News & Politics

Is Hysterical Right-Wing Media Pushing the Unhinged Over the Edge?

AlterNet readers had a lot to say about a recent article arguing that right-wing media may have fueled the Pittsburgh killer's rage.

Confronted with a wildly popular president prone to few gaffes, conservative media are having trouble coming up with ways to successfully smear Barack Obama's administration.

So, they have resorted to propagating insane conspiracy theories. Fox News is giving airtime to 9/11-truther Alex Jones, while Fox anchor Glenn Beck has spouted off about a "new world order” and mused about the existence of "FEMA-managed concentration camps."

The conservative media's embrace of paranoid right-wing ideas should serve as a mildly entertaining gauge of the movement's implosion. Except, Max Blumenthal points out in an article recently published on AlterNet, the legitimization of the uber-fringe may further unhinge mentally deranged individuals and spur them to act out their paranoid fantasies.

Blumenthal points out that Richard Poplawski, the 22-year-old Pittsburgh man who allegedly killed three police officers, was an avid Jones fan and was reportedly petrified that the government would take away his guns.

Blumenthal quotes David Neiwert, a veteran reporter on right-wing militia movements, who says: "It's always been a problem when major-league demagogues start promulgating false information for political gain. ... What it does is unhinge fringe players from reality and dislodges them even further. When someone like Poplawski hears Glenn Beck touting 'One World Government' and 'they're gonna take your gun' theories, they believe then that it must be true. And that's when they really become crazy.

AlterNet's readers had a lot to say about the dangerous new turn taken by Fox News and other right-wing media.

Aimleft writes:

It is a thin line between talking about censoring ideas (which I'm not trying to do) and figuring out if expressing those ideas, continually and in a constantly outraged manner, is an actual incitement to violence, and not necessarily only for those who are already "crazy." Know what I'm saying? I'm not sure we should put limits on the expression of thought, but then again, there are reasons why it's wrong (and illegal?) to shout "fire" in a crowded theater. The article isn't saying the right wing BS caused this incident. It's just asking if their rhetoric fueled the rage. I'm in total agreement that it did, with this guy, and will continue to do so with others. You can't listen to that shit over and over again without getting all riled up.

zola77 agrees, writing that media are a powerful force:

It would be hard to make a case that conservative media had no impact on these actions.

Media (of all political persuasions) tend to amp up the paranoia factor in their audiences to draw a crowd. The difference is that conservatives are naturally more prone to fear and are therefore already in a more paranoid mind-set.

Scientific studies suggest that people who identify as politically conservative are by nature/genetically more prone to fear and paranoia. If someone is naturally in such a frame of mind, and then an external source amplifies that -- there is inevitably going to be a breaking point.

snax writes that in general, the conservative mind frame is more susceptible to conspiracy theories:

It's not whether somebody is a "nut" or not, but rather their propensity to regard others as inherently bad and needing to be controlled versus inherently good and needing freedom to grow.

Conservatives by definition, because their ideology is based on fear of "evil," fall firmly into the former category and are thus far more likely to assume the worst and trample the rights of others to assure that the "evil inside" they fear cannot run amok. Note that I did not use political party in this assertion, however, as clearly there are plenty of misdirected Democrats to be watched as well.

DrBrian points out though, that it is important to separate thought and words from actions:

While I agree that raving lunatics can unsettle unstable minds, it would be a mistake to hold that they are responsible for the acts committed by their listeners. Unless they actively promote violence, the First Amendment protects their rights, as it should.

But Cybershaman disagrees, pointing out that certain types of incendiary talk are in fact very dangerous: 

Using rhetoric to goad people into a state of mass hysteria is the equivalent of yelling "fire" in a crowded theater in order to start a panic. It's just on a bigger scale.

We have a multitude of Walter Winchells trying to stir up another McCarthy movement.

What amazes me is that he is blaming "liberals" for the programs created and nursed along by their "conservative" leaders. The New World Order was a Reagan-inspired and Bush I-implemented program.

brunowe takes issue with Cybershaman'sargument:

"Using rhetoric to goad people into a state of mass hysteria is the equivalent of yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater in order to start a panic. It's just on a bigger scale."

No it isn't. Yelling "fire" in a crowded theater creates an imminent risk. Incendiary conspiracy-mongering over the airwaves doesn't.

Ayla87 also disagrees with Cybershaman's point:

"Using rhetoric to goad people into a state of mass hysteria is the equivalent of yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater in order to start a panic. It's just on a bigger scale."

No it's not. Anyone with half a brain can tell when someone is blowing smoke up their ass.

Just because one person was mentally unstable and took his words literally doesn't mean he intended for that outcome. No more than most pro-life advocates intend for abortion clinics to be blown up, or most Muslims clerics intend to instigate jihad against all infidels.

People have misinterpreted the rhetoric of others and used it to justify their own atrocities for thousands of years. Punishing orators who come up with these ideas is counterproductive. Instead, we should be encouraging them to stand up and denounce misinterpretation as much as possible.

Sister_Lauren however, points out that incendiary rhetoric by pundits has had some pretty serious repercussions:

Incendiary conspiracy-mongering over the airwaves led us into an illegal occupation in Iraq, covered up a lot of serious crimes, continues to this day to mislead and misinform.

Tana Ganeva is an assistant editor at AlterNet.