Media, Heal Thyself
by Stephen Cox | Posted February 04, 2011
In January the nation survived one of its periodic linguistic disasters — Jared Loughner’s alleged murder of six people and his attempted murder of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tuscon, Arizona.
I’m not calling this a linguistic disaster because I am unsympathetic about the suffering and death that Loughner caused. The death and suffering are real, and talking won’t do anything to help the victims or their friends. Only human concern, the concern shown by individuals for individuals, can possibly do that.
But death, even the death of many people at the same time, is not unusual. During January 2011, hundreds of thousands of people died in the United States. Innocent people were gunned down by criminals. Whole families died in traffic accidents. Lunatics killed many more people than Jared Loughner dreamed of killing. Logically, there was no reason for speeches to be made about the Loughner affair, for Congress to report itself so distressed that it could not do its work, for Fox News, of all things, to run 24-hour coverage of what quickly became the non-news from Tucson, or for anyone else to expend sentences and paragraphs speculating about what it all meant, or should mean, to the republic.
This is not a heartless statement; it is the simple truth.
A few years ago, a guy tried to mug me while I was walking toward a store in my neighborhood. I fought him off. I suppose he could have killed me. But there was a logic to his attack. He wanted my money. “Give me your money,” he said.
You have to respect that. Perhaps you might also want to think about possible means of reducing the number of robberies. But debating the meaning of Jared Loughner? Why?
Some of the commentary on Loughner’s deed resulted from honest concern about whether there is any means of identifying people like him before they can do grave damage. But most of the debate was patently dishonest. Anyone who tries to make a political cause out of Loughner’s behavior is acting worse, in a way, than he did — because he didn’t know what he was doing. The people who immediately exploited his deed to argue for more gun control and more speech control and more media control — they know what they’re doing, and for that reason they are more dangerous than a thousand Loughners.
If you think otherwise, you are under the influence of words, not things, because that is all that the crisis of January 2011 consisted of. It was a crisis of nothing but words, words used to magnify and distort a private, virtually random mental disturbance and turn it into a national and political catastrophe.
The people who immediately exploited his deed to argue for more gun control and more speech control and more media control — they know what they’re doing, and for that reason they are more dangerous than a thousand Loughners.
As you know, within minutes of this sad event, modern-liberal newspaper columnists, and nearly everyone on television was proclaiming it a national tragedy, a troubling indication of the American mentality, a probable indication of the malign influence of political polarization, an undoubted indication of Things that Should Worry Every American, a possible subject for legislation and presidential decree, and, above all, a hopeful occasion for national “healing.” The idea was that Americans are so “fragile” that they are easily “unsettled” and even “wounded” by such events as occurred in Tucson. This is a slander on the American people — a cheap and obvious slander — and a revelation of a shocking lack of perspective on the part of America’s political and media class.
Let’s consider some preceding events.
1. On July 11, 1804, Aaron Burr, Vice President of the United States and President of its Senate, fatally wounded the statesman Alexander Hamilton, in a duel fought over the question of whether Burr was “despicable.”
2. On Feb. 24, 1838, William Graves, a congressman from Kentucky, killed a congressman from Maine, Jonathan Cilley, in a duel prompted by accusations of bribery by the latter about the former. The House considered censuring the victor but never did so.
3. On May 22, 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina, assisted by another representative from that state, Laurence Keitt, assaulted Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the floor of the Senate, beating him brutally. The House censured Keitt, and Brooks resigned from the House.
4. On March 1, 1954, Puerto Rican nationalists stood in the gallery of the House of Representatives and used automatic pistols on the 240 congressmen in the room below, hitting five of them.
5. On June 5, 1968, Robert Kennedy, Senator from New York, was assassinated by a Palestinian who was annoyed by Kennedy’s support for Israel.
6. On Nov. 18, 1978, in the country of Guyana, Leo Ryan, a California member of the House of Representatives, was slain by followers of the “revolutionary communist” Jim Jones, whose purportedly religious activities the congressman had been investigating.
7. On Jan. 8, 2011, Congresswoman Giffords was wounded in an attempt on her life by Jared Loughner, a maniac who thought that his junior college was committing “genocide” on him.
Which of these events was of national importance? On the face of it, nos. 1, 4, and 5; and once you understand the context of no. 3, which was the run-up to the Civil War, that one too.
Now ask yourself:
Which of them was a crisis? Here the answer is equally obvious: only no. 5 is a possibility, and only if it is considered from the perspective of the Democratic Party, whose nomination Kennedy was seeking (but almost undoubtedly could not have achieved). The death of Hamilton was a severe misfortune for his party, but not a crisis. The Puerto Rican nationalists were an organized group with a political platform, but they weren’t important enough to create a crisis, even if they had killed all the congressmen they hit. The beating of Sumner was a disgusting symptom of sectional division, not the crisis of division itself.
Ask yourself a third question:
Which of these episodes demanded a “healing of the nation”? Only the beating of Sumner. That was the only one in which deep and truly national emotions were at stake. Compare the approaching Civil War with whatever political causes Jared Loughner might, according to the wildest imagination, possibly be regarded as representing, and you’ll see how ludicrous it is to talk about “healing” the nation from the “rifts” and "wounds" that such causes have purportedly produced. In other words, compare the crisis of the Civil War with the current “crisis of civility.” What a laugh.
On Jan. 17, a popular Southern Californian radio personality, John Kobylt of the “John and Ken Show,” agreed with me in part when he identified Loughner’s act as that of a mentally diseased person, of no political importance. That’s true. But John called the response to this act “mass hysteria,” and that’s not true. It wasn’t mass hysteria. It was media hysteria.
The idea was that Americans are so “fragile” that they are easily “unsettled” and even “wounded” by such events as occurred in Tucson. This is a slander on the American people.
A week after the shootings, I was getting a haircut in the large, middle-American barber shop where I always go for that ritual. One of the barbers has a loud voice, and he introduced the topic of “you know, that thing that happened over in Arizona.” At first, nobody seemed to recognize what he was talking about. Even when he explained what he meant, it elicited, unlike sports talk, no special interest. Even the guy who brought it up couldn’t remember exactly what had happened, or whether anybody had been killed. One customer asked whether there was some kind of congressman involved, but nobody was willing to pronounce on that point. I could have, and probably some of the other 20 guys in the place could have, too. But nobody bothered. Nobody felt impelled to Set the Record Straight. That’s how important the whole thing was to that middle-American crew.
Another datum. During the weeks since the Arizona incident occurred, no one has brought it up to me. No one. I’ve mentioned it to a few people, and they’ve responded in due course. But nobody except me has thought it important enough to start a conversation about. I’ve asked my friends whether any of their acquaintances have brought it up, either. “Oh no,” they say, as if they were considering the proposition that water might run uphill.
This was not what anybody would call a major national event — not for the American people, at any rate. It was a media event. It was an instance of media hysteria, of word hysteria.
It was also an instance of the lack of scale that appears to be built into the media’s approach to human life. A long time ago, the media threw away all measuring devices. During the 1970s, the nation was constantly told that Watergate was “the greatest crisis since the Civil War.” The deterioration of the economy that occurred during the same decade, and that seems today its most important event, received no such dramatic amplification. Today we are taught that our current economic distress is “the worst since the Great Depression.” Yes, it’s bad; and we will see something worse when the bills finally come due for the past decades of profligacy, but I doubt that what we are suffering today is worse than the economic weirdness that followed World War II, or the gas rationing, price controls, and stagflation of the 1970s.
It’s easy to lose your sense of scale when you’re pushing an ideology. You want to lose it, and suddenly, it’s gone! That goes for all those Watergate comments, for the cooked statistics about “homelessness” that were designed to make President Reagan look bad, for the constant blather about the dangers of “handguns,” for the scare tactics used to inspire “respect for the environment,” for the . . . . . But no, I could expand the list indefinitely, and so could you. But there’s something else going on, something that’s hard to explain except by reference to ignorance, stupidity, and the desire to punch up any story for which video is available.
Compare the approaching Civil War with whatever political causes Jared Loughner might possibly be regarded as representing, and you’ll see how ludicrous it is to talk about “healing” the nation.
Here’s what I mean. If they’re watching American TV on Mars right now, they think that fees in community colleges are $100,000 a year, because all they see is suffering students bewailing the fact that “fees keep going up.”Nobody tells them that the fees are practically zero, compared to other costs of living. In addition, the Martians probably believe that Americans do nothing but lose children, then try to relocate them — not realizing, because nobody ever mentions it, how unusual lost children, truly lost children, really are. And I’m sure the Martians believe that every year, America’s landmass is swept by gargantuan fires, because the news folk keep saying, “And in California right now, wildfires have consumed over 1000 acres, with no containment in sight.”
Please. Doesn’t anyone have a hand calculator? The Southern California county in which I live contains 2,896,640 acres, the great majority of them uninhabited. In brush country, you can expect a fire on any given acre at least once every 30 years. And the fires always get contained. They don’t keep burning till they reach Cleveland. But even as I write these words, Fox News is showing me a grass fire, somewhere in these great United States, that is actually “burning two structures!” Oh really? In 2009, the last year for which comprehensive statistics are available, fire departments in the United States dealt with almost 400,000 home fires. The fires killed more than 2,500 people. Maybe good video wasn’t available on those.
During the past few days, I’ve watched a lot of cable coverage of the riots in Egypt. Frequently, the talking heads refer to the fact that, as they say, “the United States gives over one billion dollars in aid to Egypt!” The real figure is somewhat larger than that, but never mind. CNN and Fox News have radically different ideological outlooks; yet neither of them has any scale or measurement in its reporting. One or two billion dollars is nothing in the American scale of spending. The annual budget of the university where I teach is larger than that, and it's far from the largest university in the country, or even the state. My city plans to spend about $200 million building a new library. I don’t think it should, but that’s beside the point. If we sent the money to Egypt, it would increase America’s bribery to that country by roughly 10 percent.
Now, when was the last time you heard anything like that from the media?
By the way, CNN and Fox News have both placed heavy emphasis on the idea that you gotta understand the Egyptian revolutionaries, because the official unemployment rate in Egypt is as high as 9%! Tell me, what’s the official unemployment rate in the United States? On Feb. 4, it was reported to be 9%.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include "The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison" and "The New Testament and Literature."
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