My Think Again column is called “The Power of Unreality.” It was inspired by the NRA’s successful attempt to rewrite the Second Amendment and it’s here.
In memory of Robert Bork, from Why We're Liberals (2008):
1) Nowhere was the rejection of the liberal elite clearer than in the right’s reaction to the joint presidency of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Right wing Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork compared the decade of their rule to a “mini-French Revolution.”
2) Robert Bork, perhaps the most influential conservative judicial intellectual in America, has remarked that he found himself agreeing with his wife when she dismissed the US Supreme Court justices as a “band of outlaws.” “An outlaw is a person who coerces others without warrant in law,” he wrote. “That is precisely what a majority of the present Supreme Court does.” Indeed, American civilization, writes Robert Bork, is in peril of “slid[ing] into a modern, high-tech version of the Dark Ages.” In Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline, Bork declares, “There are aspects of almost every branch of our culture that are worse than ever before and the rot is spreading.” That rot derives from the nation’s “enfeebled, hedonistic culture,” its “uninhibited display of sexuality,” its “popularization of violence in . . . entertainment,” and “its angry activists of feminism, homosexuality, environmentalism, animal rights—the list could be extended almost indefinitely.” Bork closes out his account by insisting that the country is “now well along the road to the moral chaos that is the end of radical individualism and the tyranny that is the goal of radical egalitarianism. Modern liberalism has corrupted our culture across the board.”
As Bork would have it, things have gotten so bad that he was willing to participate in a November 1996 symposium entitled “The End of Democracy?” sponsored by the theoconservative journal First Things, in which the contributors addressed themselves to the proposition that “we [America] have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.”
Some quite casual, year-end nominations based on what I’ve heard, seen and listened to so far though I’m sure I’ve forgotten some good stuff and I apologize in advance:
Books about music that I absolutely loved, indeed, I can hardly believe how good each one of these is:
Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever, by Will Hermes
There was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream, by Ben Sidran
Still the Greatest: The Essential Songs of The Beatles' Solo Careers, by Andrew Grant Jackson
Oscar nominations based only on movies I’ve so far seen.
Best Picture: A Late Symphony
Best actress: Michelle Williams, Take This Waltz (I feel quite strongly about this)
Best actor, Denzel Washington, Flight
Best Documentary: The Gatekeepers (This too)
Best Foreign Film: Goodbye First Love
My favorite new music of the year in no particular order:
Neil Young's Psychedelic Pill
Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball
Bob Dylan's Tempest
Graham Parker's Three Chords Good
Frank Ocean's Channel Orange
Leonard Cohen's Old Ideas
Andrew Bird's Break it Yourself and Hands of Glory
My favorite reissues not including “complete” collections:
Country Funk's 1969-75
Paul and Linda McCartney's Ram
Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick
Paul Simon's Graceland
The Rolling Stones's Charlie is My Darling
My favorite new/old releases that don’t quite fit either category:
Crosby, Stills and Nash's 2012
Led Zeppelin's Celebration Day
Elvis Presley's Prince from Another Planet
Charles Mingus's The Jazz Workshop Concerts
My favorite TV shows of the season:
House of Lies
Karl Rove on Election Night
Best Broadway plays:
Death of a Salesman
Glenngarry Glen Ross
Media Misfire: Why the Press Doesn’t Seem to Care About the Gun in Gun Violence
by Reed Richardson
If last week’s horrific Newtown, Connecticut school massacre has any kind of (admittedly tarnished) silver lining, one would hope it would be to finally serve as a wake-up call to the nation and the press about the epidemic of gun violence we inexplicably allow ourselves to suffer through daily. But make no mistake, the political willpower necessary to affect substantive changes in gun policy will be uneasy to amass and holding the attention of the media may even more difficult . Undoubtedly, the odds are stacked against enacting little more than cosmetic changes. And though the following comments from policymakers like, respectively, a conservative red state Democratic Senator, the Democratic Senate Leader, and the Vice President are encouraging, I’m still not too sanguine about the long-term prospects for change:
"I don't want my high schools, in my state, in this country, to turn into a miniature Vietnam.”
"What you just saw is the NRA losing its grip on the United States Senate, at long last.”
“This is a turning point for our country.”
The reasons for my pessimism? First off, we’ve been down this road countless times before with little or nothing to show for it, policy wise. As proof, I have a confession to make. The aforementioned statements, although they might have easily been seen in news stories or heard on cable TV talk shows during the past week, were actually uttered 13-and-a-half years ago—by then Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, then Senator Minority Leader Tom Daschle, and then Vice President Al Gore—just weeks after the infamous Columbine shooting. As it happens, all three quotes appeared in this Washington Post story, which was pegged to the narrow Senate passage—thanks only to Gore’s tie-breaking vote—of a long overdue bill closing the “gun show sales loophole.” As the Post story also depressingly points out, this single, measly success had “brought gun control forces their first big victory in five years.” But even this legislative momentum would prove to be short-lived, as a similar bill was routed in the House, falling a mere 133 votes(!) short, less than three weeks later. (And to this day, 33 states still do not require any form of background check prior to firearms sales at a gun show.)
In the intervening years since Columbine, gun advocates have enjoyed almost unchecked legislative successes. Despite the steady occurrence of numerous other ghastly gun rampages (all of which are grimly documented by Mother Jones), in many parts of America, citizens are now legally allowed to carry handguns into churches, bars, schools, and all manner of other public spheres that would have been unthinkable in the past. Indeed, we’ve now reached a point where broad stretches of the country resemble the Wild Westmore so than the actual Wild West did. Today, for instance, one needs no permit at all to openly carry a gun in Tombstone, Arizona, whereas 132 years ago, during Wyatt Earp’s time there, the public carrying of firearms was forbidden for anyone other than law enforcement and the military.
Certainly, timidity on the part of liberal and Democratic politicians has enabled the gun lobby’s vast expansion of power over the past generaton. But there’s no mistaking that a timorous press corps has aided and abetted this political unwillingness to confront the real causes and solutions of gun violence.
To get a sense of how media coverage helps to quickly enervate and dissipate momentum for gun policy changes—even in the wake of outrageous tragedies like Newtown—it’s worth taking a step back and developing a broader taxonomy of gun-related press reportage. Helpfully, a survey from the Berkeley Media Studies Group offers us precisely such an example. As it happens, the BMSG was tracking gun policy coverage across a number of state and national newspapers from March through May of 1999, a period during the middle of which, coincidentally, the Columbine shooting occurred. As one might imagine, gun policy coverage spiked after the shooting, but not necessarily in the way you might think. In fact, the resulting BMSG study found that in the ideological “framing” of the 170 news stories it analyzed during these three months, pro-gun control articles barely edged out those opposing any new restrictions:
“Overall, the frames in support of new gun policies appeared in 62% of the sample, while frames opposing new gun policies appeared in 56% of the sample.”
Unsurprisingly, a quick tour of the recent post-shooting media coverage and right-wing punditry turns up plenty of the same anti-gun control frames, phrasing, and quotes that the study found proliferated after Columbine.
“We should enforce existing laws, not make new ones” (1999)
“The problem isn’t guns, it’s criminals” (1999)
“The right to own guns is absolute”
“Parents need to take more responsibility”
“What about virtuous gun use – guns are protective”
“Gun control hurts law-abiding citizens”
“The problem isn’t guns, it’s crazy people” (1999)
“You can’t blame everyone for one person’s actions”
I acknowledge that the above are but the golden oldies of anti-gun control obfuscation. Newtown also seems to have elicited a whole other genre of remixed grasping at straw men and victim-baiting, blaming everything from the press’s “extensive coverage” of the shooter’s identity to violent video games to—I kid you not—insufficient kamikaze instincts among the public and a lack of strapping male janitors and former Al Bundys patrolling our elementary schools.
Many of these frames are culled from conservative news organizations that admittedly have an ideological agenda to push. Yet, it’s worth pointing out that plenty of these same talking points end up embedded into “straight news” as part of the inevitable, artificially balanced reporting often used when covering controversial topics. Even more insidious is the subtle co-opting of pro-gun control frames that the media often unwittingly facilitates.
For example, the BMSG study found that the second-most popular post-Columbine “pro-gun control” frame (behind the idea that “legislators are under the thumb of the gun lobby”) involved policy fixes that only focused on individual, people-focused restrictions rather than curb the overall number of guns. But this “hate the gunner, not the gun” approach, the study goes one to explain, is counterproductive, as it falls victim to the same failures in efficacy that plagued similar people-not-product proposals in other public health crises:
By enforcing a perspective that the identity of the user matters, this frame may ghettoize the problem and limit public support for more wide-reaching policies that would address all guns no matter who owns or uses them. By comparison, many tobacco control advocates feel that the focus on keeping cigarettes away from kids distracts policy makers and siphons support away from policies that would have a greater likelihood of reducing the effects of tobacco use among all age groups.
Even when the gun lobby appears to be (temporarily) on the ropes, in other words, many gun control proponents are unwittingly conceding large swaths of the debate to them, and the media obliges. Thus, they ensure that whatever (if any) gun reform measures get enacted, they will be of a highly limited nature and never seriously jeopardize the status quo. Indeed, a just released Gallup poll both echoes and highlights how narrowly the debate over gun policy has already become, before all the victims of Newtown have even been buried. As you see, the only somewhat comprehensive step—“ban the sale of assault and semiautomatic guns”—ranks but fourth in terms of favored courses of action, below more cops in schools, better mental health care, and decreasing violence in video games. That we’re literally more concerned about constant exposure to artificial violence in a virtual world than actual violence in the real one is an indictment of the press as much as it is the public.
The mainstream media, however, is mostly blind to its own inability to see the overwhelming role a deluge of guns plays in fostering gun violence. (And let their be no question about this, for it is a simple, straightforward equation, proven over and over by statistical analysis: more guns = more homicide.) However, I qualify this with a “mostly” because there are some notable exceptions to myopia. Fareed Zakaria, to his credit, wrote one of the most clear-eyed, unapologetically thinking-big columns I’ve ever seen on the topic of gun policy. In it, he presents ample evidence that fiddling around the margins of gun policy—with loophole-filled bans or more feints at mental health screening—will fail to achieve the lofty “never again” rhetoric that the president and others always trot out after tragedies like this.
Sadly, Zakaria’s level of candor is a rarity among Washington’s op-ed pages and talk shows. More common is the journalistic employment of something NYU media critic Jay Rosen calls “the savvy.” This phenomenon is marked by a widespread intellectual embrace of complex schemes, behind-the-scenes machinations, and partisan score-keeping in any policy debate. Political science professor Steven Teles, in his essay that I wrote about last week, called this penchant for Rube Goldberg policymaking “kludgeocracy.”
For a striking example of how this plays out on a daily basis, look no further than this week’s White House press conference. There, Obama made a rather bold (for him) speech about his intent to push for stronger, albeit not strong enough, gun control measures. Yet, after he concluded his remarks, the first four questions from the press weren’t related to the speech he had just given. Instead, they targeted the fiscal cliff negotiations, a topic that is tailor made for insider-y, “savvy” coverage.
Finally, Jake Tapper from ABC News did circle back to gun control, but, again, in a “savvy” way, criticizing Obama for ignoring gun control for the past four years—“Where have you been?” (That’s not quite accurate, as Obama, alas, has actually expanded gun rights.) Now, I’m all for the press holding politicians accountable, but it’s notable that Tapper too has done his share of muddying the issue of gun violence. Nearly two years ago, for instance, he played along with right-wing framing by callously suggesting “civil libertarians” might have enabled Jared Lee Loughner’s mass shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 11 others in Tucson. Tapper, by the way, has something of a history of happily feeding aggrieved conservatives by piously calling out politicians and his media peers for their supposed failure to talk about the real issues.
Even worse, however, was Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank’s day-two piece on the press conference, which took things to a “meta-savvy” level. In it, he essentially mocked Obama for the assembled press’s apathy over gun control and then chastised the president for obliquely linking it to his answers on the fiscal cliff negotiation questions. This is worthless, ephemeral, damned-if-he-does, damned-if-he-doesn’t cynical journalism at its worst. I shudder to think of the “Obama displays lack of leadership on gun control” column Milbank would have written had the president just made a symbolic gesture regarding the Newtown tragedy and then turned his full attention to getting more, stupid offers from John Boehner on a manufactured crisis like the fiscal cliff.
In the end, it is this warped sense of priorities and skewed framing among the mainstream media that acts as a bulwark against necessary, long overdue changes in every policy arena, whether the issues are fiscal or firearm-related. It’s ;a mindset that believes less gun violence surely can’t be as simple as having fewer guns, just as less poverty can’t be as simple as giving more assistance directly to the poor. So, we watch as the press and pundits dismiss outright as unserious those strategies that have been demonstrated to work—whether it’s massive gun buyback programs and bans on private gun sales or increasing Medicaid and sustaining unemployment benefits—and instead cheer watered-down, bank-shot compromises that just kick our democracy’s problems down the road a bit. It’s a vicious, tragic cycle, for just as it guarantees that we’ll have to endure another round of fiscal brinksmanship next month or next year, it also makes it just as likely that we’ll all be mourning another group of our fellow citizens, gunned down under a hail of bullets, sometime very soon.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. Also, I’m on Twitter here.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.