For a few days last month, we witnessed something truly unusual: Some of the country's right-wing talk show hosts received a little scrutiny and criticism for their reckless words. I'm referring to the few days after the tragic shooting of US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 other people in Arizona.
Many people felt that these talk show hosts' (among others) disturbing tendency of using hostile, violent references toward government officials had contributed to an environment that might push the wrong buttons for the killer, Jared Loughner, who clearly suffers from severe mental illness.
The biggest names of the bunch - such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck - immediately became extremely defensive about this viewpoint. They charged that this sentiment amounted to ridiculous scapegoating when, in fact, the killer had been identifed.
Limbaugh, predictably, went on the offensive rather than to attempt any thoughtful reflection about the potentially negative impact of his own "attacking" rants on his show.
"....What Mr. Loughner knows is that he has the full support of a major political party in this country," Limbaugh said on his show. "He's sitting there in jail. He knows what's going on, he knows that ...the Democrat party is attempting to find anybody but him to blame....."
That was a really stupid comment - even for Limbaugh. He and other right-wingers just couldn't face that maybe the subject of what makes a mentally ill person suddenly commit a violent act is more complex and worthy of thoughtful examination than the same old black and white labeling.
It's true that no one can prove the extent to which Loughner was or wasn't influenced by the "discourse" in the background. However, for a few days, television and radio shows were actually discussing whether the level of "vitriol"in this country had become more dangerous than it should be.
My reaction: It was about time.
It has always struck me how little public criticism is directed at right-wing talk show hosts who routinely spout irresponsible, inflammatory, inaccurate words on the airwaves. I refer to Limbaugh, Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly of FOX-TV and Sarah Palin, who has seemed to assume the role of an "entertainer" more than a serious former governor.
It seems clear that politicians in both parties feel it's not in their interests to take on these controversial talk show hosts publicly. Others might feel it's a no-win scenario because Limbaugh and company will always get the last word.
But I wish so much that more politicians and public figures would publicly criticize these right-wing talk show hosts more often. Why? That's the least they deserve for the many outrageous, unsubstantiated things they say and holding them more accountable would be good for all of us.
I heard some topics discussed after the Tucson shootings that deserve ongoing attention.
Chris Matthews, the host of "Hardball" on MSNBC kept raising the question of: Why have people on the Right, in certain parts of the country, more often been bringing guns to public appearances such as speeches or rallies?
Good question. It's a scary development. People should not be allowed to carry guns to these sort of events - period.
It's also worth worrying about why the threats made against members of the US Congress went way up during the first three months of 2010, according to the Associated Press. A Jan. 8, 2011 A.P. story (following the Giffords shooting) reported that in the first three months of 2010 alone, there were 42 threats made against members of Congress -- nearly three times the number of cases reported during the same three months in 2009. In March of 2010, someone "either kicked in or shot out a window in Giffords' Tucson office just hours after the Arizona Democrat voted for an expansion in government-directed health care," stated an A.P. article by Alicia Caldwell.
As we all know by now, Giffords was one of the 20 House Democratic supporters of the health care bill whose congressional district was put "in the cross hairs" of a gun site on a map that was posted on Sarah Palin's Facebook page asking people to work against those members' re-election. I haven't heard Palin ever apologize for that choice of imagery. Has she?
Interestingly, it was the local sheriff in Arizona, Clarence Dupnik, whose remarks after the Tucson shootings, brought some of the scrutiny of talk show hosts.
Dupnik said: "..It's the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business....The vast majority of those who listen to that toxic rhetoric stop short of actual violence, but some, inevitably, cross that line...."
Dupnik - like police across the land - must respond to indivuduals who "cross that line"
due to mental illness.
What's a revealing, sad commentary is that the very right-wing talk show hosts who use "loaded" rhetoric on their shows continued - after the Arizona shootings - to exhibit the same ignorance and insensitivity that they display, embarrassingly, all the time in this way: The Limbaughs and Becks of the world simply would not - and could not - discuss possible causes or factors that led Loughner to commit violence. Rather, they followed a pattern I've witnessed for years of conservatives referring to those who commit murders as being fully aware and totally responsible for their actions. They always seem to characterize acts of violence as being about only individuals and their choices. Of course, it's usually much more complicated because so many murderers are mentally ill, disturbed in some way or insane. Many of us are interested in helping mentally ill people in ways that minimize the chances of they're engaging in violence. And, yes, we want our society to try to create an environment that discourages violence - and, yes, maybe even prevents violence. Unfortunately, for many years now, politicians have been afraid to discuss the "causes of crime" out of fear they'd be viewed as "too soft on crime."
Indeed, the Limbaughs and Becks kept this bad habit alive by acting like it was so far-fetched to even imagine that the national "discourse" could contribute to anything. They dismissed the concern voiced by many. They ridiculed it. What a pathetic, unintelligent response at a sensitive moment when people were traumatized by the events in Tucson.
Rush Limbaugh and too many of his "colleagues" on the radio don't take responsibility for what they say. It's about time that Democratic and Republican politicians and the rest of us stopped tolerating that irresponsible rhetoric. People need to speak up in opposition to it - not just for a few days following a national tragedy like Tucson - but, all the time.
I post opinions at least once a week here. Often I write about politics or media coverage of politics -- two subjects I have followed closely for more than 30 years.