Even two days after the supermarket parking lot shooting in Arizona that killed six and wounded Rep Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and a dozen others, the tragedy in Tucson was still making huge headlines. All three newscasts sent their anchors to the scene of the crime. All three offered saturation coverage, fully 89% of the three-network newshole (54 min out of 61--ABC 19 min, CBS 18, NBC 18). NBC called its newscast a special edition, with the title Tragedy in Tucson. CBS chose Tragedy in Tucson, while ABC, you guessed it, dubbed its special coverage Tragedy in Tucson.    
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video thumbnailNBCRep Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) assassination attemptMourning for six slain, prayers for woundedLester HoltArizona
video thumbnailNBCRep Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) assassination attemptAccused killer appears on court, held, no bailMiguel AlmaguerPhoenix
video thumbnailCBSRep Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) assassination attemptAccused killer Jared Loughner had troubled lifeBen TracyArizona
video thumbnailABCRep Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) assassination attemptPima County Sheriff Dupnik describes shootingDiane SawyerArizona
video thumbnailCBSRep Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) assassination attemptCitizen eyewitnesses responded with heroismJohn BlackstoneArizona
video thumbnailABCRep Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) assassination attemptThumbnail profiles of slain, wounded politicianDan HarrisArizona
video thumbnailABCRep Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) assassination attemptCongresswoman hospitalized with brain traumaDiane SawyerArizona
video thumbnailCBSRep Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) assassination attemptMedia dispute over role of political vitriolJeff GreenfieldNew York
video thumbnailCBSGuns: firearms control regulations debateLaws in Arizona are more permissive than mostDean ReynoldsArizona
video thumbnailNBCWinter weatherHeavy snows, icy roads across southeastRon MottAtlanta
POLITICAL VIOLENCE ATTRACTS ANCHORS’ ATTENTION Even two days after the supermarket parking lot shooting in Arizona that killed six and wounded Rep Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and a dozen others, the tragedy in Tucson was still making huge headlines. All three newscasts sent their anchors to the scene of the crime. All three offered saturation coverage, fully 89% of the three-network newshole (54 min out of 61--ABC 19 min, CBS 18, NBC 18). NBC called its newscast a special edition, with the title Tragedy in Tucson. CBS chose Tragedy in Tucson, while ABC, you guessed it, dubbed its special coverage Tragedy in Tucson.

Such intense coverage is equivalent to the peak attention accorded to the campus massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007 (116 mins over the first two days) and to the military base shooting at Fort Hood in 2009 (85 mins over the first two days). Those killings took 33 lives and 13 lives respectively. By contrast, the deadliest killing spree of 2010, at a Connecticut beer distributorship, ended in nine dead yet attracted just 15 minutes of coverage on the network nightly newscasts. The tragedy in Tucson was not newsworthy because of the scope of the mayhem--but for its presumed target. It was a story because the violence was political.

YET HUMAN INTEREST DOMINATED This eruption of political violence may have been the motive for such intense coverage but it hardly describes the majority of its content. There were scene-setting overviews of local prayers and mourning by NBC's Lester Holt and CBS anchor Katie Couric. ABC's Dan Harris filed thumbnail profiles of the six who were killed, ranging from Christina Green, a nine-year-old girl with "a precocious early interest in politics," to Federal Judge John Roll "who had just left Saturday morning mass."

All three anchors devoted time to extensive recreations of the crime scene itself. ABC's Diane Sawyer walked through a reenactment with Sheriff Clarence Dupnik of Pima County. NBC's Brian Williams profiled Daniel Hernandez, an intern of the congresswoman whose first aid helped save her life, and William Badger, a retired army colonel, who helped disarm the gunman. CBS' Couric introduced us to David and Nancy Bowman, a physician and a nurse, who were shopping nearby and rushed to the scene of the carnage to organize triage.

SAWYER SEARCHES FOR BIG LIFE LESSONS Another non-political theme was the heroism of the ordinary citizens as bullets whizzed by. This is a theme that anchor Diane Sawyer is devoted to on ABC: "In a moment of crisis, would you decide to take action?" she asked, as she teased Sharyn Alfonsi's report. "Becoming a hero--meet three who did and learn why." Almost a year ago, Tyndall Report observed that for Sawyer, "what journalism can do uniquely is to elucidate the true moral core of humanity. By bearing witness to how individuals behave in extremis, her journalism seeks to reveal what we humans are made of, irrespective of age or station, background or nationality." Add Alfonsi's essay on Daniel Hernandez and William Badger and Patricia Maisch, to Sawyer's own speculation about being trapped by an earthquake, or lessons on being rescued from a copper mine, as she introduced Bill Weir and John Quinones and Elizabeth Vargas. Or, on a more trivial note, Steve Osunsami's thought experiment about becoming a sudden multimillionaire.

"Science tells us most heroes are afraid but they have the unique ability to react, to not be paralyzed by their fear--just like those who ran into the towers, who leapt into the floodwaters, who used whatever they had to do what they could when it counted," was the florid conclusion of Alfonsi's think piece. Contrast that with John Blackstone's understated account of the same Tucson events on CBS.

THE CONGRESSWOMAN’S POLITICS Considering that the underlying event that made this shooting so newsworthy was that it was an assassination attempt on a congresswoman, there was remarkable little attention paid to Gabrielle Giffords herself. CBS anchor Katie Couric noted her recent outreach to a Republican friend: "We need to figure out how to tone our rhetoric and partisanship down." ABC's Dan Harris included a brief profile of Giffords as a "gun-owning Democrat who, in November, won her third election in a conservative district…Her positions were sometimes controversial with her constituents, but she pointedly refused to stop getting out and mixing with voters after her office was vandalized when she voted for health care reform."

ABC anchor Diane Sawyer and CBS' in-house physician Jennifer Ashton both visited the trauma unit at the University Medical Center where Giffords is in a coma, to report on the extent of her brain injuries. Sawyer tried to make a political point out of the routine neurological test in which an emergency physician asks a patient to show two fingers. Giffords "actually gave a peace victory sign," the anchor suggested. The doctors refused to play along with her attempt to uncover significance.

THE ACCUSED GUNMAN’S POLITICS Meet Jared Loughner, aged 22, held without bail on federal charges of murder and attempted assassination. NBC assigned Miguel Almaguer to the courthouse in Phoenix for his 15-minute appearance to file a not guilty plea. Almaguer noted that one of the murder counts involved the killing of a federal judge so the court's own public defenders recused themselves. Appointed instead was defense attorney Judy Clarke, "no stranger to high profile cases." Previous clients include Ted Kaczynski, convicted as the UnaBomber, and Timothy McVeigh, bomber of the Murrah Federal Building. Clarke has "the skill and perseverance in her career to do really good work in the most difficult of circumstances," a public defender told Almaguer.

CBS assigned Ben Tracy and ABC assigned Pierre Thomas to investigate what possible motive might have inspired the accused man. Loughner had applied to join the army but the recruitment center rejected him. He had attended the community college in Pima County but had been suspended. Yet his rage was apparently directed towards his federal representative instead. ABC's Thomas read Loughner's postings online and found "an obsession with violence and paranoia about the government." CBS' Tracy found "an online trail of anti-government videos." Tracy quoted from Loughner's YouTube slideshow: "The government is applying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar."

Back in 2007, Loughner had confronted Giffords: "What is government, if words have no meaning?" Tracy reported that Loughner "never got over" the fact that Giffords did not answer him. ABC's Thomas added, unhelpfully, that unidentified "investigators" had speculated to him that "Loughner became obsessed with the Giffords because of their American lifestyle"--whatever that means.

THE VIOLENCE OF POLITICAL RHETORIC So, if Jared Loughner's beef with Gabrielle Giffords dates back to a 2007 snub…if it concerns Orwellian notions of linguistic mind control…if it predates the healthcare reform debate over which Giffords' district office was vandalized…if it predates the gunshot sights over Giffords' district posted by Sarah Palin as part of the midterm election campaign…how did the nightly newscasts manage to shoehorn this lone local incident of political violence into a national political narrative?

ABC assigned Jake Tapper to try to do the job from the White House. CBS handed the task to longtime politics watcher Jeff Greenfield. NBC chose Andrea Mitchell, doyenne of its DC bureau.

The hook was the statement by Sheriff Clarence Dupnik of Pima County. NBC's Mitchell noted that "the issue blew up right after the shooting with the Tucson sheriff's first briefing. He lit up the Internet by blaming the media"…"As the first shock waves from the story were spreading, the words of that county sheriff helped set off an incendiary debate," CBS' Greenfield recalled…ABC's Tapper called Dupnik "among the first to take up this charge" quoting the sheriff thus: "The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country, is getting to be outrageous."

Dupnik's argument was that incendiary political rhetoric, ad hominem figurative attacks on politicians, and verbal assaults against the institutions of government create an atmosphere in which literal political violence is no longer taboo. ABC' Tapper quoted Rep James Clyburn (D-SC) paraphrasing the sheriff thus: "The vitriol has gotten so elevated until people feel emboldened." CBS' Greenfield turned to campaign visuals, noting that "the image of the gun as a symbol of resistance is broadly popular." NBC's Mitchell had the money soundbite from an interview Rep Giffords herself gave to MSNBC in protest against Palin's graphics: "The way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun over our district. When people do that, they have got to realize there are consequences to that action."

This hypothesis concerning the possibility that literal violence is facilitated by rhetorical violence spawned the blame game and the dilemma of false equivalency. False equivalency: are all participants in political discourse equally responsible for its tone? The blame game: are some partisans more culpable than others?

CBS' Greenfield used history to thread this needle. He argued that anti-government violence had been a rhetorical favorite of "some intellectuals on the left" a generation ago but that "these days the harshest words about government usually come from the right." He quoted Newt Gingrich and FOX News Channel's Dick Morris by name.

NBC's Mitchell also quoted FNC, giving Glenn Beck an opportunity to defend himself against those in "the media" who fail to find equivalency between left and right and instead seek to locate blame among his allies: "They are desperately using every opportunity to try to convince you that, somehow or another, Sarah Palin is dangerous." Mitchell also quoted Palin herself denouncing the "BS coming from the lamestream media lately about us inciting violence." Mitchell is quoting a couple of straw men here. No one called Palin dangerous; no one accused her of inciting violence. Giffords' charge was reckless use of rhetoric and imagery. Mitchell's report was inclined not to cast blame but to find equivalency instead, characterizing the controversy as a "debate over political speech between right and left."

ABC's Tapper, too, characterized the argument as one about "ugly talk in the political arena" generally speaking, not about the culpability of a certain set of partisans. Tapper heard conservative talkradio level "charges of political opportunism" against Giffords' Democratic colleagues. Tapper quoted Rush Limbaugh's warning that concerns about inflammatory rhetoric were a stalking horse: "What this is all about is shutting down any and all political opposition and eventually criminalizing it." Tapper did not comment on the credibility of Limbaugh's warning.

Personally, I think that Sheriff Dupnik's media criticism reached too far, generalizing, in a state of grief, from one particularly toxic corner of the southwest about the national mood of the body politic. That is not to endorse the violence-riddled gun-addled discourse in the most paranoid precincts of reactionary conservatism. Of course their rhetoric should be more moderate--but that would be true with or without the Tragedy in Tucson. Linking such language to these killings, by making such over-the-top hypotheses about their influence, makes the mistake of elevating its speakers to a status of self-righteous victimhood.

HOW THE NETWORKS COVER ARIZONA In a more measured moment, being interviewed by CBS anchor Katie Couric, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik made a more precise observation about the relationship between this act of political violence and the overall political atmosphere. Here he did not address the national scene but the state of Arizona, calling it a "Mecca for prejudice and bigotry." Presumably referring to his colleague in Maricopa County, Dupnik complained: "If you are in law enforcement and you are not a right-winger, you get all kinds of heat from the right-wing nuts." He called Arizona's concealed weapons laws "the height of insanity. I do not know what else they can do. Maybe they can pass a law that would require that every child have an Uzi in their crib."

I have never visited Arizona myself. I am sure that it is not as extreme as it is portrayed. Yet if one looks at the network newscast playlist of stories with a Phoenix or an Arizona dateline over the past four years, one cannot avoid the impression of a state whose civic discourse is imbued with callousness, extremism, violence and vigilantism. Just last week, NBC' Miguel Almaguer quoted a Border Patrol representative who took it for granted that cops have the right to kill teenagers who throw stones at them. ABC's Mike von Fremd and CBS' Ben Tracy told us of a pair of transplant patients left to die because the state's Medicaid would not pay for their surgery.

CBS' Dean Reynolds surveyed Arizona's firearms regulations in the wake of the Tucson shootings. He found them "among the most permissive gun laws in the nation." In Arizona, he commented "firearms and politics go together," showing the advertisement run by a Tea Party opponent in the November elections: Meet Pamela Gorman, conservative Christian and a pretty fair shot. A fundraiser for Rep Gabrielle Giffords' opponent involved target practice with an M-16. He visited the University of Arizona to inquire about the prospect of allowing concealed weapons: "There is a lot of drinking going on campus and it just would not be safe," a frightened student laughed hollowly.

Last year saw coverage of John McCain repudiating a raft of bipartisan policy positions in order to fend off a primary challenge. It saw incumbent governor Jan Brewer fabricate stories of decapitated corpses dumped in the desert. It saw coverage--by ABC's Bill Weir and NBC's Lee Cowan and CBS' Kelly Cobiella--of the prospect of ethnic cleansing of the state's urban Mexican neighborhoods for fear of police racial profiling under the state's immigration laws. Arizona is an epicenter of the real estate foreclosure crisis. Right across its border is incessant narcotrafficking violence of unspeakable magnitude: CBS' Armen Keteyian and ABC's Brian Ross have covered its spread into Phoenix itself.

Even if Sheriff Dupnik exaggerated when he characterized the national political tone, the political violence the networks flocked to Tucson to cover in such detail certainly comports with the image they have consistently portrayed of Arizona.