I'm not a media critic and never will be, but this has not been a shining 48 hours for my profession. Following the shooting that left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., gravely wounded and six bystanders murdered at a Tucson shopping center, the media have spent as much time trying to assign political blame for the cause of the shooting as they have trying to unearth facts. As it turns out, the murderer is a mentally unstable individual, with no coherent political ideology.
For all the blame placed on politicians for their aggressive political rhetoric, the media have been just as guilty in promoting crude political discourse and conflict. I'm not just talking about the Glenn Becks and Keith Olbermanns of the world, but news coverage that elevates conflict over substance and encourages contentious arguments over thoughtful discussion.
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And in the aftermath of the Tucson shooting, the media's worst tendencies were on display, from the onset of the crisis when several outlets inaccurately reported that Giffords had died, to the immediate, unwarranted assumption that the killer was associated with the tea party.
Ironically, even as politicians have been scrutinized for overheated rhetoric, it's the political class that reflected the country's mood best in the aftermath of this weekend's senseless shootings. From President Obama's pitch-perfect speech to the nation, to House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi working together to reassure members and staff, there was little hint of the blame game that fueled much of the media's coverage.
It's becoming increasingly clear that overheated political vitriol played virtually no role in Jared Lee Loughner's shooting spree. His political thinking is hardly coherent, and his obsession with Giffords predated the tea party and Sarah Palin's emergence in national politics. One of his few close friends told Mother Jones that he became fixated on the congresswoman when he asked her a question at a 2007 town hall about "the government having no meaning" and felt she didn't answer. His killing spree wasn't motivated by disagreement with her positions on health care or immigration.
Based on the available evidence, Loughner sounds like someone with untreated mental illness, whose grasp of reality grew ever more tenuous with time. He fits the profile of someone whose horrific shooting spree didn't have to be triggered by any provocative political rhetoric in the news.
But even with those facts out there, it didn't stop numerous media outlets from connecting his beliefs to politics -- and isn't stopping the continued rush to politicize this tragic event. The fervor to fit such craziness into a political matrix is regrettable, and, sadly, contributes to the overheated political environment that many in the media are condemning in the first place.
Much of the broadcast and print coverage over the weekend was devoted to decrying the state of political discourse, despite its tenuous connection to the shootings. Politico immediately ran several stories putting the shooter and his rampage in a political context, including one quoting a Democratic strategist -- anonymously -- arguing that this was a golden opportunity to "pin this on the tea partiers." This, just 24 hours after Giffords was gravely wounded. Where's the outrage?