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Contentions

The Backlash

Mark Halperin, co-author of a very good campaign book, Game Change, is usually a reasonable political reporter. But yesterday he made comments on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that were irresponsible and deeply (and unintentionally) revealing.

In discussing the political reaction to the Tucson massacre, Halperin said: “I just want to single out one thing. I don’t want to over-generalize. But I think the media and the politicians have behaved pretty well so far. The thing I’m most concerned about now is the anger on the right-wing commentariat. On Fox and George Will and other conservatives are in some cases justifiably upset at liberals. But they’re turning this right now, in the last 24 hours, back into the standard operating procedure of ‘all this is war and fodder for content’ rather than trying to bring the country together.”

“Wait a second, Mark,” Joe Scarborough responded. “I think they would say that you have that backwards, that a shooting was turned into fodder to attack conservatives.”

“And I’ve already made that criticism as well,” Halperin said. “They’re right. But rather than seizing on it and turning the other cheek, they’re back at their war stations. And that’s not going to help us.”

Let’s examine Halperin’s arguments in turn.

What’s not going to “bring the country together” is a grotesque effort by some liberals to implicate conservatives in the shooting death of six innocent people. And perhaps if the network Mr. Halperin appears on (MSNBC) and the magazine he writes for (Time) had not allowed, and in some cases advanced, that narrative, conservatives would not have to go “back to their war stations.” (For more, see this.)

Mr. Halperin concedes that conservatives are right in believing that the Tucson shooting was turned into fodder against conservatives. Yet he seems quite untroubled by it all. In fact, he counsels conservatives to “turn the other cheek.” Now isn’t that touching? Conservatives have been on the receiving end of a remarkable slander campaign — and Halperin is most upset that they are responding to it. It’s not advancing the civilized public discourse conversation that Halperin says he wants to have. What he doesn’t seem to grasp — and it really isn’t all that hard to grasp — is that when the left attempts to make conservatives moral accessories to a massacre, it isn’t likely to drain our political dialogue of anger. And the blame for this doesn’t rest with those who are on the receiving end of the slander.

What I think we’re seeing in Halperin’s reaction is upset that the rules that once applied in journalism no longer do.

Once upon a time, a libel by liberals, amplified by the press, would have worked. The narrative would have been locked into place. Conservatives could complain about it here and there, but it wouldn’t really matter much (think Reed Irvine). The rise of the “new media,” which is not really so new anymore, has changed all that.

Today there are a variety of outlets — tweets, blogs, websites, conservative talk radio, and cable news, as well as columnists and even a few editorial pages — that are quite able and willing to push back, to deconstruct bad arguments, to point out factual errors, and to change the trajectory of a story.

We’ve seen that with the Tucson massacre. During the first 24 hours, the left, aided by many in the “mainstream media,” argued that the killings were fostered by a political (read: conservative) climate of hate. That was a completely unjustified and bigoted assumption; and in every hour since then, it has been exposed as such. We are now seeing a public backlash against that calumny. It will grow with time.

The quasi-media monopoly was broken some time ago. A relatively few journalists with a strikingly similar ideological disposition are no longer able to dictate the story lines they want. In this case, they desperately wanted to use the Tucson massacre as a way to indict conservatives for their supposed part in creating a “climate of hate.” But this effort is backfiring. The response from conservatives (along with a few reporters and left-leaning commentators) has been swift, comprehensive, sustained, and effective. Liberal-minded journalists see that and are rattled by it. In response, they are making silly arguments that, on reflection, they probably wish they hadn’t made. But those arguments are themselves instructive. Many journalists are lamenting the loss of a world that no longer exists.

Liberals wanted to use the Tucson massacre to smear conservatives. In the end, it will further discredit them and journalism itself. We are seeing, in a somewhat different form, the Dan Rather/National Guard story all over again. And we know how that turned out.