Someone at ABC News needs to be fired.
In my article on Mitt Romney's Bain scandal last week, I chided the media for being "pathetic" in its determination to take sides rather than objectively report the facts and demand answers from those in power. One week later, the irresponsibility of our mainstream news outlets has again reared its ugly head, this time when ABC News anchor Brian Ross wrongly connected The Dark Knight Rises killer to the Tea Party shortly after his network broke the story of the shootings. Here's his actual quote:
“There's a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado page on the Colorado Tea Party site as well, talking about him joining the Tea Party last year. Now we don’t know if this is the same Jim Holmes, but this is Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado.”
For the record, I am not a fan of the Tea Party. Even if one ignores the obnoxiously self-aggrandizing nature of their rhetoric, they are responsible for fiscally perilous philosophical rigidity, egregious distortions of American history, and nasty bigotry that has been substantiated both anecdotally and in scholarly studies.
While the media has an undeniable responsibility to draw attention to the unsavory aspects of this movement, however, they have developed an unfortunate habit of reflexively blaming them for any act of domestic violence that seemingly smacks of political extremism. When they did this last year after the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, it was at least understandable, given that she had been victimized by right-wing vandalism and death threats during the health care reform debate. This time, however, the assumption is entirely unjustifiable. It is easy to break down the five main reasons for this:
1. The most obvious is that it was shoddy journalism. As Ross himself pointed out in his initial statement, his researchers had no way of knowing whether the Jim Holmes who participated in local Aurora, CO, Tea Party events had any connection to the Jim Holmes responsible for the mass murders. Because ABC News was no doubt worried about being out-scooped by one of its competitors, they rushed to report this "revelation" before anyone else, most likely rationalizing it by thinking that if they were found to be in error, they could retract the story and apologize for it later (which is exactly what they did). This may be a sound business practice, but it makes for lousy reporting. As even a passing student of journalistic ethics will tell you, they had no place mentioning any potential Jim Holmes/Tea Party connection until they had proof that it was valid.
2. It was unfair to the Tea Party. Whatever criticisms one may have of that movement (and, as has already been made clear, I certainly have quite a few), there is no reason to believe that its members would support the kind of savage violence displayed by The Dark Knight Rises shooter. Despite our punditry's penchant for hyperbole, we are not a nation whose mainstream political discussion regularly devolves into acts of senseless terrorism and violence (at least not in recent history -- one can always look, of course, at the days of the antebellum slavery controversy or McCarthy-era red-baiting). It is at best irresponsible, and at worst downright malicious, to imply otherwise, regardless of what one thinks of those who happen to have a different point of view.
3. It has smeared, to say nothing of endangered, the innocent Jim Holmes. Already the wrongly accused man has had to disconnect his phone after receiving death threats as a result of the false association. While that's bad enough, this is made even worse by the fact that his name will forever be linked with these heinous crimes. As anyone who has been the victim of a vicious rumor can attest, even the most decisive debunking of an erroneous charge will often fade away while fragments of the initial accusation continue to linger. Although Holmes's name has been cleared, no one can predict how this man's life will be forever changed by the simple fact that his identity was linked to this atrocity on a worldwide scale in the first place -- however briefly. The media does not have the right to make mistakes that can have such serious effects on the quality of an innocent person's life.
4. It will be used to challenge valid criticisms of the Tea Party in the future. It is not surprising that the Colorado Tea Party Patriots have already used the ABC News gaffe as an opportunity to denounce aspects of this event's coverage as "shameless and reprehensible." While their argument is sound on this occasion (most notably when they point out that Holmes was characterized as a Tea Party member by ABC News "without having made any effort to contact our organization"), the Tea Party has a long history of denying reasonable charges against their movement, usually relying on the timeworn stand-by that they're motivated by the media's so-called "liberal bias." Because they have actually been wronged on this occasion, they now have an excuse to feel legitimized when evading accountability in the future.
5. It cheapens national tragedies by politicizing them. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney deserve credit for setting an admirable example after this event by refusing to politicize it in any way. Indeed, the words Obama used in his speech after the Gabrielle Giffords shooting last year apply perfectly to the current situation: "If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost. Let's make sure it's not on the usual plane of politics and point-scoring and pettiness that drifts away in the next news cycle." There is no question that ABC News failed that test.
While it may seem harsh to insist that heads roll at ABC News for the slander against the Tea Party, appropriate dismissals would go a long way toward ensuring that media recklessness like this doesn't happen again. Although the network has apologized for its mistake, that apology has come without any serious consequences for the personnel responsible for the misinformation; as such, no disincentive exists to deter either ABC or other stations from doing this kind of thing again. So long as the price is paid by others -- be it blameless bystanders like the innocent Jim Holmes, participants in American political debate like the Tea Party, or those who are just old-fashioned enough to believe in journalistic ethics -- news organizations that are obsessed with the bottom line will have no reason not to gamble with the truth by rushing out stories like the spurious Tea Party connection to the mass shooting. Once their own livelihoods are put on the line, however, I suspect they will develop a new found appreciation for getting the facts right.