The Tucson massacre, social media and political rhetoric

A few quick comments about the tragic events in Tucson and the strange direction it is now taking.

First, a note on social media in this event. This event, like most all major erupting news stories particularly since the Hudson River plane crash way back in early 2009, is played out primarily on the internet and particularly social media. I’m quite surprised by the observations of some who point out how wrong Twitter and therefore some of the major outlets got the story initially. This story from “lostremote” talks about how Twitter got it wrong, with many reporting that Congresswoman Giffords had died. Well, of course. The old story of emergency and crisis communication is that initial reports are almost always going to be wrong. It’s just in the old days, those initial reports took a lot longer to get out so there was more time to correct them before they traveled the globe. Now, reports right and wrong travel the globe in milliseconds and those initial reports go much farther much faster. What is more interesting is 1) how quickly in this social media environment of “collective intelligence” are the mistakes corrected 2) how major news outlets like Reuters and NPR got it wrong–precisely because they are getting their news now primarily from Twitter and other social media and 3) how the news outlets handle their corrections (Reuters removed their tweets while NPR corrected them with better information later and left the old ones out there–personally, I think NPRs approach will win the day.)

What fascinates me even more about this story is the way it is being politicized. I guess we have to get used to the idea that everything today is going to get politicized. When man bites dog these days, it is not only news but fodder for the endless commentators to decide whether or not the man or the dog was the Republican or Democrat and what societal stresses caused the man to behave in this way, and hidden motives there were for the dog not to bite back.

Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows how I feel about the political rhetoric today and how damaging and destructive it is to our public discourse, and particularly to the environment of distrust that pervades everything. I was so disheartened to see the term I have used for this kind of talk here, “Toxic Talk” being co-opted by a new book which denounces the rhetoric of the extreme right. Yes, much of the talk from the right is toxic. But as someone who has lived in a community during the Bush era that was dominated by left-oriented hate-filled language I firmly believe that both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of the phlegm that pervades our discussions. What has been more disheartening to me than anything is the degree to which this kind of talk–with a vulgarity, hatred and crudity not found even on FOX or MSNBC–almost dominating political talk on the internet among our young people.

But to turn the hideous actions of a deranged young man into attacks on Sarah Palin as CNN did last night is hypocritical to the extreme. While pretending to be talking about the problems and dangers of extreme politicization and bare-knuckled attacks, they do the same thing just strikes me as distasteful and disgusting. I haven’t watched FOX in response so I can only imagine what is going on there.

At the same time, I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Jack Fuller, the former publisher of the Chicago Tribune. The book, “What is Happening to News” takes the approach not of attacking the news purveyors (as I have done here so often) for how they have destroyed journalism, nor does he blame the news viewers whose ratings determine the behavior of the media outlets. Instead, the culprit is our over-messaged environment and the impact that it has on our brains as we process information. I won’t say more because I am in the early part of it. Applying neuroscience to understanding today’s journalism is potentially very important way of understanding what is going on.

Whatever the cause may be, and however hypocritical the news media’s navel gazing about the vitriolic political rhetoric may be, it is a good discussion to be having in our world. Like so many other things, I think we may look back and see that the level of disgust about how we talk to each other has been steadily rising. Then this sick kid from Tucson does his thing for reasons of his own, and suddenly it becomes the trigger to spur a much needed national discussion. Let’s not make the mistake of thinking however that this is about the sick kid. It’s about us, and what we need to do to make this world a little friendlier, more positive, more trusting place to live.

3 thoughts on “The Tucson massacre, social media and political rhetoric”

  1. I’ve wanted a more balanced view of this topic, and was trying to find time to try to write it myself. Then I followed a link from @shelholtz to this terrific post. Thank you for taking a breath and writing something meaningful, not spiteful.

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