Attack Media

GOP rhetoric bears responsbility for attack on reporter at Palin rally

From Romenesko comes the news that a reporter for the Greensboro News & Record was attacked yesterday at a Sarah Palin rally in North Carolina. From Joe Killian’s account:

The man began to say something about how of course I was interviewing the Obama people when suddenly, from behind us, the sound of a pro-Obama rap song came blaring out of the windows of a dorm building. We all turned our heads to see Obama signs in the windows.

This was met with curses, screams and chants of “U.S.A” by McCain-Palin folks who crowded under the windows trying to drown it out and yell at the person playing the stereo.

It was a moment of levity in an otherwise very tense situation and so I let out a gentle chuckle and shook my head.

“Oh, you think that ‘s funny?! ” the large bearded man said. His face was turning red. “Yeah, that ‘s real funny…” he said.

And then he kicked the back of leg, buckling my right knee and sending me sprawling onto the ground.

In describing the event, The News & Record’s Mark Binker wonders “whether Republicans aren’t in some respect giving their supporters license for this sort of crap.” It is ludicrous to claim otherwise. The ugliness coming out of recent McCain rallies is directly attributable to the incendiary rhetoric being issued by his surrogates and advocates. One can’t create an atmosphere charged with anger and resentment and then feign bewilderment when some emotionally stunted mouthbreather acts on those sentiments. Governor Palin, during her time as a national figure, has especially demonstrated a disappointing readiness to stoke the us-versus-them mentality that undergirds much of the anti-intellectual, anti-press sentiment in America.

Like most prejudices, middle-class disdain for the press is rooted in reality. Most modern reporters come from highly educated backgrounds and tend to align with the moderate liberalism that is common among the urban privileged classes. There is a real disconnect these days between news reporters and many news consumers, and this problem must be addressed if the industry is to remain relevant.

But it is intellectually dishonest to extrapolate this disconnect into the claim that all news is therefore tainted by reporters’ personal political sympathies. Personal values are not supposed to matter in professions that conform to a set of universally observed standards, and there are few professions so fanatically obsessed with standards as is journalism. Highest among those standards is fairness. Most journalists have internalized the objectivity-and-balance mantra to the point where their reporting is sometimes crippled by it.

Attacking the press in this catch-all “dishonest left-wing media” formulation is dangerous in that, by its obvious falseness, it makes it easier to dismiss more legitimate criticisms of the press—like its pack mentality, or its perhaps subconscious classism. It also lets readers off the hook. Sometimes “they’re not telling the complete story” actually means “they’re not telling me what I want to hear.” The first of these complaints indicates poor performance on the part of the reporter. The second complaint indicates bias on the part of the reader.

“They’re not telling me what I want to hear” is by no means a strictly Republican complaint. Narrow-minded ideologues across the political spectrum resent reporting that doesn’t pander to their own prejudices and beliefs. But it is the Republican Party that has courted this resentment as a linchpin of its campaign strategy; has deliberately and cravenly confused populism with anti-intellectualism; has encouraged the notion that “the voice of the people” speaks only in simplistic, bullying tones. The McCain campaign, originally tuned as the moderate alternative to the Romneys and Huckabees of the world, has morphed into a campaign that has tied itself to a divide-and-conquer strategy, one that actively encourages its adherents to hate and distrust the national media because it represents the “other” America.

How, then, should reporters approach their jobs in such a hostile atmosphere? Some, like Jay Rosen, have suggested a strategy of disengagement, but I would contend that disengagement just ends up validating the huddled conspiracists’ us-versus-them framing. Instead, stay tough. Report well. Talk to as many people as possible. Record everything that happens at these rallies, and use that reporting as evidence with which to shame those people who insist on hijacking our national discourse with base, deceitful populism and intellectual thuggery.

Because it is hypocritical for the McCain campaign to disclaim responsibility when its followers violently act on the messages that they have been receiving. A man who incites a crowd to riot is just as liable for the ensuing destruction as the man who throws the first kick.

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Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.