When Violence Comes From the Right, Media Hear No Evil

Despite the work of media watchdog groups like Media Matters, and groups that track right-wing extremism, like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, the corporate media insist on ignoring the influence of the Far Right’s toxic rhetorical drumbeat of hatred and anger in promoting a political context where violence can break out.

In a page-one story in the New York Times, “Bloodshed Puts New Focus on Vitriol in Politics,” Carl Hulse and Kate Zernike, after grappling with the meaning of the shooting in Tucson Saturday of Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords, conclude their article with a quotation drawn from the web site of the Tea Party Nation:

“At a time like this, it is terrible that we do have to think about politics, but no matter what the shooter’s motivations were, the left is going to blame this on the Tea Party movement. . . . While we need to take a moment to extend our sympathies to the families of those who died, we cannot allow the hard left to do what it tried to do in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing. Within the entire political spectrum, there are extremists, both on the left and the right. Violence of this nature should be decried by everyone and not used for political gain.”

Basic journalistic standards should require the authors to clarify for their readers what their Tea Party source means by the “hard left,” and in what way, precisely, did the “hard left” misconstrue the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Instead, Hulse and Zernike close their piece with two bold lies from a dubious source without attempting to discern whether or not the assertions are true. Such is the state of our national “conversation” on the corrosive effects of right-wing extremism on our political discourse. Anyone reading the article who is unfamiliar with Timothy McVeigh’s ideology would have the impression that the “hard left” had perpetrated some kind of hoax regarding a domestic terrorist attack that killed 168 Americans including nineteen children.

The initial media coverage of the shooting in Tucson has been troubling, especially since there is a clear context of right-wing violence in recent years. Not long ago, during the 2008 presidential campaign, three white supremacists were arrested in Colorado for planning to assassinate then candidate Barack Obama. They had high-powered rifles, bulletproof vests, camouflage clothing, and walkie-talkies.

In April 2009, Richard Poplawski sparked a shoot out with Pittsburgh police officers using an AK-47 and wearing a bulletproof vest after posting blogs at the far-right Stormfront.org website where he had an account. He killed three officers: Paul Sciullo II, Eric Kelly, and Stephen Mayhle, and wounded two others. He believed that Obama was part of a conspiracy to take Americans’ guns away. One of Poplawski’s posts included a YouTube video link of Fox News host Glenn Beck ranting about the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) readying camps for dissidents.

That same month, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published an “intelligence assessment” titled “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.” The original commission for the report dated back to the Bush Administration and it was simply an attempt to warn federal, state, and local law enforcement of the growing threat of right-wing extremism. The DHS report evoked harsh criticism from right-wing media stars, such as Michelle Malkin who called it a “piece of crap report” that “is a sweeping indictment of conservatives,” and Bill O’Reilly, who claimed the “left” was just trying to pin the uptick in extremism on “the Glenn Beck guys.”

On May 31, 2009, a 51-year-old anti-abortion activist, Scott Roeder, shot Dr. George Tiller in the head as he left a Wichita church killing him instantly. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly had been hammering Dr. Tiller beginning in 2005 routinely calling him “Tiller the Baby Killer.” According to PolitiFact, O’Reilly had mentioned Tiller by name on his show forty-two times, and in twenty-four instances called him “Tiller the Baby Killer.” O’Reilly said on a November 2006 broadcast: “For more than year, ‘The Factor’ has been investigating Dr. George Tiller of Kansas. ‘Tiller the Baby Killer,’ as some call him, will perform late-term abortion for just about any reason.”

Ten days later, on June 10, 2009, an 89-year-old man, James von Brunn, double-parked his car in front of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, a block from the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and entered with a .22 rifle. He killed a 39-year-old security guard, Stephen Johns, and badly wounded another man. It was the first time the museum had been attacked in its sixteen-year history. Despite Brunn’s ties to all sorts of far-right white supremacist groups Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Jonah Goldberg all insisted he was a leftist. “This guy is a leftist, if anything,” Limbaugh said on his show. “This guy’s beliefs, this guy’s hate, stems from influence that you find on the left.”

Then came the “open carry” people showing up at Obama events; and the health care town hall disruptions; and the immigrant bashing; and the “Second Amendment remedies”; and the calls to “reload”; and the racist attacks against the first African-American president; and so on. And now on Saturday, January 8, 2011, a sitting member of the House of Representatives and a federal judge are gunned down at a friendly public gathering.

The corporate media like to play the faux balance game and claim that there are “extremists” on “both sides.” But the last time the “left” engaged in anti-government violence was forty years ago when an infinitesimally small group of white middle-class college kids pretended for a short time to be Tupamaros. Even radical environmental groups like Earth First!, which on occasion attacked corporate property, haven’t done anything in years.

Unfortunately, in 2009, President Obama failed to use the bully pulpit to explain to the American people the true causes of the Great Recession that continues to cause widespread suffering and confusion. Worse, he allowed his political and ideological opponents to fill the vacuum for him. By standing by the side of the big banks and giving Wall Street a get-out-of-jail-free card the rightwing was able to seize upon the unfinished business of cleaning up the mess and point to the failures of the federal government. With Beck, Limbaugh, and the rest of the right-wing media personalities leading the charge, they successfully shifted responsibility away from Wall Street and the oligarchy and toward progressives and Democrats. Even public employees and their unions have been singled out as culprits. Through his lack of clarity Obama allowed this shift to take place, much like the way he lost the handle on the narrative explaining his health care initiative.

This state of affairs bred a profound feeling of powerlessness and apprehension, as well as contempt for the government, always seething from the Far Right, but exacerbated mightily by the terrible economic news we hear every day. Soon town hall gatherings that normally would be civil affairs were degenerating into well-organized and well-financed slugfests and shouting matches.

And in this perilous atmosphere the corporate media insist on ventilating the most extreme and violent views — so long as they are emitted from the lips of right-wingers. Ann Coulter’s entire public career has been dedicated to this kind of vitriol directed at Democrats. Glenn Beck, Jonah Goldberg, and others have re-written American history to portray every Democratic politician from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama as Hitler-loving “liberal fascists.” Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage and the lesser radio personalities spend three hours a day smearing liberals. And then there’s Sarah Palin, who was ironically elevated to prominence by Arizona’s most famous politician, and whose unique brand of gendered sarcasm has brought this harsh rhetoric to a new level.

What media personalities does the “left” have to match any of these people?

Obama spoke on Saturday with feeling and gravitas about the tragedy that took place in Tucson. Why couldn’t he have spoken with similar feeling and gravitas about the tragedy of eight million Americans being thrown out of work, teachers and other public sector workers being laid off, and the shattering of the nation’s economy and self-confidence?

It took a crusty, 73-year-old Pima County, Arizona Sheriff, Clarence Dupnik, to say what few in the corporate media are willing to say:

“When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government,” he said during the news conference after the shooting. “The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry. Let me say one thing, because people tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol that we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of doing that. That may be free speech, but it’s not without consequences.”

Instinctively, the gatekeepers inside the mainstream media jumped on Sheriff Dupnik. On the Right the response was predictably shrill. Erick Erickson, who is a paid right-wing commentator for CNN, quickly deflected attention away from the political context of right-wing demagoguery. “The left is using this tragedy to score political points,” he wrote onhis blog. “Rep. Giffords was on Gov. Palin’s target list for defeat this past November. The left claims Gov. Palin has blood on her hands. So does the tea party movement. Let’s not let the left, yet again, spin this against the tea party movement, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or Sarah Palin inciting violence. That’s both a profound lie and just another, though lesser, bit of evil.” And this defense comes from a guy who called former Supreme Court Justice David Souter a “goat fucking child molester.”

joseph palermoThe irony here is stunning: The noise machine of the organized Right in this country — with its Echo Chamber, its 24-hour “news” channel, its think tanks and publishing houses, its talk radio, its money, and its power — thunders deafeningly throughout our political discourse. Yet when one of its members commits an act of violence the whole apparatus suddenly turns to convince us that the only noise it really makes is as quiet as the sound of a bird’s wing cutting the air.

Joseph Palermo

Published by the LA Progressive on January 10, 2011
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About Joseph Palermo

Joseph Palermo is Professor of History, California State University, Sacramento. Professor Palermo's most recent book is The Eighties (Pearson 2012). He has also written two other books: In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia, 2001); and Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson, 2008). Before earning a Master's degree and Doctorate in History from Cornell University, Professor Palermo completed Bachelor's degrees in Sociology and Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Master's degree in History from San Jose State University. His expertise includes the 1980s; political history; presidential politics and war powers; social movements of the 20th century; the 1960s; and the history of American foreign policy. Professor Palermo has also written articles for anthologies on the life of Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. in The Human Tradition in America Since 1945 (Scholarly Resources Press, 2003); and on the Watergate scandal in Watergate and the Resignation of Richard Nixon (CQ Press, 2004).