AZ-8’s Indian Name: Brushes with Violence


Something that’s particularly troubling in the left’s response to the Jared Loughner shooting rampage is the increasing corruption of “straight news.” Opinion is one thing: the effort of left-wing pundits to harden public ideas is appalling in its transparent mendacity – but transparent mendacity is at least

transparent. Opaque mendacity, of the kind worked into putatively factual narratives, is more difficult to detect, and perhaps ultimately more deadly.

One of the first things I read after Jared Loughner’s attack was an article in the national news section of the Los Angeles Times entitled “A calm voice in a divided district.” Said the blurb: “Before Saturday’s shooting, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had several other brushes with violence. ‘She’s one of the strongest women I know,’ says a former congresswoman.”

Two implications seem clear from this: that Giffords’s “divided” district is not calm – in a sense that relates to the Loughner attack – and that Giffords herself has faced “several” previous attacks or attempted attacks. The article then outlines two “brushes with violence.” One was the vandalizing of her Tucson office after the ObamaCare vote in March 2010. No one was present when the office’s glass door was shattered shortly before 3:00 AM, but the vandalism is certainly to be condemned. If instances of direct violence against Ms. Giffords were adduced in the article, the vandalism attack might reasonably be accepted as a similar kind of event. But the vandalizing of her office is the only act cited that even approaches “violence.”

The other incident is reported as follows in the Los Angeles Times article:                

During a town hall meeting with constituents in 2009 at the height of the healthcare debate, a protester showed up with a gun. Police were called, but Giffords made light of the incident.

The casual reader might be pardoned for wondering why he never heard about this event; some wild-eyed protester brandishing a gun at a congresswoman would seem to be pretty newsworthy. The original reports, however, reveal that the wording in the Los Angeles Times is utterly misleading.

A more accurate account of the incident is that a gun-owner dropped his handgun, apparently by accident, at the Giffords townhall. Giffords herself didn’t see the gun fall, nor did her staffers. The police were called by a citizen in attendance, not by Giffords’s staff. The gun-dropping incident wasn’t reported at all in the story run by the local newspaper in Douglas, Arizona. The first media reporting of it came 6 days later in the blog of an Arizona Republic writer (link above). Giffords had this to say about the event: “A lot of people carry firearms here… at no point did I ever feel in danger and at no point did I ever feel there was a problem.”

But the Los Angeles Times article doesn’t tell us any of that. It goes out of its way instead to imply that the incident was an attempt at violence against Gabrielle Giffords. The story couples this manufactured implication with the March 2010 vandalism incident to suggest that Giffords has been beset by a pattern of violence – which the story links via the headline to “a divided district.”

This exercise in impressionism might win applause from Claude Monet, but it ought to get the journalists in question sent to their time-out corner for the rest of 2011. Perhaps many old-media journalists genuinely believe that dropping a legally carried handgun is inherently an act of violence. But that reasoning wouldn’t clarify why the authors of this article failed to report that that’s what happened.

By omitting key details and selectively juxtaposing impressions, they create the implicit outline of a particular, tendentious narrative. The effect for the reader of news is much like the skeptical moviegoer’s sensation of being manipulated by Hollywood screenwriting. And when such disingenuous rhetorical devices are detected in operation, the bond of trust with the audience is irrevocably broken. In the case of news reporting, that seems to be as much cause for sorrow as for indignation.

"Brushes with violence"

J.E. Dyer blogs at Hot Air’s Green Room and Commentary’s “contentions.”  She writes a weekly column for Patheos.

38 thoughts on “AZ-8’s Indian Name: Brushes with Violence”

  1. I read the LATimes article to which you linked, didn’t see very much made of the gun incident. I didn’t see very much at all in the story that was even mildly mendacious or at all an attempt to stir things up.

    I realize that you may be more finely attuned to mendacity than the average person, but sometimes opaque really is opaque.

    1. Nice try, fuster. The authors used the gun-dropping incident as an example of a brush with “violence.” It wasn’t one.

      Naturally, everyone SHOULD just take my word for that. But for those who aren’t TOC regulars, it’s useful to go through the documentation and analysis.

        1. Actually, it was given as an example of violence. If you have a case, make it. My is laid out already.

          1. Actually, it was not given as that or written as that. Read it Dyer. If your gonna run a critique of the article calling it mendacious, you owe to yourself, if not everyone, to get the basic facts correct.

            You might also give your lead sentence a long second look. It could do with a revision.

            If your laid out case is that there are inaccuracies in news reporting and that there are tendencies toward the slanting of news that lead to scanting of fact, you’ve got a bit of a case.
            If you think that it’s a manifestation of leftist bias in news reportage, you might have less of a case. If you think that it’s something news, you don’t have a case.

            If you stand by “the left’s response to the Jared Loughner shooting rampage is the increasing corruption of “straight news.””, you have a case of something that you shouldn’t have.

            1. You are incorrect, fuster, and you have offered no argument whatsoever for your stated position. The gun-dropping incident is offered, precisely, as an example of a brush with violence suffered by Gabrielle Giffords. Stop making irrelevant ad hominem comments and make a relevant argument if you want to make this a conversation.

              1. what does this say, JED?

                “has already had brushes with danger on the job.”

                what exactly is incorrect about saying that this does not say violence? where in the article did you read


  2. In about 1995, at about year #7 of my 10-year service in a career position within the Executive Office of the President, something about the media finally dawned on me. I had grown accustomed to detecting (and counting) errors in straight news stories concerning subjects about which I had special factual knowledge because of my job. (Detecting and counting errors became a parlor game played to discern the identities of the ubiquitous anonymous sources.) Errors were frequent and flagrant. Sometimes I inferred bias on the part of the reporter; sometimes not. Even good reporters can be led astray by motivated sources, especially when they can stay anonymous.

    Then why did I reflexively trust the rest of the newspaper? Why did I trust the accuracy of straight news stories covering issues about which I had only lay knowledge? The result of this epiphany is I stopped assuming that *any* straight news reporting was accurate. For years the only content in the newspaper I am sure is mostly accurate are the stock tables, the box scores, and some of the comics.

    This is not an act of post-modern cynicism. It is the application of Bayesian statistics. Over the past 15 years, the propensity of reporters to “tell narratives” rather than “report news” has become so pervasive that it is no longer newsworthy that news reporting is not straight, but bent.

  3. I have worked in police investigations for nearly 18 years. About half of the stories I read about significant crimes to which I am privy contain glaring errors. About a quarter contain significant omissions or misleadingly rendered facts. Of the remaining that were accurate, almost all were written by a single reporter. He invariably gives the who, what, where, when and little else but well written background. Over the years I have watched his less accurate colleagues pass him by and go to editorial positions, award presentations and bigger newspapers. He still toils, relatively unseen and unnoticed in the lower realms of the crime and courthouse beat.

  4. Richard Belzer — I agree, it’s no longer newsworthy that “news” reporting is frequently just narrative-building. It seems useful now and then to make the point, particularly when it’s not a matter of opinion being explicitly expressed but of “facts” being misrepresented. But we can hardly be surprised by it.

    I saw earlier today that in spite of the narrative-blitz since Saturday, a significant majority of poll respondents said they thought Jared Loughner’s motives were non-political. One question that raises in my mind is the extent to which narrative-building by the MSM is simply dismissed or ignored by the public.

    The odd thing about that, if it too is a pervasive trend, is how closely it mirrors the attitudes of peoples in authoritarian states toward their media. Clearly we in the US don’t have state-controlled media in the classic 20th-century sense, but it can be argued that the MSM have themselves incurred a reputation as untrustworthy purveyors of propaganda themes, much like media officially controlled by the state.

    We’re in somewhat uncharted territory here, I think. It’s true that new media, by giving the people alternative sources and forums, function as an enabler and relief valve. It’s also true that it was never necessary to the project of limited government or liberty that there be a monolithic American media speaking to a trusting public with a unified voice. In a sense, we have come full circle over the last 50 years, from the historical oddity of supposedly impartial national broadcasting and newspapers to the more universal situation of multiple news outlets with widely-understood editorial perspectives.

    But that said, we HAVE the MSM today, and our information environment is still organized around them. I wonder how long social unity can persist, on basic definitions and understandings, as this dysfunctional situation hardens. One substantial group heavily invested in the narrative and lingering mystique of the old media — wide swaths of the public ignoring and/or rejecting their product.

    A number of commentators have remarked on the growing disparity in how people of different political backgrounds perceive ideas and events. But what’s remarkable today is not the number of people who take care to deconstruct the MSM narrative. It’s the number of people who don’t even think it’s worth the bother.

    1. I am concerned that too much attention has been devoted to the factual inaccuracy of the MSM’s attempted linkage of the shooter to political views that the MSM finds distasteful. Perhaps in this case there is no such linkage. But in a nation of 308 million people, it could have been otherwise. Easily.

      Suppose the counterfactual had been true? Then calls to silence opposing views would have resonated with a large fraction of “independents” — those for whom political choices come from a Chinese menu rather than principled convictions of any sort. And thus the attempt to silence opponents might have succeeded.

      Conservatives should be arguing a different point, that the motives of the shooter are interesting but irrelevant. Responsibility rests with the individual regardless of motive. It is the only organizing principle consistent with a free society.

      1. You’re exactly right. If a society lacks free speech it lacks all possibility of freedom from oppressive government.

  5. Thanks for the interesting take on the situation J.E. There is another aspect of the way the media works that’s seldom commented on. Years ago, before we cancelled it, I noticed that the Philadelphia Inquirer would invariably run its award winning investigative pieces about Philadelphia Democratic Party politics and corruption just after elections, never before. Clearly an editor there realized that when the news is presented is more important than how.

    On the editorial page I would note that the Inquirer almost always endorsed one Republican candidate to demonstrate its fairness. He or she was always in an absolutely safe Democratic district and thus presented no danger of actually being elected.

    To this day I faithfully return the Inquirer’s snail mail solicitations after scrawling on them a brief note to the effect that I enjoy costing them the postage.

  6. We’ve had hundreds and hundreds of protesters over the course of the last several months. Our office corner has really become an area where the Tea Party movement congregates. And the rhetoric is incredibly heated. Not just the calls, but the emails, the slurs. So things have really gotten spun up. But you gotta think about it. Our democracy is a light, a beacon really around the world, because we effect change at the ballot box, and not because of these outbursts — of violence in certain cases, and the yelling, and it’s just … you know, change is important, it’s a part of our process, but it’s really important that we focus on the fact that we have a democratic process.”

    “I think it’s important for all leaders, not just leaders of the Republican Party or the Democratic Party … community leaders, figures in our community to say, ‘Look, we can’t stand for this.’ I mean, this is a situation where people really need to realize that the rhetoric, and firing people up, and even things … For example, we’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list, but the thing is, the way she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district. And when people do that, they’ve gotta realize there’s consequences to that action.”

    “In the years that some of my colleagues have served, twenty, thirty years, they’ve never seen it like this. We have to work out our problems by negotiating, working together, hopefully Democrats and Republicans.”

    –Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, March 25, 2010.

    1. Nice quote. Representative Giffords sounds like a very reasonable person.

      I wonder if her staff took video to document the slurs, and provided copies of the emails and recordings of the calls to the Secret Service or the local police.

    2. I understand, by the way, why so many on the left is intensely disappointed and lashing out in frustration. You saw the same sort of thing among fight fans disappointed after their own hopes were raised to high levels.

      Loughner is the latest in a long line of great right hopes that have let the left down.

    1. Meanwhile, in other news, my tractor is back from its stay in the hospital and last night’s snow here was the perfect depth to test its mettle. I cleared the driveway in two perfect passes that woulda made Manolete proud.

      I hope Blumenthal and his reluctant minions got you plowed out up there fuster. And that you didn’t strain yourself shovelling the old Ukrainian woman’s sidewalk.

      Does she give you Pampushky and coffee after?

      1. actually, she complained that I was shoveling incorrectly and that my hands were insufficiently calloused.

        1. Onto the one with uncalloused hands,
          The scorn of eastern Europe lands,
          Even as snow is moved in heaps.
          My heart, my heart, my heart, it leaps,
          The world, the world, for fuster weeps,
          Unloved for lack of sinewy hands,
          And arms like tough wrought iron bands.

        2. Denied a Pampushky,
          By the aged non-Russky,
          As he so weary stands,
          And aching unhands,
          The shovel he wielded,
          To which the snow yielded.

          1. naw, there was no unhanding of the shovel. after I finished shoveling the walk, she had me shovel out her concreted backyard so that the people who pay her a monthly fee to park there would get their money’s worth.

            no pampushky, not even a bublik.

            1. But think of the merit you added to your life book. Plus, she’s probably over there right now lighting a candle for you.

  7. The disingenuous nature of “factual” news is the very reason I have boycotted the Boston Globe, Washington Post, NYTimes and LATimes.

    I too have seen inaccuracies in the few newspaper articles where I happened to to know the real story. Although not necessarily because of disingenuous reporting but because someone told the reporter an untruth. It makes you wonder how much you read is truly accurate. It’s a little depressing.

    I just heard Pelosi refer to the Tucson shooting as an “accident.”

  8. OK, y’all got my attention. I looked up the article and there is no way you could interpret the misrepresentation of the gun-dropping incident as anything other than an example of what the reporter calls “brushes with danger.”

    Now, if the reporter had said that Rep Giffords had had previous experience with fumble-fingered constituents, that would be different, and more accurate.

    One of the great mysteries of life is the blind faith placed in newspaper and television reportage. We have all had an experience, I trust, where we witnessed an incident or event and then read about it in the paper. Most of the time, there are significant errors in the story. Yet, every time there is an incident that we did not personally observe, we have an instinctive trust of whatever is written about it in the newspaper.

    1. Some of the inaccuracy is innocent. Even in court under oath eye witnesses lie and/or remember contradictory things.

      An old lawyer who was owner/editor of our local paper once told me that every lawyer envies the reporter’s freedom to print what amount to speculations and best guesses; and every reporter envies the lawyer’s ability to cross examine witnesses and sources closely under oath.

  9. See post updated with screen image of the article blurb. “Brushes with violence” is a direct quote from the blurb. In fact, it’s a direct copy/paste from the blurb. That’s how it was inserted in this post.

    1. Which is all the more reason to highlight it. 99% of readers read only the title, blurb, and first 4-5 paragraphs. The title and blurb are the leading elements in the communication with the reader.

      1. And I’ll grant that the headlines and the blurb create an impression, but I’ll again ask you to amend your claims about the story and the authors.

        You said in the essay……”The article then outlines two “brushes with violence.” ”

        The article didn’t say that.

        You siad in your reply to me …. “The authors used the gun-dropping incident as an example of a brush with “violence.” ”

        The Authors did not say that.

        You’re confusing the reporters with the headline and blurb writers. That’s so wrong. The headline and blurb writers are indeed out for sensationalism and to attract readers because their job is to sell papers. All of them are hard-core conservative capitalists and tools of the free-market. Honesty is not their best policy. They’re only in it for the money!

        1. Still wrong, fuster. The distinction you make is meaningless, given that the authors are the ones who did not depict the gun-dropping incident accurately.

          If they had done so, it would have been manifestly absurd to include it as an example of even “danger” to Gabrielle Giffords specifically — having, by implication, the same premeditated character as the act of deliberate destruction to her office. But they mischaracterized the gun-dropping event by omission, leaving the unmistakable suggestion that there was, in fact, such a similarity between the two incidents. To argue otherwise would be to impugn the rationality of the authors.

          I am encouraged, however, to determine that you have not lost your mind, but are merely arguing a very silly point.

          1. How exactly did the authors mischaracterize the protester-dropping-gun incident?
            Leaving the impression that someone carrying a weapon to come and protest the Congresswoman’s event, not having the weapon secure to the point that he loses control of it and allows a gun to hit the floor might represent a brush with danger is inaccurate to the point of mendacity?

            You take that for your thesis and you tell me I’m being silly?

            The large point, opticon, is that there were things going on around the Congresswoman that she thought indicated that there was a distinct possibility of real violence. She said as much.

            You can read what she said in the quotation that I posted above.
            You may not like the article, you may think that it’s an exaggeration or stretches things out of proportion, but somehow you’re going to have to account for the fact that the Congresswoman was correct about impending violence.

  10. Richard Belzer — sorry your 11:52 (13th Jan) comment had to go into moderation. Not clear why; usually it’s because a commenter uses a different email address, or includes multiple hyperlinks.

    The problem with your comment is that it circles back — with no historical justification — to the theme that shooters COULD be motivated by politics. There is no reason to focus on that, for one thing because we don’t have a pattern of politically motivated shooters attacking either our politicians or our civilians.

    The only conceivable purpose for focusing on the possibility in this way is to imply that politics is too dangerous to let people say what they want to about.

    When Democrats put bullseyes on maps of the US, I don’t fear that their images are an invitation to “extremists” to shoot arrows at Republicans. When novels are written about the murder of George W. Bush, I don’t assume that it’s only a matter of time before some left-wing punk is inspired by that imagery to attack Bush or another Republican president. I could go on and on; a nice summary of the violent, hateful, and/or repulsive imagery with which Democrats have attacked Republicans over the last decade was assembled at Michelle Malkin’s website, and readers can enjoy listing all the things these episodes don’t make them afraid of, if you’re so inclined:

    Or, alternatively, list the things these instances DO make you afraid of. But the question of what we should then do, if we’re afraid that political speech will incite shooting rampages or other attacks, is the important one. An awful lot of things MIGHT happen, but it would be tendentious and irresponsible to speculate about those things in public policy forums when no link has been established.

    Hollywood is at liberty to make all the movies and episodes of Law & Order it wants to make featuring fictional, politically motivated shooters. That doesn’t make politically motivated shooters a problem for public order or safety.

    On the other hand, obviously deranged individuals remaining free to pursue plans of violence against their fellow men can justly be called a recurring problem. Discussing that problem doesn’t scratch the itch of what annoys us about the other side of the political aisle — and it carries its own set of issues relating to liberty, the proper role of law, and the proportional application of it. But if we want to talk policy, that’s where we should be focusing.

  11. In a speech, April 26, 2002, Michael Crichton wrote about speculation dominating contemporary media:

    “…. Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I call it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)
    Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward — reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.
    In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story — and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.
    That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.
    But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.
    So one problem with speculation is that it piggybacks on the Gell-Mann effect of unwarranted credibility, making speculation look more useful than it is….”

    1. Thanks, cm — very nice quote. Crichton was sui generis. He left us too soon.

  12. BTW — Richard B., I meant to add that I agree with you on this point: regardless of his motives, the shooter is the one to be held responsible.

    But no one should cede the point being urged by the left about shooting rampages motivated by politics. Doing so isn’t either necessary or advisable in support of laying out a separate point. I would make both points, rather than ceding one in principle in order to focus on another.

    One thing to keep in mind in this regard is that we have already criminalized a motive — “hate” — separately from the actual act of violence. Our law is already on the slippery slope toward criminalizing thought. Ceding the speculative point that shootings “could be” motivated by political ideas puts a big dent in the wall of protection around our political speech.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: