In the wake of Jared Loughner’s massacre, the media suddenly discovered a keen interest in rhetoric. Looking at the use of the word “rhetoric” in the context of the many articles about the shooting suggests that the mass media doesn’t have a very good sense of what rhetoric is. This comes as a surprise to no one with any formal training in rhetoric.
What is particularly interesting though, is that the use of “rhetoric” by the mainstream media has an extremely rhetorical purpose. Namely, to decry what most people in the media see as irrational, provocative, hateful, and dangerous speech by Palin, the Tea Party, and by extension, almost anyone whose political views have anything in common with those entities. Of course, Loughner wasn’t spurred to action by “the vitriolic nature of our political discourse,” or Palin, or the Tea Party, or Glenn Beck, or any of those other bogeymen. No evidence has come to light that betrays that Loughner had even a blush of sympathy for those characters.
This is not to say that the climate of deliberative discourse is not a huge problem. It is. And the ideological right is at fault no more than the left. For every Palin “crosshairs” map, there is a statement from Obama inciting voters on the left to “punish [their] enemies” or assuring his base that if “they” (the right) bring a knife to the fight, “we” (the left) will bring a gun.
I’m not saying that the left shares equal blame with the right: I’m saying that in a larger sense neither party is to blame. In fact, it is corporate media who is responsible for the state of our national discourse: MSNBC, CNN, the New York Times, the National Review, Mother Jones, and yes, Fox News. In a society such as ours, it is very difficult for the individual citizen to meaningfully participate in any semblance of a public deliberative discourse. Instead, our approximation of that discourse happens IN the media — it is the space (and the medium) of that discourse. That means that for the vast majority of people, our public discourse is essentially non-participatory.
That the media is the message might be a good thing, if the media strove to maintain some neutrality. But the media is the mess. Yes, yes, perfect neutrality is an impossibility. But most media outlets don’t even try anymore. They clearly have a dog in the (gun)fight. You know where Olbermann stands. You know which side Beck is cheering for. And what this means is that these giant corporate media outlets have a supreme interest in producing a narrative from the barest of facts — a narrative that furthers their own ideological ends. And that’s what happened with the Tucson story.
What is shocking is that the media continues to pretend that it is unaware that the media itself constitutes (and largely dictates) the very venomous discourse that it continually decries — as if that discourse exists outside of media influence. With as much as I hear the people decry corporate power in America, somehow they seem blissfully indifferent to corporate media unless it is owned by Rupert Murdoch. If I have to be lectured one more time by some epididactic congressperson (or Mr. Clinton) that “the words we choose really DO matter,” I think I’m gonna puke. That nausea stems from the fact that these same people will defend all of the worst, most dangerous, most perverse speech in our society (pornography, hyperviolent television, the insipid materialist ethos of popular music), but when it comes to the Tea Party (or whoever) everyone is just shocked and appalled at the recklessness of public speech.
And c’mon… can you honestly say that the worst of the dissent on the right is any more inflammatory and hysterical than vintage 2004 Bush hatred? Ahhh, but dissent was the highest form of patriotism back then. My…how quickly fashions change.