05/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Irresponsible Vitriol in the Media

The most striking feature of the 2008 election may have been the nature and harshness of the attacks directed at now-President Barack Obama. Though they came from many sources, arrived through a variety of media, and covered a wide range of subjects, these attacks followed three broad themes: Obama is a Muslim or somehow foreign or unknown; he's an angry black nationalist; and he's a liberal elitist with a radical, even socialist agenda.

As baseless and disturbing as those attacks were, anyone paying attention to the media lately knows that they are now simply the backdrop for even more vitriolic fear-mongering by conservative -- and even some mainstream -- media figures.

Obama or his policies have been equated with socialism by hosts on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and CNBC. Fox News vice president Bill Sammon recently said that President Obama has an "agenda towards socialism," while Fox News personalities Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck call Obama a socialist on almost a nightly basis. A New York Times reporter even asked Obama: "Are you a socialist as some people have suggested?"

But charges of socialism are tame compared to some of the accusations now being hurled at Obama. Kevin Hassett, a Bloomberg News columnist, wrote a March 9 column asserting that Obama is "giving us the War on Business" and "legislat[ing] like a Manchurian Candidate." The next day, Rush Limbaugh read extensively from the column on his radio show, while Beck said on Fox: "I read an article ... that said 'the Manchurian Candidate couldn't destroy us faster than Barack Obama.' "

Hannity has called Obama "a president that is far more radical than anybody ever dreamed," and a recent promo for his show asked if Obama's budget is "a way for the government to completely control our lives." Radio host Michael Savage said that the "radical left," including Obama, "dream[s]" of "Maoist revolution" complete with "death camps." Beck claims to be unable to debunk the existence of camps, allegedly being set up by the Federal Emergency Management Administration, for the mass imprisonment of Americans who disagree with Obama's policies. According to Beck, "If you have any fear that we might be heading toward a totalitarian state, look out. Buckle up. There is something happening in our country, and it ain't good." Limbaugh has told his listeners that Obama is "an extremist tyrannical president" who "is seeking as much chaos and depression among average Americans as he can get."

And these are just some of the most prominent, national media figures. On local and regional talk radio and the conservative blogs, the vitriol is even worse.

What are these people thinking? Have they forgotten those moments during the campaign where people in the crowd at McCain-Palin rallies called Obama a "terrorist" and a "traitor," and on at least one occasion reportedly yelled: "Kill him" and "Off with his head"? Don't they remember that late in the campaign things got so scary that CNN senior political analyst David Gergen warned on the air that the whipping up of fear and anger "could really lead to some violence," adding: "I think we're not far from that''?

Do they not recognize the obvious danger in repeating these smears during a moment of deep public uncertainty about the economy? Do they care?

We're less than 100 days into the Obama administration. The economy could get worse.

More people are likely to lose their homes or their jobs. It is the height of irresponsibility during such moments for media figures to tell the public that their President -- about whom they routinely heard was a radical, Manchurian candidate, and potential terrorist who wanted to re-distribute their wealth and take their guns -- is pushing the country toward a socialist or fascist state.

Fear has been used to stoke political violence in our nation since its inception. And perhaps nothing threatens to undermine confidence in our economy and trust in our democratic system of government more than inflammatory rhetoric aimed at exacerbating economic angst and insecurity. As evidenced by the public's vitriol over the AIG bonuses, including death threats to AIG employees, Americans' anger is palpable.

Media figures have a responsibility not to exacerbate that anger -- even if they are pundits, even if they are conservatives, even if they want Obama to fail.