What About Your Role in the Arizona Shooting?

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

Hopefully, the cries of condemnation have simmered down by now, but we felt it important, in the wake of the Tucson shooting, to say this about the blame game that ensued: Media, marketing and the tone of political discourse had no role in the affair.

A deranged young man took up a gun and shot 19 people -- killing some, wounding others -- and he wasn't propelled down this path by media any more than John Hinkley was by Jodie Foster or "Catcher in the Rye."

But because there was a political aspect to this, it wasn't long before the partisan blame game started. Both sides are ugly, but the only thing they're really guilty of is hypocrisy. For every crosshair on Sarah Palin's Facebook page, there was a bull's-eye on a similar web page set up by the Democratic Leadership Committee in 2004. For every supposedly unhinged Tea Partier who crosses the line with a poorly spelled sign advocating violence (metaphorical or otherwise), there was an unhinged left-winger at a protest rally during the Bush administration calling for the death of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

It often seems that when the blame game starts, it's our industry that comes under fire. All of these arguments -- from whatever side is making them at the time -- are patently ridiculous. American culture has always had rough edges. And as we've said repeatedly in this space, there has never been a golden age of civil political discourse in this country. From the over-the-top rhetoric of the election of 1800 (accusations of atheism, rape, murder) to South Carolinian Preston Brooks attacking Charles Sumner in Senate chambers in 1856 with a cane to two senators coming to blows on the floor of the Senate in 1902 (South Carolina again) -- this is our political heritage.

Yes, words and images matter. And at first glance, it would seem disingenuous that a group of people who make their living swearing they can move the sales needle would argue that in this case their craft had no effect. But let's face it, we struggle in this industry to get people to even consider purchasing products. And when it comes to elections or policy, the editorial boards at newspapers across the country typically have all the effect of your crazy cousin Eddie, whose blog isn't even read by his mom.

Short of a full-scale, across-the-board propaganda effort run across a unified media, it's hard to push the average person toward an act of violence. The fact is, of course, that alleged shooter Jared Loughner isn't the average person. By all accounts, he is an extremely disturbed individual. Legislative changes or media appeals wouldn't have had much of an effect on such a mind.

That's not to say we all couldn't strive for more civil discourse. And lord knows we could use better creative in political messaging. But ultimately, politics is as much about disagreement as anything else. People are debating big ideas -- and debating leads to arguing and heated words. There is nothing wrong with this.

What would be wrong is using the actions of one deranged individual to legislate a false ideal of civility into the media, marketing and political sphere (not that that would stand constitutional scrutiny). Ultimately, the people who'd benefit most from forcing "civility" into political advertising and discourse are the politicians who have something to hide.

But one thing we can all agree on, in the wake of tragedy, is the last thing anyone needs is the media contributing to the rush to blame anyone -- even if it includes themselves.

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