What this post is about: The role of extremist rhetoric influencing less than mentally sound people to act violently is a legitimate concern for both news coverage and public discourse. But how we engage in that as a finding of fact, and as a subject for discourse varies tremendously; there is a good way, and a bad way.
The Colorado Mass Shooting has provided sharp examples of what is a good way and what is a bad way, and how that tracks with political extremes.
While researching a story idea, I came across an entity called the Poynter Institute. Who they are impressed me, their purpose and mission statement struck me because of how well it was applicable to the post:
Poynter is a school that exists to ensure that our communities have access to excellent journalism—the kind of journalism that enables us to participate fully and effectively in our democracy.
What we do
To that end, we teach those who manage, edit, produce, program, report, write, blog, photograph and design, whether they belong to news organizations or work as independent entrepreneurs. We teach those who teach, as well as students in middle school, high school and college—the journalists of tomorrow. And we teach members of the public, helping them better understand how journalism is produced and how to tell for themselves whether it’s credible. We teach management, ethical decision-making and the power of diversity; we teach editing, writing, reporting and new media skills; we teach those in broadcast, print and the Web; we teach those trying to remake their organizations and those trying to remake their journalistic skills set.
This interested me not only because of the context this provides to the post I was writing, but because it explains WHY the commentary from the Poynter school was significant to it. I want to continue to grow this blog, to improve my own writing and to continue to strive for a factually accurate and well-reasoned blog.
I recently dropped by an old friend who has been writing what seems to me to be increasingly propaganda pieces on a blog that presumably gets more traffic than we do. Rarely do I see one of the regulars question anything, least of all the factual accuracy of the propaganda premise. But consistently I see a ginning up of false premises used to create greater polarization and extremism, appeals to emotions not information… in fact, active misinformation and dysinformation, appealing to emotions not intellect.
Here is the Craig Silverman Poynter piece on the recent mistakes by mainstream ABC news (which the far right calls liberal, but where I think a good argument could be made for moderate conservative in bent), and by the Breitbart right wing extremist blog enterprise.
Please, DO follow the link to see the whole piece at Poynter. But the essence was that both entities made mistakes in reporting — ABC noted that a person with the same or similar name to the Aurora Colorado (alleged) mass murderer belonged to the Tea Party and had posted on a Tea Party site, and Breitbar claiming without any apparent substance that the shooter was a registered Democratic voter. The ABC reporter made it clear in the context of the same or similar name, AT THE TIME, that this might not be the same person and that the name of the presumed shooter was a common one. Not noted, but what can be assumed in the larger context is that we were coming up in the next two days on the one year anniversary of the far right wing massacre in Norway, where Anders Breivik held many positions that are expressed by the right, including the urging of violence expressed by many figures in the Tea Party.
Given that shooting in Norway on the premise of a political motivation, the issue of a possible political basis for the Aurora, Colorado shooting having a political motivation was a distinct possibility.
In my opinion, the ABC news guy should not have made any comment until he had verified if this was the same individual, because of unfairly drawing speculation to a private rather than public figure. In the internet / social media age, we see mistakes happening all the time, where someone is identified as another very public person, with their home address and their other private contact informtion being posted or tweeted. This happened very conspicuously in the Trayvon Martin / George Zimmerman controversy recently. Private individuals should not be put through the resulting harassment that results from this.
But there is a fair point to distinguishing between established fact, and the ongoing investigative process as well, which ABC did do. In that regard, I think they could have indicated they were looking at online postings of someone with a similar name to a tea party site, without being more specific in a way that singled out the individual who was the wrong person. They could have done that by indicating why this was pertinent, providing a context of some of the more violent aspects of political extremes, including the Breivik shooting.
That is a valid concern; we still do not know if there was any political component to the motivation of the Aurora, Colorado shooter – right, left, or so far out there it doesn’t connect to any part of the spectrum. Although schizophrenic, the shooter of Gabrielle Giffords had ranged from being liberal to being more and more extreme far right as his mental illness appears to have progressed, and there were specific references to his far right extremism in letters he had written to Ms. Giffords and in content found in his home.
So while it seems clear that Jarred Loughner’s actions were determined in part by his mental illness, there was also a political component to the targetting of Ms. Giffords, which is legitimate news content to understanding that violent mass shooting. The role of extremist rhetoric influencing less than mentally sound people to act violently is a legitimate concern for both news coverage and public discourse. There is nothing about that which should be off-limits, so long as it is done accurately and responsibly.
As the Poynter piece notes, ABC corrected their information (I happened to be watching it live, so I made a note about it at the time). They made their corrections both in the original program where they overreached with the information, and subsequently; it was not a one-off that could be easily missed. They also issued an apology, which I’m quoting from the Poynter piece:
An earlier ABC News broadcast report suggested that a Jim Holmes of a Colorado Tea Party organization might be the suspect, but that report was incorrect. Several other local residents with similar names were also contacted via social media by members of the public who mistook them for the suspect.
The Poynter critique faults ABC for essentially claiming – look, we’re not the only ones. I don’t think that is quite correct, although it is a fair speculation on their motives. That social media here as well as in other controversies been significant in causing individuals to be harassed IS legitimate, and it explains in part what is wrong with getting information wrong. They are taking clear responsibility for their error and correcting it. But ABC does more – they issue a subsequent apology; yes, that apoloty would be better if it were part of their correction, but they DO issue an apology in a timely fashion.
Here is that apology as quoted by the Poynter commentary author, award winning journalist Craig Silverman:
An earlier ABC News broadcast report suggested that a Jim Holmes of a Colorado Tea Party organization might be the suspect, but that report was incorrect. ABC News and Brian Ross apologize for the mistake, and for disseminating that information before it was properly vetted.
How did the Breitbart blog deal with THEIR error? That was covered by the Poynter critique as well – basically they did nothing substantive or corrective:
Over at Breitbart, there are only “updates,” no corrections. Here’s the current headline on the post:
EXCLUSIVE: CONTRA ABC NEWS, DARK KNIGHT AURORA, CO SHOOTING SUSPECT JAMES HOLMES COULD BE REGISTERED DEMOCRAT – UPDATE: NOT REGISTERED?
The post itself maintains the original lead, which suggests that ABC News’ Ross was wrong and the shooter could be a registered Democrat. You have to scroll all the way to the bottom, to the final update posted two hours after the post first went up, to learn none of it is true.
Even then the website doesn’t admit error.
And as another Poynter Institute critique pointed out, it wasn’t only Breitbart making the mistake; other right wing sites falsely linked the Aurora shooter to the Occupy movement, as noted here:
Is James E. Holmes A Occupy Black Bloc Member, James E. Holmes Shoots Up Aurora Co Movie Theater Killing 12 And Wounding 59 As Batman Movie Slams OWS.
… It’s impossible not to feel Nolan’s disgust at Occupy Wall Street a movement the film paints as both incoherent and violent courtesy of a class warfare villain armed with nuclear weaponry. “The Dark Knight Rises” never mentions the 99 percent or other overt Occupy Wall Street slogans. But Nolan clearly summons the spirit of the ragtag movement with a propensity for violence. Bane’s henchmen literally attack Wall Street, savagely beat the rich and promise the good people of Gotham that “tomorrow, you claim what is rightfully yours.”
In this comparison betwen a responsible main stream media source, and the extreme right wing blogosphere, I don’t see any justification for the level of umbrage, much less a legitimate basis for their propaganda on the right (but then that is part of what separates propaganda from opinion – lack of fact combined with emotional appeals). The right, more so the further to the right, the more extreme they get DOES engage in violent rhetoric. It has on at least two very public mass shootings, been a factor in the actions of a person who has a diagnosed mental illness – the Gabby Giffords mass shooting, and in the actions of Anders Breivik in Norway, who has received two conflicting diagnoses, but who is clearly by any standards not a well-adjusted individual.
I don’t think the Tea Party has as much basis to complain about the conduct of ABC as they have tried to assert. That it is a hypocritical position is clear when they do not criticize worse conduct by the Breitbart blog or other right wing sources. Breitbart and Fox News consistently demonstrate a lack of professional standards and a failure to adequately correct their many errors – often they make no corrections whatsoever, and no apology, or at best a non-apology apology.