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Tilting at Windmills

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January 10, 2011

FALSE EQUIVALENCY WATCH.... With Saturday's shootings sparking some discussion on rhetorical excesses and the toxicity of our discourse, Fox News is feeling a little defensive.

Roger Ailes, president of the Republican network, offered the usual defense -- insisting that Jared Lee Loughner "was not attached" to Tea Partiers -- and said the criticism of Fox News is "just a bullshit way to use the death of a little girl to get Fox News in an argument."

But also Ailes went a little further, making two related points. The first is that he claims to have told his network's on-air talent to "shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually," and urged Fox News' team to stay away from "bombast." The second is that Ailes is convinced that "the Democrat [sic] Party" is just as bad: "This goes on ... both sides are wrong." Ailes added that he hopes "the other side" tells its team to tone down the rhetoric, too.

On the first point, I rather doubt that Ailes actually told guys like Beck and Hannity to avoid "bombast," just as I rather doubt they'd listen if he did. If Ailes actually expected Fox News personalities to "tone it down" and make "intellectual" arguments, he might as well shut the network down today.

But on the second, Ailes seems to be repeating a common refrain -- there are rhetorical excesses on "both sides." There's "plenty of blame to go around." It's not the fault of "one side over the other."

To a certain extent, this is independent of the coverage of the massacre in Tucson, since we don't the extent to which Loughner was motivated by political bile. But whether he was influenced by the political climate or not, this notion that Dems and the GOP are equally responsible for over-the-top rhetoric is simply at odds with reality. Paul Krugman's column today makes the case persuasively.

Where's that toxic rhetoric coming from? Let's not make a false pretense of balance: it's coming, overwhelmingly, from the right. It's hard to imagine a Democratic member of Congress urging constituents to be "armed and dangerous" without being ostracized; but Representative Michele Bachmann, who did just that, is a rising star in the G.O.P.

And there's a huge contrast in the media. Listen to Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann, and you'll hear a lot of caustic remarks and mockery aimed at Republicans. But you won't hear jokes about shooting government officials or beheading a journalist at The Washington Post. Listen to Glenn Beck or Bill O'Reilly, and you will.

Of course, the likes of Mr. Beck and Mr. O'Reilly are responding to popular demand.... But even if hate is what many want to hear, that doesn't excuse those who pander to that desire. They should be shunned by all decent people.

Even today, just perusing the news, I've seen many make the "both sides" argument by pointing to posting from a pseudonymous diarist on Daily Kos who few, if any, had heard of before. The response seems pretty obvious: when "BoyBlue" has his own cable show, develops a sizable following, and begins organizing rallies on the Washington mall, get back to me.

I realize major media outlets feel contractually obligated to embrace the false equivalency, but folks should know better. Remember the Senate candidate who recommended "Second Amendment remedies"? How about the congressional candidate who fired shots at a silhouette with his opponent's initials on it? Or maybe the congressional candidate who declared, "If I could issue hunting permits, I would officially declare today opening day for liberals. The season would extend through November 2 and have no limits on how many taken as we desperately need to 'thin' the herd"? Or how about the congressional candidate who said he considered the violent overthrow of the United States to government an "option" and added that political violence is "on the table"?

All four of these examples came from 2010 -- and all came from Republican candidates for federal elected office. And this doesn't even get into Republican activists and media personalities.

"Both sides are wrong"? Yeah, sure they are.

Steve Benen 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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I saw this over on Fallows' site, which tracks some of the insurrectionist rhetoric of the past 2+ years, and nicely rebuts the 'both sides do it' nonsense:


Posted by: Holmes on January 10, 2011 at 4:42 PM | PERMALINK

I think you mean Saturday's shootings, not Tuesday's, Steve.

Posted by: Mim on January 10, 2011 at 4:43 PM | PERMALINK

There's plenty of blame to go around- both sides do it!

Why, this Old Timer vividly remembers Little Big Horn. True, Custer fired first, but the Indians responded with even more violence.

- a popular saying at the time was, "The only good indian is a dead indian. . ."

Posted by: DAY on January 10, 2011 at 4:44 PM | PERMALINK

Listen carefully! When one projects the false idea that there is equivalency, what one is really saying is that one doesn't really want to change one's behavior!

I don't care right now about who does what to whom, and whether or not it is happening equally in the other direction.

I do care right now very intensely about anyone who is concerned about the "other side" while forgetting that we are all AMERICANS!

And, what each and everyone of us should be doing now is being individually responsible to each other so such over the top rhetoric can be left in the past, and we can start a new day where people who wish to be national leaders will speak to us all, instead of to the ignorant in his/her rabid base, (one of which owns too many guns for a healthy democracy to survive into the future)! -Kevo (don't forget, I've been a Republican for the past 30+ years, and I will be the first to say the crazies are, and have been, running my party for far too long now!)

Posted by: kevo on January 10, 2011 at 4:46 PM | PERMALINK

Steve - How about Ailes' inadvertent admission of his association with the tea party and that he is on the "other side" from Democrats?

Posted by: Egan on January 10, 2011 at 4:53 PM | PERMALINK

I'm going to guess this is a pretty important moment. Limbaugh, FOX, Palin, they're preaching to the choir, but I'm guessing a lot of poeple who haven't tasted the Kool Aid know very well where the poison is coming from. The GOP and their media mouthpieces would have been much better off if they hadn't gotten defensive. It just makes them look even more guilty.

The election was only two months ago, the new congress was just sworn in last week, and it's already crazy. Can you imagine after two years of this?!

2012 will not be a good year for the Republicans and their tea baggers.

Posted by: SaintZak on January 10, 2011 at 4:54 PM | PERMALINK

Even Paul Begala noticed the Republicans' defensiveness on the subject, one notable aspect of which were the right-wing condemnations of the Tucson sherrif who issued a nonpartisan call for civility.

There's that. There's Palin's people scrubbing her Web site. There's the usual false equivilence form the usual suspects.

The Republicans are acting obviously guilty in a way that even most working journalists -- if not Cokie Roberts -- should be able to notice.

Posted by: Gregory on January 10, 2011 at 4:56 PM | PERMALINK

Hit the nail on the head. Agreed that political rhetoric can get ugly on both sides, but by no means are they equal in their calls for problematic themes: violence, resistance, bullets, no way out, apocalyptics, taking one's country back.

Posted by: Dee on January 10, 2011 at 5:04 PM | PERMALINK

They're packing iron. We're packing irony. See, it's exactly the same.

Posted by: Jim 7 on January 10, 2011 at 5:17 PM | PERMALINK

Is there any evidence that the shooter actually watched Beck, or saw Palin's "target map?"

If not, why doesn't everyone focus on what's important: how did a disturbed psychopath like this fall through the cracks? How did he get his hands on firearms? Why didn't his schools catch him and get him into counseling?

Posted by: Schlocky Balboa on January 10, 2011 at 5:19 PM | PERMALINK

And Megyn Kelly is just 'journalistically' chastizing the Sheriff of Tucson for expressing heartfelt remarks. Yeah. Tone it down indeed.

Posted by: SYSPROG on January 10, 2011 at 5:25 PM | PERMALINK

Roger told them to cut the bombast and make only intellectual arguements? Right. Sure. Seriously, like there would be anything left.

Posted by: emjayay on January 10, 2011 at 5:26 PM | PERMALINK

why doesn't everyone focus on what's important: how did a disturbed psychopath like this fall through the cracks? How did he get his hands on firearms? Why didn't his schools catch him and get him into counseling?

The cracks are very wide in AZ as far as preventing anyone who shouldn't have a gun from having one. And is it now the school's responsibility to get him counseling in hindsight, but before hand it's soshulistic brainwashing and tyrannical state action before?

And the question isn't "what did he see and when did he see it" - there's too much vitriol all over the airwaves and on the net to miss; Beck and Palin aren't the only trash-talkers out there. Its atmospheric. Even candidates and elected officials of the Republican variety are engaging in this sort of rhetoric. Do you live in a cave with no media, electronic or otherwise? I don't seek out the violent talk, but I am aware of it because I do seek out the news.

Posted by: Howlin Wolfe on January 10, 2011 at 5:31 PM | PERMALINK

A reminder: It wasn't too long ago that a lot of people here were imploring the Democrats and the C in C to fight the wingnuts' rhetorical fire with fire. Hell, I wanted a little more Michael Mooreing myself. For this little window of time, at least, taking the high road seems to have been the wisest policy. Just saying.

Posted by: beejeez on January 10, 2011 at 5:33 PM | PERMALINK

Think about it. They're saying that their right to express their hate and rage trumps any right the rest of us have to be safe in assembling to meet our representatives. And when are we going to behave like a civilized society and start questioning why the right of every lunatic to possess assault weapons outweighs the right of victims like Christina Green to grow up?

Posted by: dalloway on January 10, 2011 at 5:35 PM | PERMALINK

I knew Fox would try to steer the rhetoric towards "both sides do it". It's working, too. I've talked to several people already have said something along the lines of "both sides need to tone down the rhetoric" I ask them for examples of thinly-veiled violent rhetoric or imagery from Democratic politicians, MSNBC hosts or their guests, or lefty radio personalities. It doesn't exist.

Posted by: DelCapslock on January 10, 2011 at 5:47 PM | PERMALINK

When you take both false equivalencies together, what you get is an argument that goes like this:

"We're not to blame for this...WE'RE NOT TO BLAME! And anyways, you guys are just as bad as we are!" Which tends to be the sort of arguments guilty people make: "I didn't do it! And if I did, it's because he made me do it!"

Posted by: slappy magoo on January 10, 2011 at 6:01 PM | PERMALINK

Look, if moving forward towards saner rhetoric requires the right to admit a far higher level of violent imagery, it. will. never. happen. If the goal is really to tone down the rhetoric, and not just to point blame, maybe there's a slightly better chance they would agree that going forward BOTH sides will chill the use of violent, gun-laced metaphors, without having to admit past responsibility. Politicians on both sides should renounce their own use of such language, self-police, and commit to calling out for admonishment any others who use it.

This can't be just another screaming match between the 2 sides about who is more violent. It needs to lead to an inflection point in the curve. Leadership and courage is needed on both sides to make that happen. I know the President is trying, I hope Democrats can find a way to make it politically acceptable for Republicans to climb down slighty.

Posted by: bruce k on January 10, 2011 at 6:10 PM | PERMALINK

But also Ailes went a little further, making two related points. The first is that he claims to have told his network's on-air talent to "shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually," and urged Fox News' team to stay away from "bombast."

When Fox starts making arguments intellectually hell will freeze. Earth to Fox: Keep dumbing down your audience 24/7 and some of them will take you down with them.

Posted by: max on January 10, 2011 at 6:12 PM | PERMALINK

During the Bush administration right-wing leaders and pundits claimed it was the very essence of treason merely to criticize the policies of the Bush administration -- because he was a war president, don't you know.

Conservative pundits talked about hanging liberals from trees or lining them up shooting them. Wingnuts came to this very blog and repeatedly accused us of being traitors to the United States and of giving aid and comfort to the enemy for simply disagreeing with Bush.

Citizens of the United States were turned away from political events because of tee shirts and buttons with slogans like "No Blood for Oil" and "Protect Our Constitutional Rights."

During that time there was definitely a consensus on the right that free speech is quite limited when it comes to politics, even when it came to tee shirts. The rule appeared to be anything that could be remotely construed as mildly critical of the president or Republicans was out of bound.

Suddenly it's perfectly OK not only to disagree with the President and his party but to swagger around campaign events and town halls with firearms carrying signs implying the need for violent revolution. Tee shirts can pretty much say anything they want now, no matter how violent the premise.

I wonder what changed their mind?

Posted by: trex on January 10, 2011 at 6:15 PM | PERMALINK

It IS a false equivalence. The right trumpets their violent imagery and dares anyone to challenge it. But, we have a select few on the left who are just as prone to violent imagery and we do need to call them on it. Mike Malloy and Randi Rhodes have the content of the left and the rhetorical style of the right.

Posted by: vickijean on January 10, 2011 at 6:39 PM | PERMALINK

I see that they are claiming Palin has a 'stalker'... just in time, apparently.

Posted by: jjm on January 10, 2011 at 6:46 PM | PERMALINK

The response seems pretty obvious: when "BoyBlue" has his own cable show, develops a sizable following, and begins organizing rallies on the Washington mall, get back to me.

Thank you for making this point! Over the past couple of days the comment boards on the New York Times and elsewhere have all featured wingers wailing and rending their garments over the fact that, to paraphrase, "MSNBC has Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow! Olbermann has a segment called "Worst Person in the World"! Every night! Maddow openly mocks Republicans! See, the Left does it too!"

Many thinking, rational people replied to such nonsense with a variation on the same, irrefutable fact: two measly hours of liberal comment on one cable network cannot even possibly begin to compare with the avalanche of right-wing vitriol and eliminationist rhetoric spewed nearly 24/7 in the sewers of AM hate radio (totally dominated by right-wing shock jocks and of course Rush) and FOX "news," which has yet to find someone so crazy the network won't put them on the air for "comment." This false equivalency is just our lazy media trying to make the Villagers feel better (see Ross Douthat's ridiculous column in the NYT today), so they won't have to take stock of the poisonous atmosphere they've helped to create.

Posted by: electrolite on January 10, 2011 at 7:06 PM | PERMALINK

Ross Douthat wrote a ridiculous column?

Ailes claims it's not their fault?

Our fascist right runs away from its own rhetoric?

What a surprise.

Posted by: LL on January 10, 2011 at 7:29 PM | PERMALINK

Well said, Steve. One of the bogus rightie talking points of late: look at all those assassinations of Kennedy, attempts on Ford and Reagan etc., the discourse was not so bitter then. (They point to Cronkite - but of course, a MSM guy like him wasn't and isn't the problem, it's the alties.) But is was bitter. Indeed, Kennedy was accused of being a communist in a telling quote from "The Last Time Right-Wing Hatred Ran Wild Like This a President Was Killed" by Eric Boehlert at Media Matters:
...And a full-page advertisement had appeared the day of the assassination in The Dallas Morning News accusing Kennedy of making a secret deal with the Communist Party; when it was shown to the president, he was appalled. He turned to Jacqueline, who was visibly upset, and said, “Oh, you know, we’re heading into nut country today.”
(Do a story on all that, Steve?)
And Oswald was a communist, but the argument about the rhetoric is wrong. Inflammatory rhetoric inflames, and it was like that then (also with "impeach Earl Warren", anti-integration, etc.)

Furthermore, that crowd is saying "just because a Republican was shot (Ford, Reagan), we didn't go around lambasting Democrats and/or liberals." True (is it? I wonder.) But the bare fact that a person from suchandsuch party was shot isn't the issue (they so often misframe), rather it is the rhetoric like "bullet box or ballot box", "Second Ammendment remedies", "I'd like to kill Michael Moore" etc.

Posted by: neil b on January 10, 2011 at 7:58 PM | PERMALINK

I stand corrected. I should know by now that in any mention of Douthat's columns,* the word "ridiculous" is simply presumed.

*And by "column" I mean "the inane scribblings of a C-list hack who has -- against all logic, reason and common sense -- inexplicably ended up with a prime spot in the world's most prestigious newspaper."

Posted by: electrolite on January 10, 2011 at 7:59 PM | PERMALINK

It was liberals, not conservatives, who first jumped on this as connected to the Tea Party crowd.

So let's also put who jumped to conclusions first into the discussion.

Their excuses don't get the GOP off the hook for two years of violent rhetoric.

But Dems don't get off the hook either for making political hay out of tragedy hours after it occurs either.

Posted by: JEA on January 10, 2011 at 8:36 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks for putting up the Wasserman Schultz being targeted incident. I remembered it was Florida but forgot exactly who.

Posted by: Marnie on January 10, 2011 at 9:27 PM | PERMALINK

JEA, @20:36,

I didn't see Dems/liberals jumping on the Tea Party connection. Mostly, it was the Tea Party defending themselves from stones not cast (guilty conscience, per chance?). The *only* time I saw the Tea Party mentioned in the first hours after the news broke was Giffords' father who, when he was asked about her enemies, responded: "the entire Tea Party".

It's possible that he was just throwing out unsupported accusations in his grief. OTOH, it's equally possible that he knew what he was talking about.

Posted by: exlibra on January 10, 2011 at 10:14 PM | PERMALINK

Watching Ifill, Lehrer, Shields and Brooks on PBS News Hour was a particularly painful experience. If it was a book, it'd be called Profiles in Spinelessness.

Posted by: Squeaky McCrinkle on January 11, 2011 at 1:31 AM | PERMALINK

The media establishment is scared to death of the right, which is why they've said nothing before now. Their contrived 'objectivity' and breathless elevation of the Tea Party and Palin has actually facilitated their craziness. Any criticism from the media establishment now would just be an indictment of their willingness to look the other way in the last 3 years.

No, they won't say a word about the right's rhetoric. And if they do it will be couched as 'both sides do it'.

The power structure in this country is wired for Republicans, and has been for 30 years. Until that changes, we are on the road to ruin. Hell, with the power corporate America has accrued in that time frame, I'm not sure we can prevent it at this point.

Posted by: Holmes on January 11, 2011 at 1:46 AM | PERMALINK

Well there was Manchin gov of WV and now Senator who fired a bullet into a copy of the cap and trade bill.

That blue dog will hunt.

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on January 11, 2011 at 2:32 AM | PERMALINK

Yes, JEA your just saying that doesn't prove the point.

About precedent: Dana Milbank, god bless his bourgeiis soul, has a piece now excoriating the current heated rhetoric by comparing to what happened before the McKinley assassination (c.f my comments above re Kennedy.) I basically agree, but still think the focus on Palin's "targets" is misplaced - that's a common metaphor and isn't the real problem. IMHO the real problem is, "Second Amendment solutions", "ballot box or bullet box", "I wish I could kill Michale Moore" (from a prominent right-wing "Christian" personality, no less?)

Fine minds make fine distinctions.

Posted by: neil b on January 11, 2011 at 7:27 AM | PERMALINK

Civil discussion begins with simple respect: you call people by their actual names, not names you make up to be disrespectful.

So, Ailes, that's the "Democratic Party."

Posted by: larry birnbaum on January 11, 2011 at 7:37 AM | PERMALINK

It was liberals, not conservatives, who first jumped on this as connected to the Tea Party crowd.

Wrong. Conservatives, including tea partiers, made the connection themselves when the Tucson sherrif issued a non-partisan call for less heated political rhetoric -- one that mentioned nobody at all specifically -- and conservatives and tea partiers had a collective freakout.

Conservatives in general, including Ailes, are acting guilty. 'Nuff said.

Posted by: Gregory on January 11, 2011 at 8:12 AM | PERMALINK

It's funny, Squeaky, how I see the left attacking PBS and the right attacking PBS. Mainly it seems to me like the big boys picking on the smallest boy in the class just because they CAN.

As for spinelessness, although I didn't watch Monday, I DO know that News Hour is a responsible news organization and does not - UNlike others - jump the gun and proclaim guilt without clear evidence.

That is just what you would LIKE them to do.

Posted by: JEA on January 11, 2011 at 10:13 AM | PERMALINK

No JEA, Steve B said he didn't jump that gun (heh) and assume a specific TP connection etc. and many commenters agreed. You like to project that bigoted, impulsive defensiveness don't you?

Posted by: neil b on January 11, 2011 at 11:22 AM | PERMALINK


Posted by: Justme on January 11, 2011 at 12:22 PM | PERMALINK

"Their excuses don't get the GOP off the hook for two years of violent rhetoric."

O'Reilly's been on for more than two years.

"But Dems don't get off the hook either for making political hay out of tragedy hours after it occurs either."

We finally got off the dime faster. About time.

Posted by: Jack Parsons on January 11, 2011 at 7:50 PM | PERMALINK



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