to citizens through traditional media outlets.  A host of research has demonstrated that over the past years, media coverage of politics, elected officials, and government--print and broadcast--has become both less substantive and more negative, focusing on supposed personal motivations and calculations at the expense of the facts and issues, and increasingly concentrating on misdeeds and mistakes. 

What concerns me in particular here is the tone of complete disdain that pervades much of the treatment.  I wouldn't begin to try to connect that to a shooting--and I want to underline that I'm not doing that--but it's increasingly difficult to perceive public officials as being public servants, even human beings, if all one has to go by is what's readily available in the media.  Our local paper's treatment of the life and career of William Walsh was a noticeable and welcome departure from the tone of many earlier stories and editorials about government and politicians. 

If we're going to have a reset and a rethink, it needs to include this as well.  It's part of the context in which we think and talk about governance.


Greg Munno said...

Great post. Read "Culture War? The Myth of A Polarized America" last semester, and now it's tough not to see how quick the media is to play up the deeply divided, highly contentious, highly polarized angle on every story whether it is warranted or not. As someone who worked in a newsroom for 13 years, I know that it is not deliberate. There isn't a conscious effort to distort the news in this way, nor is there a sense that writing these stories serves a business purpose such as selling more newspapers. Yet we can't seem to stop ourselves from harping on the same themes time and time again.

Anonymous said...

I would have to respectfully disagree (at least partially) with a few of Greg's points. First, while the media may not make a "concience" effort to "distort" the news, there clearly is a "slant", as there is between CNN and FOX News on the tube. Secondly, bigger headlines sell more papers. That's Business 101. And the newspaper is a business. I will agree, at least in part, with your last sentence.