Vicious Death Threats Against Scott Walker Elicit Little Media Hand-wringing

May 17th, 2011 5:56 PM

Pro-government union protests in Wisconsin and elsewhere have provided some stunning insight into the double standards that pervade coverage of major protest movements. One such double standard lies in media treatment of threats against public officials. News of the release of more than 100 pages of documented threats against officials of both parties in Wisconsin has brought that double standard to light.

Very often such threats are most intensely focused on a single individual perceived as the leader of the ideological or political opposition. President Obama was the target of perhaps less overt, if certainly as menacing threats during the early stages of his administration when a handful of demonstrators brought firearms to a presidential town hall meeting. That of course dominated the airwaves for the following week, as many in the media bemoaned what they presented almost uniformly as hints at assassination.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker, like President Obama, became the target of much of the rage from pro-union demonstrators. And like Obama, Walker received some very vocal - and in many cases more overt - threats against his life. Unlike threats against the president, however, those directed at Walker have received scant press attention outside of Wisconsin media.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, which, to its credit, has offered quality coverage of the union protests from the beginning, reported on Tuesday:

More than 100 pages of public records released Thursday reveal again how high emotion, bad judgment and anti-social media combined in February to generate a nationwide investigation of threats against Gov. Scott Walker and lawmakers on both sides of his budget-repair bill.

Emails, Twitter streams, Facebook and Craigslist postings, phone calls and even a few notes sent by U.S. mail ranged from overt threats of violence to promises of political retaliation to benign-sounding requests for investigations of lawmakers' actions. A surprising number of even the most vile messages came from readily-identifiable senders.

The vast majority of about 90 matters referred to the state authorities were determined to present "no criminal nexus or viable threat," but about a dozen remain open as cases with the Division of Criminal Investigation, according to Assistant Attorney General Kevin Potter.

Of the 78 actions made public, about 30 were directed at Democrats, a few less at Walker and other Republicans, with the balance made up of vague or implied threats against no specific target, or concerns over demonstrators.

Tragically, such threats seem to pop up wherever high-stake policy proposals are considered. They are not a partisan phenomenon, either. As the JS notes, threats have been made against officials of both parties.

But as it would happen, the central figure in the debate in Wisconsin, Gov. Walker, is a Republican. As noted, individuals perceived as embodying one political "side" on an issue are likely to bear the brunt of this sort of political thuggery. Walker is no exception, the JS reports.

Dozens of emails suggest Walker or legislators should be shot or hanged, or should watch their backs, look over their shoulders or resign. One man tweeted that he prayed an anvil would fall from the sky onto Walker.

FBI agents from Maine to California to Florida also got involved, the records show. A suspect in Maine was arrested after sending letters to that state's Republican U.S. senators suggesting that Walker should be killed and that all Republican governors resign.

A Burbank, Calif., resident who sent a long email rant offering a $50,000 bounty for Walker was interviewed by federal agents who determined he was mentally challenged and not a true threat.

Despite these threats, the hand-wringing that followed perceived threats against the president is notably absent.

As mentioned, death threats are not a new phenomenon, or one unique to a political party or ideology. Hence their newsworthiness is at least debatable - should the media report on every single death threat received by any elected official?

If not every elected official, then what about perceived agents of political change? Certainly that was the title bestowed on Obama since his rise to political prominence. That role makes death threats against an individual more newsworthy, since that individual tends to embody a movement or political force.

Hence, during the 2008 campaign, CBS's Harry Smith implied that Barack Obama could be a target for assassination, since, as he told the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, "sometimes agents of change end up being targets, as you well know."

Threats against Walker illustrate the same trend. And yet no fretting such as Smith's seems to be forthcoming from a news media that followed, to the minute, the budget battle in Wisconsin and the larger debate over the role of government unions in the policymaking process.

The threats against Walker are no less explicit - indeed, more so in many cases. Like Obama, Walker faced steadfast opposition from a large and outspoken protest movement, and, also like Obama, embodied, more than any other individual, the policies being protested.

So we have to ask: why the double standard?

As an aside, if you needed further evidence that knee-jerk attempts to blame conservative rhetoric for January's Tucson shooting was nothing but shameless political posturing, the release of these scores of death threats should put any doubt to rest.

In Wisconsin, we had scores of signs and statements comparing elected officials to genocidal dictators, followed shortly thereafter by threats against these officials' lives. It's pretty clear that any journalists who were actually concerned about a "new tone" in our politics would not remain silent about such rhetoric.