Politics & Policy

The Media’s Shooting Bias

Accused Arapahoe High School shooter Karl Pierson (left)
Right-wing politics are key to a murderer’s motivations; leftism must be ignored.

Let me venture a guess, and wager that you have heard very little about the political preference of the young man who, on Friday, walked into his high school and tried to murder his teacher.

On the face of it, this is a blessing, for in all but the most extreme cases a murderer’s ideological proclivities are wholly irrelevant to his crime. The “why” really matters when a terrorist group shoots up a mall, because the “why” explains the action. But when a man bears a grudge against his debate coach and decides to exact revenge against him, then his religious beliefs, his ideal marginal tax rate, and the question of whether he would have voted for Barack Obama or for Mitt Romney are incidental to the case. Psychoanalyze them as we might, the truth is that most massacres are the product of truly quotidian provocations: insanity, heartbreak, dismissal, revenge — and little more besides.

For the most part, the media observe well the distinction between political and apolitical killings, and understand the different reactions they demand. Except, that is, when a shooting is carried out by someone suspected of being a conservative. Then, all discipline goes out the window; then, the act simply must have been caused by ideology; then, our television shows are filled with endless discussions of causes thrice removed, and we are subjected to earnest remonstrances about “rhetoric” and “climate” and, heaven forfend, “tone.”

Perhaps chief among the insidious consequences of the attempt to turn “right-wing” into a general synonym for “despicable” has been that a significant number of Americans have taken it to heart, and now search under the bed for libertarians whenever something bad is reported in the news. Last week, the lawyer Gabriel Malor compiled a list of recent events that have been unthinkingly blamed on the Right. Among them are the case of census-taker Bill Sparkman, who hanged himself in Kentucky (the Tea Party was blamed); the case of Joe Stack, a devotee of The Communist Manifesto who flew a plane into an IRS building in 2010 (anti-tax rhetoric was blamed); the case of Obama voter Amy Bishop, who in 2010 shot her fellow faculty members at the University of Alabama (the Tea Party was blamed); the case of misanthropic environmentalist James Lee, who took hostages at the Discovery Channel (climate-change “deniers” were blamed); and the Boston Marathon bombing, which was carried out by jihadists — after right-wingers were blamed and a non-existent and wholly coincidental link with Patriot’s Day was mooted.

Perhaps the most famous of these false accusations came from ABC News’ Brian Ross, who was quick to note, in the wake of the 2012 movie-theater massacre, that the name of “a Jim Holmes of Aurora” had been found “on the Colorado Tea Party site.” “Now,” Ross said, “we don’t know if this is the same Jim Holmes” as the one who’d carried out the atrocity. “But it’s Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado.” And, as anyone sensible knows, the first place you look for clues when there has been a shooting is the Tea Party.

At least Ross actually had a name with which to work. Other armchair detectives have been even less thorough. In 2011, when Jared Lee Loughner shot Representative Gabby Giffords and murdered six people in Tuscon, Ariz., conservative Americans were instantaneously treated to inane lectures about “right-wing rhetoric” — despite there being no link whatsoever between the shooter and any sort of “rhetoric.” Meanwhile, the Daily Kos’s Markos Moulitsas, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, and the New York Times’ Paul Krugman went one further, blaming Sarah Palin personally. Elsewhere, the most dull campaign rhetoric — stuff that is used routinely by both sides — was transmuted into hard evidence of guilt and complicity. “Look at that politician over there. He said ‘target’!”

Perhaps worst of all, Loughner was repeatedly described as a “right-winger” when, insofar as he had any ideology at all, friend Caitie Parker said, he was “left-wing, quite liberal.” For a depressing reminder of how tenaciously the press holds on to the idea that shootings are an inherently right-wing hobby, note that in October of this year, the New York Times’ Manny Fernandez blamed the Kennedy assassination on the “far right,” linked the Communist Lee Harvey Oswald to contemporary “gun-rights activists,” and contended that Dallas has stored up for it a “reckoning with its own legacy as the ‘city of hate,’ the city that willed the death of the president.” That there are still people who believe this 50 years later is a testament to the remarkable power that the narrative boasts.

Still, as any apparatchik worth his party card knows, there are two sides to any propaganda drive. Demonizing one’s enemies is important, certainly. But protecting one’s own team is the ultimate goal. With this in mind, take a look at the Denver Post’s extraordinary behavior this week after the shooting at Colorado’s Arapahoe High School. In the original story on the event, a student at the school describes his disgraced classmate as “a very opinionated Socialist”; in an updated version of the Post’s story, the shooter was not a socialist, but merely “very opinionated.” Why?

When an enterprising member of the public asked the paper’s senior news editor, Lee Ann Colacioppo, to justify this decision, she demurred. “The story is full of his political views,” Colacioppo wrote on Twitter. “The question is whether you let another student characterize him. Did you read it?” Legitimately unsatisfied, her inquisitor continued to push, provoking Colacioppo into adding, “We decided not to have another student apply a label to the shooter — a label the student likely didn’t even understand.” Instead, she noted, the Post “chose to use more concrete descriptions such as he ‘belittled Republicans.’”

Even before one looks more closely, this makes little sense. The sole purpose of the Post’s piece was to report how the shooter’s classmates saw him, so it is difficult to imagine why that particular characterization needed excising. Why, for example, is it okay for the student to “characterize” or “label” him as “opinionated” but not as a “socialist”? After all, the Post saw fit to include descriptions of the perpetrator as being “outside the mainstream,” as being a fan of “Keynesianism,” and as being a “good political thinker.” Are we honestly to buy that Colacioppo believes that the student who gave the quote has no idea what “socialist” means but others are perfectly read-up on “Keynesianism”?

In a similar vein, one has to ask this: If the Post honestly believes that the shooter’s fellow students are neither bright nor educated enough ably to judge the politics of one of their peers, then why did the paper quote them on his political thought in the first place? Indeed, one has to wonder whether they did their research properly. The “socialist” accusation was by no means unique to the quote they edited. In a CNN piece on the same subject, a young man said that the would-be killer was  “a self-proclaimed Communist, just wears Soviet shirts all the time.” Why were the editors in the dark?

Finally, one wonders: If the Post is so bothered by the prospect of allowing others to miscast a political position, then why did it fail to clarify its ambiguous line: “He had very strong beliefs about gun laws and stuff.” It couldn’t, perhaps, have hoped to mislead?

Bluntly, I couldn’t care less what the shooter’s politics were, because the chances of his having carried out the attack in service of an ideology are slim to nothing. As usual, the perpetrator seems to have been a disturbed individual who made a terrible decision and then took his own life. But that’s a tragedy, not political news — the domain of straight reporters, not the Sunday-show cognoscenti.

Nevertheless, there is a hideous double standard at play here, and one with which conservatives have every right to be exhausted. Had the words following “very opinionated” been “tea-party member,” “NRA enthusiast,” or even “young Republican,” do we honestly think that the Post would have excised them? Or do we know somewhere — deep down, maybe — that the editors would have bolded them, put them in 90-point font, included them prominently in the headline, and tweeted about them ad nauseam until the end of the year? I know the answer to this — and so do you. And that, I’m afraid, is a problem.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.


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