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Alexandria Shooting Debate: Does the Media Bear Blame for ‘Increase in Violent Rhetoric’?

Shooter publicly lambasted Republicans, including one of his victims

A gunman’s attack on Congressional Republicans during a baseball practice in Alexandria, Va., has led pundits and politicians to stop and think about the partisan tone in Washington — and about who besides themselves might be to blame for it.

Some fingers landed on the news media, one of the few institutions that comes close to Congress in terms of unpopularity. Shooter James T. Hodgkinson was a fierce critic of Republicans, including one of his five victims, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise.

Hodgkinson, who was killed by police, had publicly supported independent socialist candidate Bernie Sanders, a former Democratic presidential contender. Sanders quickly condemned the attack. But Hodgkinson almost immediately became a symbol of partisanship gone violently, despicably too far.

One of the Republican congressman who was at the field at the time of the shooting, Illinois Rep. Jack Bergman, said he thought “the media’s complicit if they keep inciting as opposed to informing.”

“You need to make sure that you think twice about how your words and inflections and phrases are going to affect all the people who might see it,” he added in an interview with Fox News.

Earlier in the day, Republican Illinois congressman Rodney Davis told CNN that he blamed the shooting on the “hateful” tone of politics, saying it could be “the first political rhetorical terrorist act.”

“I believe there is such a hatefulness in what we see in American politics and policy discussions right now… on social media and the 24-hour news cycle. This has got to stop,” Davis said.

Journalists self-reflected, as they tend to do. Kristin Roberts, executive editor of McClatchy’s Washington bureau, called out hyperbole that is becoming increasingly commonplace in journalistic copy.

“Media owns part of this increase in violent rhetoric,” Roberts tweeted. “When pols criticize each other, they are not ‘blasting,’ ‘shooting down,’ ‘pummeling.'”

Al Tompkins, Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online, told TheWrap the issue is much too complicated to simply attribute hardening attitudes to the press.

“We’ve been though all this stuff before,” he said. “I see nothing wrong with saying, ‘Hey, let’s be thoughtful about what we say and how we say it. But that shouldn’t be a reason not for us to aggressively report and seek truth and hold people accountable.”

The blame game goes in many directions. Many Trump critics were quick to point out that he said during the 2016 campaign that “Second Amendment people” might take action against Hillary Clinton, a comment that many interpreted as a threat.

Some Democrats, Hollywood celebrities and journalists have used Trump’s tendency toward generalizations and hyperbole to justify their own eschewing of nuance.

Trump has called the news media the “enemy of the American people.” Some news outlets have called Trump a liar.

And entertainers have gone much further than news outlets: In March, Snoop Dogg was criticized for a video which featured the rapper pretending to shoot a clown dressed like Mr Trump. Kathy Griffin caught hell this month for images of herself with a decapitated, bloody fake Trump head. New York’s Public Theater just lost advertisers over a staging of “Julius Caesar” in which a Trump lookalike is assassinated.

People in both the Democratic and Republican parties have taken offense — or at least opportunistically feigned offense — at the words or actions of those who disagree with them politically, in order to paint their opponents’ behavior as beyond the pale. Democrats and Republicans alike have blamed each other for amplifying the negative tone.

“I can only hope that the Democrats do tone down the rhetoric,” Rep. Chris Collins, a prominent Trump supporter, told an Upstate New York radio station. “The rhetoric has been outrageous — the finger-pointing, just the tone and the angst and the anger directed at Donald Trump, his supporters. Really, then, you know, some people react to things like that. They get angry as well. And then you fuel the fires.”

Donald Trump Jr. retweeted political commentator Harlan Z. Hill, who drew a connection between the shooting and the “Julius Caesar” performance.

“Events like today are EXACTLY why we took issue with NY elites glorifying the assassination of our President,” Hill tweeted his followers.

But on Wednesday, Democratic members of Congress were not lobbing such accusations at Republicans.

Democrats were at their own baseball practice at another field when the Republicans were attacked, and prayed for their political adversaries. The two parties were planning to play each other Thursday in a baseball game for charity.

Former Rep. Gabby Gifford, a Democrat who was shot by a mentally ill, anti-government gunman in 2011, tweeted Wednesday: “My heart is with my former colleagues, their families & staff, and the US Capitol Police- public servants and heroes today and every day.”

And on Thursday, Democrats and Republicans alike plan to do something Thursday for the greater good. In defiance of the violence, both parties agreed that the baseball game will go on.