One of our society's sorriest trends of recent years is the tendency to take a violent crime and shift the blame from the guilty criminal to some nonviolent segment of society. We saw this most prominently with the blaming of religious-right newspaper ads for the beating death of gay student Matthew Shepard. We saw it when the NAACP blamed George W. Bush for giving James Byrd's relatives a neverending replay of his racially motivated highway-dragging death by failing to sign a liberal "hate crimes" bill.
Now we have a new example. It's a beaut.
A letter writer to the Poynter Institute's MediaNews page identifying himself as Ken Denney, formerly of the Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle, claims that the Wall Street Journal is somehow to blame for the kidnapping and possible murder of its reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. How so? The Journal's editorial page egged the kidnappers on, apparently, by portraying the media as biased and praising Bernard Goldberg's best-selling exposÈ of CBS News.
Honest injun, Denney claimed that the Journal editorialists have persistently tried to "label journalists as political tools in service of a larger political agenda. The kidnappers of Mr. Pearl insist that he is a political tool, a spy, for some foreign government ... Where could they have possibly gotten the idea that journalists are not the dedicated professionals they claim to be but are instead something else in disguise?" He insisted that the real culprits in Pearl's abduction were conservative media critics: "For far too long, the journalistic community has treated conservative criticism of the profession too lightly. False descriptions have dire consequences, as we now see."
Never to be counted out when there's a loony argument to be made, Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen hopped on the bandwagon lumping in media critics with Pearl's kidnappers, while upping the ante with an Enron twist. She began by ridiculing Enron CEO Ken Lay for suggesting that the suicide of Enron executive Cliff Baxter, described as a "straight arrow," is an example of how the media can destroy people's lives. "In other words, it wasn't the company. It was the coverage," she summarized with amazement.
Quindlen then compared that criticism to the kidnapping of Pearl, who "was a member of the selfsame 'media' to which Lay was finding it so convenient to shift blame. There was outrage in this country that militants a world away were literally threatening to kill the messenger. But that's something Americans do figuratively all the time."
It's wildly unfair to equate criticism of inaccurate, biased or tendentious journalism with threatening to kill the media, no matter how figuratively. This is a hyperbolic game with no winners. It's too bad Quindlen wasn't employed at Newsweek in 1993, when the magazine itself tried this tactic, blaming the media for the suicide of another "straight arrow." Jonathan Alter found it convincing when Clinton cronies began blaming the Wall Street Journal editorial page for causing White House lawyer Vince Foster to kill himself. "If Robert Bartley, the Journal's editor, hasn't been sleeping fitfully," Alter wrote, "he's even less of a human being than his worst enemies imagine."
That line of attack later boomeranged on Alter when he was involved in exposing fraudulent medals given to Adm. Jeremy Boorda, who responded to the Newsweek exposÈ by committing suicide.
Clearly, the national media have great power to affect the reputations of public and private figures alike, and their spotlight can cause unemployment, imprisonment, great heartache and even suicidal thoughts. But this doesn't disqualify the pursuit of investigative journalism; nor should it dampen the freedom of media criticism. These things can be done -- honorably.
So let's stop this hyperbolic "killing" nonsense. For her part, Quindlen's using it because she wants the liberal bias debate dismissed: "Their notion of some vast conspiracy of bloodthirsty notebook-holders is as improbable as Roswell." But a few paragraphs earlier, she admits the media are "occasionally combative," as with Vietnam and Watergate, when reporters clearly crusaded to end the Vietnam War and the Nixon presidency.
The media are not out for "blood," literally or figuratively, but they are often out for "justice," what they see as the desirable political result. The latter can be debated, criticized, even denounced. But the former should not be part of the conversation because it doesn't exist.
After an embarrassing column like hers, Quindlen would be better off if she responded to the massive weight of proof of liberal bias in the way most media elitists do: pretending it just doesn't exist.