At his weekend press conferences regarding the investigation of the shootings that killed six people and severely injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik took some time to criticize gun- and mental-health-related legislation in Arizona—and the role of talk radio and cable news in polarizing the political debate.
"I think it's the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business, some people in the TV business, and what we see on TV and how our youngsters are being raised," said Dupnik Saturday evening. "This has not become the nice United States of America most of us grew up in, and I think it's time we did the soul-searching."
Dupnik's criticism of what he considers hate-filled propaganda from the right is not new.
"I think America has been revved into high anger, and it's been done over the years primarily by radio talk-show hosts," Dupnik told the Tucson Weekly for a May 20, 2010, Media Watch piece. "... They've been basically bombarded with, 'Hate America; do away with taxes; politicians are corrupt.' I think as a result, we're starting to see some of the products of that anger. I think people who preach that philosophy are partly responsible for some of the stuff that's being channeled out of government."
Dupnik continued: "It's (the) right-wing that I'm talking about. They play to the anger of the people and the paranoia that's going on. I just think people ought to be more responsible. You have to take into consideration what's best for America."
Much of Dupnik's focus has been on Jon Justice, the conservative morning host at KQTH FM 104.1. While Justice was not specifically mentioned during any of Dupnik's press conferences, it didn't take long for Justice to respond. He went so far as to call for the sheriff's resignation.
"I feel incredibly bad for our brave Pima County sheriff's officers who have to serve under Clarence Dupnik," Justice told the Tucson Weekly via e-mail on Saturday. "Within hours of the horrific shooting that took place at the congresswoman's event, Dupnik was telling local media that talk radio and the media was partly to blame, only to repeat his statements again during the press conference that was receiving national attention.
"We have no idea at this point the motivation of this murderer's act," Justice wrote. "Yet Dupnik took his moment in the spotlight to drive a political wedge into the event. They were reckless and dangerous statements made by someone who should have known better. He should have been using his time to help bring the community together. Instead, his statements made Tucson appear to be a city full of hate, bigotry and vitriol. To say, as Dupnik did, that comments made on the airwaves essentially motivated this person to commit this crime is exactly what he blamed talk radio of doing, inciting through pure rhetoric. It was complete misuse of his power, and he owes the media in town, TV and radio, an apology for his horrible comments in the middle of such a tragic day. He should step down immediately from his position as Pima County Sheriff."
At this stage, there is no evidence to suggest the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, was in any way influenced by conservative talk radio. If anything, his mostly incoherent rants suggest something resembling an anarchist point of view. His New World Order and one-world currency conspiracy-theory blatherings seem more in the realm of diatribes by Jesse Ventura and Alex Jones—and nowhere near the easily accessible perspectives of Justice, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.
While local TV-news organizations dedicated the day on Saturday, Jan. 8—and most of the weekend, for that matter—to wall-to-wall coverage of the shooting, KVOA Channel 4 had to balance some delicate issues.
For starters, KVOA was one of the news outlets that erroneously reported through their sources that Giffords had died.
Other media outlets (including the Tucson Weekly) reported that Giffords had died, but cited other media outlets rather than their own sources. (Full disclosure: The same goes for KCUB AM 1290, where I participated in piecemeal live coverage. We were scheduled to broadcast our pregame show for the Arizona men's basketball game against Stanford; the game was ultimately postponed.) That was around 12:30 p.m. on Saturday.
"It was not a decision we made lightly," said KVOA general manager Bill Shaw via e-mail. "We heard the news repeatedly but waited to report until we checked on numerous sources. There were four independent sources (two that were inside the hospital itself) that gave us the information that she had passed away. In addition, there were national outlets that reported that she had passed away, including NPR and Fox News. Plus, numerous websites reported the same. Within a few minutes, (KVOA reporter Lupita Murillo) said that we were getting conflicting reports, and within a few more, said that, in fact, she was alive, and in surgery, fighting for her life."
Later in the afternoon, KVOA faced major logistical programming issues: The station had to choose between coverage of the shooting and the NFL playoffs. The station chose NFL football in the 2 o'clock hour.
As amazing as it might seem for those in the media, and those glued to the news of what may be the most significant news event in modern Tucson history, the reality is that many people weren't interested. Instead, they wanted to watch football.
On a personal note, much of my profession is sports-related, and as a result, I'm surrounded by friends who like sports. I mention this for perspective, for while I would have stayed with local news coverage, many of my sports-fan friends believe KVOA made the correct decision to go to football.
"I don't recall a situation like this in broadcasting. It is truly unprecedented," Shaw said. "We had major tragedy, and at the same time had two NFL games on our air. The decision to air the games was a tough one, but please do realize it was not an economic decision. We were fully staffed and had a full news operation from 11 a.m. (Saturday) through 10:30 p.m., and all coverage was without commercial inventory.
"We did have a lot of feedback from our viewers demanding football. The overriding theme from their perspective was, 'We have been watching now for hours, and there is nothing really new; please put the game on, and break in if you need to. We have plenty of places to get the news, but you are the only place to get the games.'
"Ultimately, I made the decision to air the games, because in the end, it was in the best interest of the viewers. We ran news coverage everywhere but in the actual games, and upon review, nothing was missed. We carried the news conference following the first game and gave updates throughout. We monitored all the news coverage both nationally and locally, and there was no shortage of information either on (the air), on our website or elsewhere.
"All in all, I believe the KVOA news staff and the coverage was outstanding under very difficult circumstances, and (we) kept our viewers fully informed throughout and will continue to do so."
In addition to the glitches one might expect during a day full of news coverage—highlighted by, but not limited to, the inability of local stations to seamlessly transition from the national high-definition feed to local inserts—KVOA constantly battled the technical logistics of bouncing between news updates and the games. The station broke into halftime coverage of the Indianapolis Colts/New York Jets game, but didn't appropriately time the segment. As a result, the station cut away in the middle of a packaged piece to rejoin the second half of the game, which was already in progress.
By airing the NFL doubleheader, KVOA may have opened the door for other news operations to exploit that decision. The salespeople for chief competitors KGUN Channel 9 and KOLD Channel 13 can say their station stayed with coverage throughout, and ask: "To whom would you rather commit your local news-advertising dollars? The station committed to major local news coverage, or the station that played the football games?"
"I agree," Shaw said about the fact that the decision could be exploited, "but in the end, you have to make the call."
Regarding cases like this, many station-licensing agreements include the vague discretionary concept of "in the public interest," which was designed precisely for breaking-news events. It's what stations can fall back on to deal with irate callers upset with program interruptions.
On Sunday morning, KOLD did broadcast an NFL playoff game in its entirety, and cut into numerous commercial breaks for local news drops. While there was significantly less new information that day, the decision did pre-empt a live FBI press conference.