Flashback: The Media Exploited Giffords’ Shooting to Slime Conservatives

November 5th, 2022 12:30 PM

An exceptionally repulsive feature of journalism these days is when media figures use tragedies to smear their political adversaries as dangerous threats. That’s clearly happening now, in the wake of last week’s savage hammer attack on Paul Pelosi — first thing Monday morning, for example, MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski flatly blamed “years of Republican propaganda and Trump-fueled fascism” for the crime.

It also happened in April 1995, after the horrific truck bomb in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, including many young children at a day care center. Stung by liberal losses in the 1994 midterms, Democratic politicians and the media smeared conservative talk radio as culpable. “Never do most of the radio hosts encourage outright violence,” NBC’s Bryant Gumbel smarmily suggested, “but the extent to which their attitudes may embolden and encourage some extremists has clearly become an issue.” (Read more here.)

And it happened in January 2011, weeks after Democrats lost control of Congress in midterm elections. Mere minutes after a mentally-ill man shot Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords and 18 other citizens, killing six — and before any actual information was known about the shooter and his motive — irresponsible journalists accused the conservative Tea Party for the bloodbath.

It was disgusting, and utterly without foundation. Yet in the days that followed the attack, the news was filled with accusations that harsh political rhetoric was at fault, and singled out conservatives by an eight-to-one margin. Then as now, liberal journalists exploited a terrible tragedy, perpetrated by a delusional schizophrenic, in order to discredit the wider conservative movement.

Here are just a few of the quotes from that time, starting just a short time after the shooting took place on January 8, 2011:

■ “I must tell you as a columnist who has covered politics in this state, it was inevitable, from my perspective....Because the right in Arizona, and I’m speaking very broadly, has been stoking the fires of a heated anger and rage successfully in this state.”
Arizona Daily Star columnist/cartoonist David Fitzsimmons appearing at about 2:30pm ET during CNN’s live coverage of the Giffords shooting, January 8, 2011.

■ “There is [sic] a lot of fringe groups that were very upset with the health care law, felt that the federal government was overstepping its bounds, and that was in — within everyone’s mind. It looks sadly like it’s come to fruition today.”
— NBC/MSNBC correspondent Luke Russert during MSNBC live coverage at about 3:30pm ET January 8, 2011.

■ “We don’t have proof yet that this was political, but the odds are that it was. She’s been the target of violence before....Her father says that ‘the whole Tea Party’ was her enemy. And yes, she was on Sarah Palin’s infamous ‘crosshairs’ list. Just yesterday, Ezra Klein remarked that opposition to health reform was getting scary....Violent acts are what happen when you create a climate of hate. And it’s long past time for the GOP’s leaders to take a stand against the hate-mongers.”
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman in a 3:22pm ET January 8, 2011 blog posting, less than two hours after news broke of Giffords’ shooting.

■ “Giffords was one of 20 Democrats whose districts were lit up in crosshairs on a Sarah Palin campaign Web site last spring. Giffords and many others complained that someone unstable might act on that imagery.”
— CBS’s Nancy Cordes on the January 8, 2011 Evening News.

■ “On Twitter and Facebook, there is a lot of talk, in particular, about Sarah Palin. As you might recall, back in March of last year, when the health care vote was coming to the floor of the House and this was all heating up, Palin tweeted out a message on Twitter saying ‘common sense conservatives, don’t retreat — instead reload.’ And she referred folks to her Facebook page. On that Facebook page was a list of Democratic members she was putting in crosshairs, and Gabrielle Giffords was one of those in the crosshairs.”
— CNN’s Jessica Yellin during the 10pm ET hour of Newsroom, January 8, 2011.

■ “While the exact motivations of the suspect in the shootings remained unclear, an Internet site tied to the man, Jared Lee Loughner, contained anti-government ramblings. And regardless of what led to the episode, it quickly focused attention on the degree to which inflammatory language, threats and implicit instigations to violence have become a steady undercurrent in the nation’s political culture.”
New York Times reporters Carl Hulse and Kate Zernike in a January 9, 2011 front-page item, “Bloodshed Puts New Focus on Vitriol in Politics.”

■ “Sarah Palin has been coming under some criticism. While there is no evidence her Web site featuring a target on Giffords’ district had anything to do with this attack, some are asking if today’s political rhetoric is inspiring the lunatic fringe?”
— NBC’s Matt Lauer teasing an upcoming segment on Today, January 10, 2011.

■ “Not since Timothy McVeigh attacked the federal building in Oklahoma City has a crime sparked so much attention on anti-government rhetoric. That map Sarah Palin put up on Facebook last year, targeting Congresswoman Giffords’ seat, made Giffords nervous, even then.”
— Correspondent Lee Cowan on Today, January 10, 2011.

■ “What’s been the role of talk radio in fueling the heated language?...People like Mark Levin, Michael Savage, for example who every time you listen to them are furious, furious at the Left with anger that just builds and builds in their voice, and by the time they go to commercial, they’re just in some rage, every night, with ugly talk. Ugly sounding talk. And it never changes.... And my question is doesn’t that give the moral license to people who have crazy minds to start with?”
— MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on Hardball, January 11, 2011.

Despite the falseness of these charges, the lie that conservative rhetoric was to blame for the shooting has seeped into our political discussion and stayed there. In 2018, seven years after the attack, NewsBusters’ Curtis Houck caught a Washington Post reporter falsely declaring that in “2010 right-wing anger/mobs played a role in dehumanizing Congress, helping lead to Giffords shooting in 2011.”

For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.