Americans Reject Role of Politics in Shooting, CBS's Couric Still Frets Over Rhetoric

Introducing a segment on Tuesday's CBS Evening News, anchor Katie Couric acknowledged the latest CBS News poll showing that 57% of Americans do not believe heated political rhetoric had anything to do with the Tucson shooting. Even so, she added: "Just the same, nearly half say the discourse has become less civil than it was ten years ago."

The poll numbers that appeared on screen showed that 49% of respondents thought political discourse was less civil than a decade ago, while 33% saw the civility level about the same, and 15 % thought the current political climate was more civil. In other words, Americans are evenly divided over the question, with 48% seeing no decline in civility over the last ten years.

To her credit, Couric spoke with former Republican Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who cautioned: "I don't think we want to get to a point where we're deterring or chilling free speech or passion or enthusiasm or the kinds of things that fuel grassroots politics activities." Couric offered: "Or principles." He continued: "Or principles. So that's not what I'm saying. I want to be clear about that. I'm just saying you can express yourself firmly and passionately and with conviction but you don't need to do in the a way that demeans others."

However, she then turned to Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, who "agrees it's time to lower the volume." Dionne admitted that the current political tone probably played no role in the shooting, but claimed that did not matter: "I don't think we need to draw any straight line between the discourse and what happened in Arizona to have second thoughts about the discourse. We've had a lot of violent talk in our politics....whether or not the discourse had anything to do with causing this, this ought to make us want to change our way of talking anyway."

Couric seemed to accept that sentiment as she wondered: "Will it, though? Is this really going to change anything?" Dionne replied: "It may change us. I hope it changes us."

Earlier in the broadcast, correspondent Ben Tracy had reported on the lack of any political motivation in the attack: "Investigators believe his alleged attack on Congresswoman Giffords, a moderate Democrat, was not partisan but a way to lash out at government in general. Records show Loughner is a registered independent. He voted in 2006 and 2008 but not in the most recent midterm elections, in which Giffords won a third term."


Here is a full transcript of Couric's January 11 segment:

6:41PM ET

KATIE COURIC: So was the suspect's violent behavior somehow stoked by today's political climate? Most Americans say no. A CBS news poll out tonight shows 57% say that had nothing to do with the Arizona shootings. Just the same, nearly half say the discourse has become less civil than it was ten years ago.

[ON-SCREEN GRAPHIC: Americans Debating the Issues Compared to 10 Years Ago; More Civil: 15%, Less Civil: 49%, About the Same: 33%]

I spoke with former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, a potential Republican presidential contender, about the role political figures play in all this.

TIM PAWLENTY: There's a term for that in politics. They say go out and give them the red meat. And so it's – think of that imagery of dangling raw meat in front of, you know, the predator. But all of us, in the case of the politicians, I don't think we want to get to a point where we're deterring or chilling free speech or passion or enthusiasm or the kinds of things that fuel grassroots politics activities.

COURIC: Or principles.

PAWLENTY: Or principles. So that's not what I'm saying. I want to be clear about that. I'm just saying you can express yourself firmly and passionately and with conviction but you don't need to do in the a way that demeans others.

COURIC: Political columnist E.J. Dionne agrees it's time to lower the volume.

E.J. DIONNE: I don't think we need to draw any straight line between the discourse and what happened in Arizona to have second thoughts about the discourse. We've had a lot of violent talk in our politics and if nothing else, this event should tell us that it's not so much that those words have consequences – although perhaps they do – violence is not part of democracy, violence is antithetical to democracy. And so whether or not the discourse had anything to do with causing this, this ought to make us want to change our way of talking anyway.

COURIC: Will it, though? Is this really going to change anything?

DIONNE: It may change us. I hope it changes us. It's 50 years ago next week that President Kennedy gave that great inaugural address in which he said 'civility is not a sign of weakness.' And I always loved that sign because civility sounds like such a weak virtue but it doesn't mean you don't have strong opinions, it doesn't mean you don't argue, it doesn't mean you compromise on everything. What it means is you don't hate the person you disagree with. You don't think the person you disagree with is stupid. You certainly don't threaten violence against the person you disagree with. That's what we need to rediscover, civility defined like that.

— Kyle Drennen is a news analyst at the Media Research Center. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC