Jan 172011
Authors: Jim Sojourner

If you want to see a national tragedy politicized faster than Bill O’Reilly can cut a guest’s mic or Keith Olberman can get himself suspended for donating to political campaigns, look no further than your favorite newspaper.

You see, when suspected gunman and confirmed psychopath Jared Lee Loughner opened fire at Representative Gabrielle Gifford’s meet-and-greet at a supermarket outside of Tucson on Jan. 8 killing six people and injuring 13 others including Gifford, it wasn’t Sarah Palin and her wondrously “newsworthy” Twittering who turned the shooting into a political event within hours of the tragedy, nor was it “America-hating” leftist loonies.

No, it was our country’s newspapers that got to politics first and started the spin-cycle we pretend is news before the spinsters themselves could get to it.
In the last week there’s been much hullabaloo about who’s politicized what and who’s to blame for this, that, the other and something else. Nobody, really, has been blameless in the recent political posturing, including Palin with her really-carefully-considered cross hairs map and super-well-thought-out blood libel comment or those same leftists who have tried hard-to-the-point-of-blowing-a-gasket to connect the shooting to the Tea Party.

I’m not going to defend the extreme, mostly right-wing political rhetoric that no doubt had some impact on the sick, twisted mess we could (or couldn’t) call Loughner’s brain; words often have more power than we care to admit. And I don’t think the politicization of the shooting could have been prevented; there are too many maligned ideologues out there on both sides to avoid it.

But within hours of the rampage, publications including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal that could have been champions of factual, accurate information and cut through the political BS had already given into shameless speculation as they started stretching for a political story in an apolitical murder spree.

In their lust for the scoop, papers scrambled for a political story and they lost sight of reality in the process. Before police could scarcely start an investigation, some of the press had already hung Loughner as a right-wing wacko while others scrambled to his defense.

I’ve come to expect such unprofessional sensationalism from our cable news networks, but I’d hoped America’s most respected newspapers could avoid such pathetic displays.
My hopes were misplaced, however, as in short order, the pointing fingers started flying like, well, bullets, and newspapers threw it all on page one next to phrases like: right-wing extremist.

It should have been quite the embarrassment, then, when the evidence started to pile up that, surprise!, Loughner is just a crazy with no readily discernible political leanings except crazy.

Apparently it wasn’t embarrassing enough, though, because instead of reevaluating coverage priorities, the media frenzy turned it’s attention to everyone’s favorite Palin (no, I don’t mean that “dancing” manatee Palin), further engorging the sucking political maelstrom the newspapers themselves sent a-whirling.

In fact, throughout the whole ordeal, I’ve heard or read Palin’s name more than I’ve heard the names of any of the victims except Giffords’.

Today, it’s still a small struggle to find the names of some of the dead and wounded, and on Jan. 8, it was a rarity to find a news report that included in the first paragraph the sort-of-important news that six people had died in the rampage.
For too many news outlets, the juicy political ramifications of the attempted assassination have outweighed lost lives, and that, in itself, is a tragedy.

Newspapers have a responsibility to serve their audience and that doesn’t mean cashing in on the politicization of a great calamity. Reporting, always, should be about truth and accuracy and should emphasize people before politics.

But that’s not what happened over the last week. Politics took precedent, and newspapers not only dishonored the victims of a terrible crime, but newspapers also sullied their own names by becoming part of the same charged, half-truth rhetoric they scurried to link to Loughner. They should be ashamed.

Most times I’m proud to be a newspaper journalist. This last week wasn’t one of them.

Managing Editor Jim Sojourner is a senior journalism major. His column appears Tuesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to news@collegian.com.

 Posted by at 3:01 pm

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