BY RUSSELL FRANK
Russell Frank grades The New York Times on its coverage of the Tucson shootings.
My father, who is 92, always sounds like a proud schoolboy after he's had a medical checkup. "The doctor gave me high marks," he says.
I am going to cast my examination of The New York Times' coverage of the Jan. 8, 2011 Tucson shooting rampage-that killed six people and wounded 14, including U. S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords-in the same terms my father uses: I'm giving the Times low marks.
Just going by the numbers, the Times did a heckuva job, as befits its status as America's pre-eminent national paper: 6 stories the first day, 12 the second, 9 the third, 6 the fourth, 8 the fifth, 9 the sixth and 5 the seventh. That's 55 stories in a week, not counting all the columns, editorials and letters to the editor.
If we think in terms of newspaper "real estate," in addition to the stories on the front page, the Times' coverage filled a total of 20 full pages, plus parts of another 10 pages.
And if we count bylines we find that the Times assigned an astonishing 38 reporters to one or another aspect of the story. Of those, 20 appeared on stories with Tucson datelines (most of the rest were reported from Washington).
But when we look beyond the headlines and the sheer bulk of the coverage, we find some glaringly shoddy work, most of it in the stories that considered whether Jared Loughner's rampage was politically motivated.
Certainly it made sense to pursue this angle: It was clear from the outset that Loughner knew who Rep. Giffords was and that he had specifically targeted her. That-by definition-made the shooting an attempted political assassination. And, as James W. Clarke, a political science professor who studies political assassinations, suggested in a letter to the editor, "it is pure nonsense to suggest...that the political environment has nothing to do with the actions of very disturbed individuals..."
But specific evidence that Loughner was influenced or inspired by what was referred to as the "vitriolic rhetoric" of right-wing politicians and commentators was flimsy at best. Neither published interviews with Loughner's acquaintances nor perusals of his online ramblings yielded any references to the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly or any of the shriller voices on the political right. Nothing turned up during that week to indicate that he was angry at Giffords for voting for "Obamacare" or opposing Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigrants.
In fact the only line of thought that could link Loughner to ideas generally associated with the far right was his view that America's monetary system should be re-attached to the gold standard. Other than that, acquaintances described him as a nihilist or as left-wing or as uninterested in talking about politics.
A Closer Look at the Coverage
Sunday, Jan. 9: The shooting occurred on Saturday morning, Jan. 8. The first five paragraphs of Sunday's lead story focused on the condition of Rep. Giffords, the death of Judge John M. Roll and 9-year-old Christina Green, and the arrest of 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner. The first mention of Loughner's politics appeared in the sixth paragraph in the form of a vague reference to his "ominous Internet postings... on topics like the gold standard and mind control." Three paragraphs later, the story notes that "the shooting raised questions about potential political motivations"-a mushy formulation insofar as events don't actually raise questions, people do. One of the people the Times had in mind was Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik, who would play a prominent role in subsequent coverage in the Times and elsewhere of the political angle. Here, Dupnik was reported to have blamed "the toxic political environment in Arizona." In the same sentence, the Times reported that "Democrats denounced the fierce partisan atmosphere in Ms. Gifford's district," but it never specified which Democrats had issued the denunciations. Farther down, the paper noted that Rep. Giffords had opposed Arizona's new immigration law and had been criticized for voting for the healthcare reform bill, but did not say whether such issues may have motivated Loughner.
Three of the other five stories on the shootings in Sunday's paper explored their political dimension at length, if not in depth. The front page sidebar, headlined "Bloodshed Puts New Focus on Vitriol in Politics," began by asserting that the shootings "set off what is likely to be a wrenching debate over anger and violence in American politics." While acknowledging that Loughner's "exact motivations... remained unclear," the story cited Loughner's online "antigovernment ramblings," though, as with the main story, it offered no specifics. Evidence of the beginning of the "wrenching debate" consisted of one source, the National Jewish Democratic Council. Everyone else quoted in the story-President Obama, "top Republicans" and Tea Party activists-condemned the violence, with one Tea Party activist cautioning against assuming that Loughner was inspired by anti-government or anti-Democratic rhetoric.
The second story that promised to shed some light on the shooter's motives was headlined "Arizona Suspect's Online Trail Offers Hints of Alienation." The story contained only two references to Loughner's politics. A high school classmate described his views as "left wing, quite liberal." The reporters asserted that his writings contained "some strands of recognizable political thought," but the only examples they offered were Loughner's stated belief that debts should be paid "in currency that is backed by gold and silver," and that the government was somehow "trying to trick him, or take advantage of him."
The third piece that purported to delve into Loughner's politics was Matt Bai's "Political Times" column or news analysis-the Times neglected to label it so it would not necessarily be clear to all readers just what kind of journalism Bai was providing. Bai began by telling us of pages that were "disappeared" from the Web immediately after the shootings-notably, a map posted by Sarah Palin during the 2010 election campaign that had placed various congressional districts, including Giffords', in the "crosshairs." "Odds are pretty good," Bai wrote, that such imagery had little to do with the shootings in Tucson. "But scrubbing them from the Internet couldn't erase all evidence of the rhetorical recklessness that permeates our political moment." Bai used this "I'm not saying Loughner was influenced by right-wing extremism, but...." rhetorical strategy twice. A few paragraphs later: "It wasn't clear Saturday whether [Loughner] was motivated by any real political philosophy or by voices in his head, or perhaps by both. But it's hard not to think he was at least partly influenced by a debate that often seems to conflate philosophical disagreement with some kind of political Armageddon." The rest of the piece offered examples of the sort of rhetoric that could have influenced Loughner if indeed he paid any attention to it. In other words, the piece was speculative, from start to finish.
To summarize: The Times' first day coverage raised the possibility that the shootings were politically motivated in four different stories but the sum total of the evidence that the shootings were politically motivated are a quote from a classmate who remembers Loughner holding left-wing views, his views on the country's monetary system and an expression of distrust in the government.
Monday, Jan. 10: In Monday's coverage, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller raised the possibility of a political motive by telling reporters that "links to extremist groups" would be investigated. The "political" examples of Loughner's odd behavior reported by the Times were his asking a staffer at the local YMCA how he felt "about the government taking over"; a counselor at the community college saying Loughner had "extreme political views"; a restatement of his views on the gold standard; and snippets of an online rant about the government controlling our minds through grammatical rules. The most substantial suggestion that any of this was connected to political extremism came from a source at the Southern Poverty Law Center, who said Loughner's views on currency were common on the far right. Unnamed law enforcement officials were said to be considering the possibility that Loughner was influenced by a "conservative" magazine- American Renaissance, which sounds quite a few ticks to the right of "conservative"-but we were not told why they thought there was a connection. The story ended thus: "Nobody knew for sure what compelled the gunman. Ms. Giffords, who represents the Eighth District, in the southeastern corner of Arizona, has been an outspoken critic of the state's tough immigration law, which is focused on identifying, prosecuting and deporting illegal immigrants, and she had come under criticism for her vote in favor of the health care law." Note that the story did not say whether these issues motivated Loughner, but the juxtaposition suggested that they might well have.
A page with three political stories offered a selection of quotes from "On the Air and the Blogs." Here, perhaps, was evidence of the "wrenching debate" over the demonizing drift of American political rhetoric that the Times said had begun in the previous day's paper-except that the most pointed comments along those lines came from two sources, one of whom was a journalist, David Fitzsimmons. A political cartoonist at the Arizona Star, Fitzsimmons blamed "the right in Arizona" for "stoking the fires of heated anger and rage." The Times' other source was Sheriff Dupnik, who called Arizona "the mecca for prejudice and bigotry." Most of the rest of the quotes in these stories came from politicians, other journalists and bloggers who said Fitzsimmons' and Dupnik's comments were out of line, or hotly denied that their own rhetoric was in any way blameworthy.
As it did the previous day, the Times made claims about national reaction to the shootings without substantiating them. "Some Democrats and allied liberal activists wondered aloud whether heated Republican and conservative attacks against Democrats and the government... had contributed to a climate" in which the shootings occurred, the Times reported, but the only named source of such a reaction was former Rep. Chris Carney of Pennsylvania, who called on Sarah Palin to apologize for her crosshairs map. The thinness of the sourcing of these stories may cause us to ask whether, as the Times claimed, the shootings "focused the nation's attention on the heat of its political culture," or whether the shootings mostly focused the nation's journalists' attention.
Tuesday, Jan. 11: On Tuesday, a front-page story about political tensions in Giffords' congressional district echoed the logic of earlier stories: The rampage "may prove to be an isolated act of violence by a mentally disturbed man... Still, the shootings came after a disconcerting run of episodes..., raising temperatures here in a way that some of Ms. Giffords's friends argue fed an atmosphere that might encourage violence." The story went on to enumerate those tensions in considerable detail, only to conclude: "Whether all that had anything to do with what happened here on Saturday is another matter." It then gave the last word to a Republican who lost to Giffords in 2006: "People are trying to rationalize an irrational event," said Randy Graf, "and in the process they're blaming the blameless. The blame is being aimed at everything from the past campaign to the Tea Party when it should rest, by all reports, on the shooter himself."
A story about Sarah Palin's response to criticism of her crosshairs graphic began thus: "Under criticism that her political rhetoric had helped create a climate for political violence, Sarah Palin addressed the issue in trademark fashion: via e-mail to the conservative commentator Glenn Beck." In keeping with earlier thinly sourced or unsourced coverage, the story never identified the sources of the criticism of Palin, unless we include Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, who said he would not have used the crosshairs imagery that Palin used, while also stating his belief that neither the crosshairs, Fox News, "any particular commentator or show or set of remarks or person was a motivating factor" in Loughner's thoughts. Farther down in the story, the reporter made this astonishing claim: "Though there is no evidence that... Loughner was a fan or a follower of Ms. Palin, critics immediately noted" Palin's use of the crosshair image in a fundraising appeal. Far from offering more tangible evidence that Loughner was influenced by right-wing rhetoric, the Times was now saying more emphatically that such evidence had not yet been found even as it continued to suggest that the possibility that such influence existed nonetheless. Again, one had to wonder whether the unnamed critics of the crosshairs appeal were none other than the journalists who kept calling attention to it.
Wednesday, Jan. 12: On Wednesday, the lead story was mostly centered on a friend's insights into Loughner's mental state. Significantly, the friend, Zane Gutierrez, said nothing about Loughner's political beliefs, unless one considers his nihilism a political philosophy.
Thursday, Jan. 13: A story about Loughner's behavior on the morning of the shootings reported that investigators thus far see "no obvious connection between Mr. Loughner and political extremists..."
Sunday, Jan. 16: The Times wrapped up its coverage with the portrait of Jared Loughner that had emerged in the past week. Here, discussion of Loughner's politics was more nuanced than it had been. The story, which filled two full pages, described him as "an echo chamber for stray ideas" circulating among extremist right-wing groups, including "the need for a new money system and the government's mind manipulation of the masses through language." Farther down, we learned of his interest in antigovernment conspiracy theories and his concern that an over-reaching government was censoring the Internet and banning books. Meanwhile, in the "Week in Review" section, Matt Bai continued to ponder the relationship of Loughner's actions to inflammatory political rhetoric, asking whether the tragedy would "jolt the political class" into civility.
Times reporters acknowledged the lack of evidence that Loughner was goaded to action by right-wing rhetoric. They also printed denials from Tea Party activists and Sarah Palin and others that their words could have influenced the gunman. But they went right on insisting that those influences had to have been a factor. This is the logic of the conspiracy theory. It should not be the logic of journalism.
Times reporters were on firmer ground when they left the speculation to their sources. The Times appeared to do this in several stories when it attributed the view that right-wing rhetoric played a role in the shootings to Democrats or "liberal activists" or "critics" of Palin's crosshairs map. It is, in fact, standard journalistic practice to make a generalization early in the story and then substantiate the generalization later on by citing a few sources. Shockingly, though, there were several instances where the story never did name the Democrats or activists or critics in question. Elsewhere, one saw frequent references to declarations in the Huffington Post and the Daily Kos that right-wing rhetoric was to blame for the shootings, but the only references to these sources in the Times were in a column by David Brooks. In a couple of other cases, the generalization was substantiated by one source, which seems a little thin. Such practices make one suspect that what is really being articulated is the view of the reporter, who then cast about for a mouthpiece.
In his Jan. 15 column, Charles Blow described the eagerness to link Loughner to the political right as a witch hunt, without referring to any news organizations by name. "The only problem," he wrote, "is that there was no evidence then, and even now, that overheated rhetoric from the right had anything to do with the shooting." Similarly, in his Jan. 16 column, David Brooks took "mainstream news organizations" to task for trafficking in wild accusations, calling them "vicious charges made by people who claimed to be criticizing viciousness," but he did not specifically call out his own newspaper.
The same day, Times public editor Arthur Brisbane devoted the first half of his column to the early errors in the Times' reporting- notably, that Rep. Giffords had been killed-that he said were a function of the rush to get the story online. He devoted much of the second half of the column to reader complaints about the paper's "rush to judgment" of Loughner's political motivations. "...The intense focus on political conflict-not just by the Times-detracted from what has emerged as the salient story line," Brisbane wrote, "that of a mentally ill individual with lawful access to a gun." He concluded by again ascribing flaws in the Times coverage to haste, but the demands of warp-speed journalism alone do not explain and cannot be blamed for the rampant speculation and inadequate sourcing of the paper's reporting on what happened in Tucson. Such shoddiness only confirmed what the paper's worst critics already believed about the best newspaper in the land.
Exhaustive as the Times' coverage was, its pursuit of the political angle was marred by speculation, opinion and insufficient sourcing-which is why I gave the paper low marks.
(Note: Though I looked at the Washington print edition of the Times for my page counts and front-page story counts, my summaries are based on reading versions of Times stories that appear in the Newsbank electronic archive. These versions often differ from those that appeared in print.)