A cardinal rule of journalism is that conclusions should not precede the facts.
Unfortunately, that principle was ignored by commentators on both sides of America’s growing political divide in the wake of the fatal shooting at a Maryland newspaper, further undermining the very profession they claim to value while adding to the incendiary rhetoric they supposedly abhor.
The mayhem at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis had barely stopped when Rob Cox of Reuters opined that “This is what happens when Donald Trump calls journalists enemies of the people. Blood is on your hands, Mr. President. Save your thoughts and prayers for your empty soul.”
Except, as it turned out, the shooting had nothing to do with Trump or his ongoing battle with the press. The man who allegedly killed five people and wounded others, Jarrod Ramos, reportedly had been feuding with the newspaper since 2011, when it reported he had plead guilty to charges of threatening a former high school classmate.
Nor was Cox alone. At Fox News, conservative commentator Sean Hannity appeared to lay at least some of the blame for the Maryland incident at the feet of Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Cal., who last week encouraged opponents to physically “get in the face” of Trump administration officials.
“I’ve been saying now for days that something horrible was going to happen because of the rhetoric. Really, Maxine?” said Hannity, who later disputed claims he intended to link Waters to the shooting.
Steve Adler, Reuters” editor-in-chief, restored some semblance of journalistic sanity when he issued a statement calling Cox’s actions “inconsistent with (our) principles requiring journalists to maintain freedom from bias. We do not condone his behavior and will take appropriate action.”
It was Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel who once advised, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
In this case, the crisis in Maryland allowed people to criticize political opponents who had nothing to do with the actual events. But even though Cox’s specific conclusion was wrong, his underlying concern was more than justified.
“Fair enough to call me out for jumping to a conclusion about the motives here,” Cox tweeted later. “(But) vilifying any category of people — journalists, migrants, conservatives, liberals, etc. — can incite violence.” His attempt at belated self-justification does not invalidate the larger point about the danger of reckless words producing tragic consequences.
There have, after all, been plenty of examples of politically motivated violence, from Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh on the right to James Hodgkinson on the left, who last year targeted Republican members of Congress as they practiced for a baseball game.
As Cox implied, vilifying entire groups for the sins of specific individuals displays an unwillingness or inability to make intelligent distinctions or arguments. Trump didn’t start that trend but he has exploited and exacerbated it, and should take the lead in reversing it.
He won’t, of course, and neither will zealots on the left. In a discussion of the need for civility following the expulsion of White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders from a restaurant, former Bernie Sanders spokeswoman Symone Sanders suggested “the folks calling for ‘civility’ may need to check their privilege . . . If we were waiting for non-confrontational and civility, (blacks) might still be sitting at segregated lunch counters.”
In other words, those who perceive themselves as aggrieved or victimized should not be held to the same standards of behavior expected of others.
But that sentiment of course represents just another form of condescension and bigotry. If civil debate cannot be expected of all Americans, regardless of their politics, the toxic rhetoric will only continue to escalate.
There is, clearly, no shortage of people willing to take advantage of the possible consequences; far fewer with the maturity, wisdom and courage to expect civility from themselves and their allies as vehemently as they demand it from their opponents. The fact is, such a double standard is a recipe for cultural chaos — and worse.
Kevin Leininger wrote this for the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel. Send comments to [email protected].