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Tucson: Is Talk Media Off the Hook?

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At a time when we most needed it, President Barack Obama put in perspective the tragic events that took place in Tucson and offered words of healing to a profoundly affected nation. His remarks allowed all of us to grieve with the families of the victims and, contrary to what's been happening in the media this past week, gave us direction on where to properly place our sorrow.

However, as I awoke to the morning news, it was clear that those within the talk media world heard something different. Conservative pundits insisted on finding fault with the President's remarks anyway they could, and progressive talkers were railing about Sarah Palin's "Blood Libel" remark. Both sides continuing to point the finger of blame to the other. Both sides blaming the other for contributing to a climate of anger in the United States.

Without question, we live in a toxic political environment in the United States fueled by the media. And despite the president's urging for calm at this difficult time in our nation's history, an important question remains unanswered -- is the media responsible at all for what happened in Tucson? In the face of such a tragedy, is it appropriate to examine if the media is culpable -- no matter how unintentional? Might the emotional and often toxic opinions of Palin, Limbaugh, Beck and Fox News create enough anxiety within our nation so that a mentally unstable person in a moment of anger might snap?

Anytime an assassination attempt is made on one of our nation's leaders, it is entirely proper to examine anything that may have led to such an act. And the media and political punditry should be no exception.

Was Jared Lee Loughner mentally unstable? All indicators point to that being the case. But there are also indications that part of his obsession was government and politics. Could it be possible that this already unstable person was being further influenced and maybe even provoked by the heated and polarizing political discussion taking place in the media? A former friend of Loughner claims he was completely non-political. He never watched the news or listened to talk radio. Then why the obsession with government and with Congresswoman Giffords? To assume that he acted randomly with no external influence whatsoever defies logic.

Political assassins have often been influenced by the vitriolic propaganda of their time. John Wilkes Booth, an actor, was no exception. During the Civil War, President Lincoln faced never ending criticism from many newspapers in both the North and South. He was regularly castigated and described as a tyrant. Given those portrayals, Booth was sure he would be welcomed in the south as a hero after the assassination. He was surprised to learn that even the anti-Lincoln papers gave Booth little sympathy. And as news of Lincoln's assassination spread, the critics from those papers faced a severe public backlash and were blamed for encouraging Booth to act.

The San Francisco Chronicle editorialized: "Booth has simply carried out what recession politicians and journalists have been for years expressing in words...and virtually recommended." Learning of this reaction and in disbelief, Booth wrote in his diary, "I struck for my country and that alone. A country that groaned beneath this tyranny, and prayed for this end, and yet now behold the cold hands they extend to me."

Lee Harvey Oswald's consumption and distribution of Marxist propaganda during the heightened Cuban crisis has been well documented. From an early age he was an avid consumer of communist writings. He also regularly listened to radio broadcasts from a station in Cuba called "The Friendly Voice of Cuba" that poured continuous propaganda and hate speech directed at the United States government and President John F. Kennedy.

Maybe Loughner didn't pay close attention to politics, contrary to Booth and Oswald. After all, most people don't. Most Americans are going about their daily lives and only come into contact with politics on the periphery. They catch a few words scanning their car radio or they see a TV pundit while channel surfing. But in today's media environment, it's impossible to have absolutely no contact with political commentary. With the proliferation of campaign ads, the 24/7 cycle of talk radio and cable news, and a never ending litany of online sources, people are bombarded everyday with political opinion. There's no escape. Which means even if it's only being heard intermittently or as background noise -- it's still being heard.

Words matter. And violence often erupts as a result of heated words. As children we were taught that "sticks and stones will break our bones but words can never hurt us." Yet everyone has their breaking point. Children subjected to constant bullying often respond by fighting and in extreme cases they take catastrophic action. As adults, we endeavor to be more tolerant of criticism, no matter how acerbic the tone. However, not all people are emotionally equipped to put vitriolic talk in perspective. Some take it to heart and are profoundly affected by the incendiary language of political discourse.

During the years that I was developing The Ed Schultz Show and The Stephanie Miller Show, I was committed to creating a progressive counterbalance to the overwhelming right wing talk that permeated the nation. I was convinced that a nation as politically diverse as the United States deserved to hear a discussion that consisted of more than the hysterical rantings of Limbaugh and his imitators.

Despite the firmness in my resolve to create that balance, part of me was unsettled with the thought that I was contributing to a problem rather than helping to solve it. Don't get me wrong, I'm very proud of those shows and their resulting success. And I'm convinced creating those programs was necessary given the overwhelmingly one sided conservative presence in radio. But all I really did was add to the polarization. While there is no question that conservatives enjoy a bigger national media presence by nearly 10 to 1, we progressives have spewed our fair share of venom. None of us are without blame.

Free speech is an American right and should never be censored. But maybe Americans would be better served by a more moderate national dialogue that promotes conciliation over confrontation. Words matter. And inevitably, there will always be consequences to words spoken. Did the current toxic media climate contribute to this tragedy in Arizona? Maybe not directly. But given what we know of history and of the current political schism in American culture, it would be immoral to turn our heads away and ignore the possibility.

As President Obama urged, now is a time for healing. But this tragic event has also shown that it's past time for the media to find a more sane way to discuss politics in America. Whether it contributed to this tragedy, or not.

Tom Athans is a media entrepreneur and is widely considered one of the originators of the Progressive Talk Radio format in the United States. He is credited with developing the nationally syndicated Ed Schulz Show and The Stephanie Miller Show.