Rhetoric vs. Reportage: How TV News Is Covering the Tucson Shootings

Everyone’s calling it the Tragedy in Tucson, but the cable news networks are targeting each other in the blame game

Last Updated: January 11, 2011 @ 12:01 PM

The media airwaves were filled with hand-wringing, mea culpas and finger-pointing on Monday in a strained attempt to balance news reporting with self-questioning by cable news organizations.

Two days after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), the media is busy pointing fingers at itself.

>> Fox News

Fox News chief Roger Ailes spoke exclusively with Russell Simmons’ GlobalGrind.com about what he told his staff. “I told all of our guys, shut up, tone it down, make your argument intellectually,” Ailes said. “You don’t have to do it with bombast.” (Of course, as he’s wont to do, Ailes took a swipe at progressives, adding he hoped “the other side does that.”)

Apparently, Glenn Beck didn’t get Ailes’ memo. Beck used his Monday show to slam the rest of the media for its “wildly speculative reporting” and oddly challenged several people by name — Katie Couric, Brian Williams, even President Obama — to “knock it off. Stop it.”

Also read: Climate of Hate? Cable News and the Economics of Violent Talk

Beck made sure to refocus the news on what really matters most: himself. He recounted where he was when he found out about the shootings (with his wife at “Spider-Man” on Broadway) and his first reaction (to tell his security detail to “protect the kids”).

Fox didn’t devote its entire programming day to Tucson. Following an informative segment with a Brooklyn brain doctor, Neil Cavuto switched to a remote with a BMW North America executive — responding to reports of union protests — standing in front of a bright red Beemer. Incongruous, at best.


Keith Olbermann — whose financial support of Giffords’ campaign got him in hot water with the network last fall — broadcast a special edition of “Countdown” on Saturday to cover the shootings. And he apologized for helping create a cable news environment that may indirectly inspire violence. “I apologize for and repudiate any act or any thing in my past that may have even inadvertently encouraged violence. Because for whatever else each of us may be, we all are Americans.”

By Monday afternoon, however, it seemed like that constructive criticism was lost to sensationalism on Olbermann’s own network. Dylan Ratigan, for example, presided over a segment entitled “Can You Spot a Killer Online?”

Chris Matthews used his show to slam Sarah Palin’s use of gun imagery and, like other pundits, asked her to tone it down — but did so at a volume that didn’t match the message.

>> CNN

CNN, which thrives on live coverage of tragic events, has been carrying wall-to-wall coverage of the Arizona shootings more or less since the news broke and struck probably the most consistent tone of any cable new network — even if the lower-third scroll challenged that tone (“Elijah Wood to Appear in ‘The Hobbit’ … Beckhams Expecting Fourth Child …”) on Monday afternoon.

But CNN’s “Reliable Sources” provided the most relevant discussion for our purposes: the media’s role in creating an environment where incendiary political rhetoric can ignite a wacko like Jared Lee Loughner.

“The media let us down this past weekend,” Kurtz wrote on the Daily Beast. “There’s always somebody you can blame for violent imagery … It would be nice if everybody dialed it back and toned it down just a little bit.”

Network News

>> ABC, CBS and NBC sent their high-profile hosts — Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric and Brian Williams — to anchor Monday’s broadcasts from Tucson tonight, and each devoted most of their half hours to the massacre.

>> NBC’s “Nightly News,” for example, spent its first 21 minutes on the Giffords shooting and only briefly giving way to a report on a big snowstorm in the South.

>> Because the tragedy happened Saturday morning, the networks largely got a head start, dispatching hosts to Tuscon to anchor coverage there on Sunday night, some on other shows. Brian Williams anchored a special primetime edition of “Dateline” from Tucson at 8 on Sunday, and was there again on Monday.

>> The Big Three all carried the moment of silence for the victims live on Monday morning. And the "Today Show" did what the "Today Show" does best: focused on nine-year-old victim, Christina Green and her baseball-background family ties.

In addition, there was a reporting gaffe that underlined the role that media has played in national tragedies.

Shortly following the news of the shooting, all three of the major cable news networks — citing NPR — reported that the congresswoman had died from her gunshot wound. On Monday. NPR’s executive news director apologized for the false report:

In the course of reporting on the tragic events in Tucson on Saturday, NPR broadcast erroneous information in our 2:01 p.m. Eastern newscast, saying that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona had been shot and killed. That information briefly appeared on NPR.org and was contained in an e-mail news alert sent to subscribers of that service. This was a serious and grave error … Corrections and properly updated reports were issued within minutes.

On behalf of NPR News, I apologize for this mistake to the family of Rep. Giffords, to the families of everyone affected by the shootings, to our listeners and to our readers.

And so it has gone with the media the last three days, where news networks have been forced to walk the delicate line between informative discussion of the shooting and the exploitive sensationalism that it trades in.