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WHY DID THE MEDIA LATCH ON TO THE POLITICAL-RHETORIC STORYLINE?

In an analysis of media coverage of the Jan. 8 shootings that killed six and injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (and 12 others), Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism reports that the largest chunk of coverage focused on an issue that, by all accounts, had nothing to do with the shootings.

The Pew study says 27 percent of the mainstream and social-media coverage—the largest single chunk in the survey—centered on the debate about vitriol within the political landscape.

The second-largest chunk: profiles of accused shooter Jared Loughner (20 percent, according to Pew).

Nobody has yet uncovered any coherent political leanings that can be cited to Loughner, but that didn't stop the media from engaging in what has become the normal, right-vs.-left linear method of coverage.

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik made the same leap that many in the media did when he focused on the dangers of political rhetoric and vitriol during a press conference early in the investigation. After all, a political figure was targeted and shot; therefore, many assumed, it must be due to the negative landscape created by tireless conservative-vs.-liberal political bashing.

From there, many members of the media turned a focus on Sarah Palin's now-infamous crosshairs graphic, from last year's election when her organization focused on congressional districts they deemed to be "targets" for Republican takeover. Once Palin was mired in the controversy, many right-wing media outlets came to her defense, claiming any effort to connect her or criticism from the right to the shootings was reprehensible and irresponsible. Finally, Palin placed herself squarely in the debate with a video released the same day that President Obama spoke in Tucson (Jan. 12).

Once Palin was connected to the shooting storyline, it was inevitable that her celebrity would drive the machine and largely overshadow the actual shooting tragedy on the national stage. In the headline-driven, catchphrase world of tired political discourse—with equal salvos of mud slung across both bows—Palin has become the prized trophy.

While I consider Palin to be the most under-qualified legitimate potential presidential candidate in my lifetime, I'm befuddled by the coverage she inevitably draws. She's over-hated by the left, over-loved by the right, and over-exposed by media sources that know they can get website views and ratings boosts every time they mention her name—which plays directly to her overhyped sense of self worth.

Palin is the Lady Gaga of politics, and the media goes gaga over everything she does.

That popularity makes her newsworthy, even if nothing that she's actually done has been worth news coverage. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who has focused on Palin in 42 columns since she burst on the scene as John McCain's vice-presidential selection, called for a Palin coverage moratorium in February during an appearance on CNN's Reliable Sources.

While it seems unlikely that something like that could ever take hold, even if it did, February is the shortest month of the year. Those 28 days would go by way too fast.

Keep in mind, the political-rhetoric storyline gained steam in part because of the assumption that Loughner must have been motivated by the hateful speech that has permeated the dialogue. It is an oversimplification in the linear right-vs.-left paradigm, as if those are the only two options that make up the conversation. Well, there's every indication that Loughner did not function in either of those worlds. He had no known connection to Palin and the right.

While the ramblings and writings uncovered by the media were largely nonsensical and seemed to show a progressing pattern of insanity, there was one somewhat familiar thing that he was apparently attracted to: conspiracy theories that painted a picture of government and media control over the common man, as well as one-world currency theories.

Conspiracy theories have gained traction of late, and have even been occasionally co-opted by factions of the left or right (if they feel that a theory would help them make their argument). Generally speaking, that portion of the dialogue had been relegated to venues such as Coast to Coast, the popular late-night syndicated talk show that currently airs in Tucson on KNST AM 790. However, the movement has gotten a bit of boost from the likes of Jesse Ventura, whose popular Conspiracy Theory program—which tackles issues with a focus on government cover-ups—is in its second year on cable outlet truTV. The most noteworthy local venue for conspiracy discussion is Gnosis or Psychosis, Chuck Aubrey's radio show that airs Saturdays from 3 to 4 p.m. on KJLL AM 1330.

Aubrey suggests that the fact that the media rolled with a political-rhetoric storyline—which had no apparent connection to the shootings—is an example of how the mainstream drives the narrative and pits one side against the other, when both sides really have the same agenda, and continually push the conspiracy mantra to the fringes.

"None of the (major) media figures give much credence to 9/11 truth or the New World Order," said Aubrey via e-mail. "They might deign to allow Ron Paul to rail against the Federal Reserve and its policies, but they won't agree with him when he insists it must be abolished for the good of the nation. No, that task falls to hosts like myself, who are then accused of extremism, (and) marginalized and ridiculed by status-quo defenders such as Bill O'Reilly and Ed Schultz. If you honestly believe disseminating information that runs counter to the official narrative serves to stir up nut jobs, how do you think they react when said information is covered up, whether through omission and/or ridicule?"

Aubrey hopes Loughner's actions will not be used as an example of why conspiracy-driven conversations should be silenced.

"The answer here is not less examination of these ideas, but more," said Aubrey. "Making a concept taboo only lends it power it would not possess otherwise. Exploring it openly and logically would rob it of its forbidden power and either validate or destroy it in the body politic through open discussion. You know, the way our society is supposed to work."

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