John on April 20, 2010 at 10:47 am
The meme is simple. Right wing violence leads to extremism. As early as last April democratic staffers on Capitol Hill were passing out press releases claiming the Town Hall attendees were extremists and “neo-Nazis.”
Since then the claim has been echoed by dozens of high profile opinion writers including Paul Krugman at the NY Times and Eugene Robinson at the Washington Post (who claims “far-left violence in this country has gone the way of the leisure suit.”) On Monday, Bill Clinton not so subtly drew parallels between the Oklahoma City bombing and the current environment. He didn’t identify any particular source of danger, but his warning was clearly aimed at those who use “anti-government” rhetoric. No surprise those people tend to be conservatives.
Of course there has been real right-wing extremism, most notably the murder of abortionist George Tiller last Summer. That shouldn’t be ignored or minimized. On the other hand, there was another killing not long after which received a lot less attention. Jim Pouillon, a long time pro-life advocate, was shot three times through the pro-life sign he was holding by a stranger who was irritated by his message.
Have a look at how the media covered the two murders:[table "6" not found /]
I think one could reasonably argue that Tiller’s murder was a bigger story. He had become symbolic of a particular kind of abortion (late term) and had experienced previous violence. I would even say that giving the story double or even triple the coverage was reasonable. But 5 1/2 times as much coverage? 20x as much?! Here’s a chart that shows how lopsided this was:
And the numbers don’t tell the whole story. So much of the coverage of Tiller is glowing. There are quotes from fellow church members, quotes from family, quotes from supporters. His story is conveyed as a great tragedy. One whole piece was devoted to his family life. And one story in the Times ran 6,000 words, 50% longer than all their coverage of Jim Pouillon’s murder combined.
The coverage of the Tiller case also raised the specter of further violence at every turn. Who will be next? The Washington Post gave space to religious believers of every stripe to comment, including a pro-choice Wiccan priestess, a pro-choice Rabbi and a pro-choice Christian pastor who accused pro-lifers of “fedoaltry” for caring about the fate of the unborn. In short, all three papers took Tiller’s murder as an opportunity to expound on the big picture, usually from a pro-choice point of view.
By contrast, the coverage of Pouillon painted him as a confrontational rabble-rouser. The NY Times ran a story (headline: Slain Abortion Opponent ‘Loved the Controversy’ His Protests Generated) which in the first paragraph described Pouillon as “breaking the idyllic quiet with loud anti-abortion rants.” It went on to suggest that his real motivation was unhappiness over his divorce. Not exactly sympathetic treatment from the Times. The authors stop short of suggesting he brought the murder on himself, but the tone is a long way from the hagiography that Tiller received. When the Times eventually ran word of the conviction of Harlan Drake (Pouillon’s killer) it was a 65 word stub under the headline “Michigan: Trucker Guilty of Killings.” There is no indication that political assassination was part of the story.
Lacking in coverage of Pouillon’s murder are any of the big questions that might have been asked, starting with will this happen again? There was no recounting of past acts of violence against pro-lifers or any suggestion that a pattern might exist. No one offered a round up of quotes from angry pro-choicers, some of whom said he got what he deserved (they weren’t that hard to find if anyone had bothered to look).
Bad as it was, the NY Times’ coverage was far better than the Post or the LA Times could muster. Can anyone justify a 20:1 split in coverage of these two murders? The Washington Post ran a few AP pieces but basically devoted zero resources to Pouillon’s murder. Time magazine didn’t mention him at all (neither did Newsweek btw). If you only read those magazines you might think left-wing extremism didn’t exist.
It’s impossible to look at the numbers, not to mention the tone of the coverage itself, and avoid the obvious conclusion that the press has a dog in this fight. The reporters writing these stories are nearly all pro-choice. So are the editors assigning the stories and writing the headlines. As a result, right-wing violence garners a lot more media coverage. It’s not a conspiracy, just confirmation bias in action.
And it extends far beyond this story. Did you know that a Crisis Pregnancy Center in Arizona was burned out just before Christmas? Probably not since not a single major media outlet covered the story. But if someone sets fire to an abortion clinic you can bet it will be national news.
Sadly, the MSM’s story selection eventually forms a kind of conventional wisdom, one that suggests “right-wing” is the natural prefix for “extremism.” In contrast, examples of left-wing violence are just a blip, a local crime story with no national implications worth mentioning if the story is mentioned at all.
Of course this isn’t true. Had any of these organizations cared to look, there is a long history of commentary for and against the use of graphic signs among pro-lifers. The NY Times, to its credit, ran an interesting piece last year about the woman who took many of the photos that appear on these signs. But none of this back story was brought in, at least not to the degree it was in Tiller’s case. There was a bigger narrative in which to place Jim Pouillon’s murder just as was the case for Tiller, but that story remains untold.
If the MSM is serious about being non-partisan, they need to start compensating for their own measurable bias.