January 15, 2011

THE NEW REPUBLIC: How the Media Botched the Arizona Shooting. Er, totally?

When disaster strikes, journalists have to write something about it—and write it fast. That means they have to take mental shortcuts, calling up established narratives and laying them out like old wrapping paper for new and more ambiguous facts. (Wife poisons husband. Revenge killing? Money killing? Self-defense killing? We stand at the ready with a lot of templates.) While the resulting gift isn’t always pretty, it’s generally good enough for deadline work.

But sometimes the shortcuts produce a journalistic stampede at the worst possible time. That’s what happened last weekend, when 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner shot six people to death at an Arizona Safeway and gravely wounded many more, including Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The dominant storyline in the press—one that persisted in the face of all the facts—was that right-wing hysteria and lunacy had given rise to Loughner’s atrocity. Only on Wednesday night, when President Obama delivered a speech that effectively told everyone to cut it out, was the stampede halted (one hopes). But it’s still worth reviewing how the nation’s leading periodicals descended into such mindlessness.

Sadly, I don’t think most of them had to “descend” very far. Note, however, that local media did better.

E.B. White was onto this a long time ago.