Back in 2006, PBS commentator Mark Shields suggested that the death of 12 coal miners in an accident in West Virginia was “Tom DeLay’s America in action.” The year before, as disgraced CBS anchor Dan Rather stepped down, he said “The lynch mob won.” But on Monday night’s PBS NewsHour, Shields was the scold of “hate speech” for the shooting in Tucson. New York Times columnist David Brooks found the subject “completely not germane,” but Shields disagreed:
I think, Jim, that we have seen the deterioration of our public debate and the climate that has been fostered and nurtured by what could only be called hate speech. And I think that hate speech basically depersonalizes and demonizes political adversaries. You're not an adversary, not an opponent. You're an enemy.
And I think -- I don't know of a causal relationship here with this individual, but one should not be surprised that, when you do demonize to the degree that we have done in our politics and has been done, whether it's calling George Bush Hitler or calling Barack Obama Hitler, or saying as Glenn Beck did, that he knows he's a racist, something happens.
And what happens most of all is that this kind of speech is seen as, not simply acceptable, but appropriate, when it's repeated over and over again by people on major broadcast outlets and in major positions of power. And I really do think that and I hope that this will come to a pause. It did after the assassination of Martin Luther King. There was a moderating of what had become then equally as ugly a speech as we have now.
Almost exactly five years ago, on the weekend talk show Inside Washington dated January 6, 2006, Shields blamed deregulation for the death of 12 coal miners: "I don't think what happened in West Virginia is totally divorced from the K Street project. It was all about deregulation. Tom DeLay fervently and sincerely believes that every regulation - the regulations that have removed 99 percent of lead from the air, the regulations that have saved the Great Lakes - they are a burden and an onerous intrusion upon American business, and I think that what you've seen is Tom DeLay's America in action."
On March 5, 2005, Shields picked for his "Outrage of the Week" on CNN's Capital Gang the end of Dan Rather's CBS career, saying to Al Hunt: "Al, the lynch mob won. Wednesday will be Dan Rather's last night anchoring the CBS Evening News, but Rather's career is about much more than one flawed story about George W. Bush's military service." To contest Rather's shabby and false journalism was to join a "lynch mob"?
Lehrer’s panel was three to one: Ivy League academics Kathleen Hall Jamieson (U. of Pennsylvania) and Beverly Gage (Yale) agreed with Shields that our vitriolic mass culture is at a historic low and is relevant to the shooting. Brooks was passionate in dissent:
JIM LEHRER: A profoundly important debate to have, David?
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, but not today.
LEHRER: Why not today?
BROOKS: Because this is in the context of this horrific crime. Listen, there's hate speech and there's incivil speech. Mark and I conduct ourselves every week in a certain manner, which I think is better than most people in television punditry. And I wish all of politics was conducted in such manner as we do, if I can pat myself on the back.
JIM LEHRER: You may. And I agree with you.
DAVID BROOKS: But that has nothing to do -- A., it's very problematic to take political speech and then translate it into political action. Kathleen Hall Jamieson mentioned some studies. I think those studies between speech and action are extremely murky. It's worth pointing out that, at a time when political speech has gotten much more violent, political assassinations have not increased. At a time when video games have gotten much more violent, crime rates have come down. When movies have gotten much more violent, again, crime rates have come down. The relationship between speech and media and actual action is extremely murky. And correlation is not causation. We shouldn't make that link very easily.
And, finally, in this case, in this heightened atmosphere, a lot of the coverage I saw after the killing tried to take the killing and to beat over the head certain people. I have no great love for Sarah Palin. I have no great love for the Tea Party movement or the anti-immigration movement.
But to say that their speech was somehow responsible or created or contributed to the killing of those people, including a 9-year-old girl, to me, that wasn't only irrelevant; that was irresponsible. And that is what I saw all weekend.
Shields then agreed that it was unfair to attach Palin to the shooting: “I think the Sarah Palin thing is a reach far beyond a bridge too far. I really do. I mean, the sights on the thing, just really targeting a district, and that this led to it, no.” Then he launched into one of his old stories about how Democrat Dan Rostenkowski and Republican Bob Michel used to have to drive home to Illinois together and bonded in bipartisanship, and that doesn’t happen any more.
So Lehrer asked Gage: “Do you smell the possibility, not the probability or certainly the certainty, that this tragedy could in fact lead to some open discussions not directly related, because -- not accusing anybody of doing anything that resulted in the killing -- but might actually change the dialogue and the tenor of the dialogue, the public dialogue?”
Gage wrapped up the discussion by complaining that there was a conversation after the Oklahoma City bombing about outrageous conservatives, and mentioned Rush Limbaugh by name, but it petered out, and if it had continued, maybe the Tucson shooting wouldn’t have happened:
In the end, I think that conversation actually didn't get us very far. What happened after Oklahoma City is, of course, you had the criminal prosecution of Timothy McVeigh, a couple of his accomplices as well, and his eventual execution. You got something of a law-enforcement crackdown on the militia movement and on sort of far-right, relatively fringe movements, but I think the conversation that was started then, ultimately, about our national discourse and where it was going didn't sustain for very long. And, maybe if it had, we would be in a different position today, in the 21st century.