Thursday, June 18, 2009

Joan Walsh, Bill O'Reilly, and Keith Olbermann about The Media and The Assassination of George Tiller

I wanted to say a few words about the media and the murder of Dr. George Tiller - in particular, Salon editor Joan Walsh's heated discussion with Bill O'Reilly on his show last week, and Keith Olbermann's denunciation of O'Reilly as being complicit in Tiller's murder because O'Reilly repeatedly attacked Tiller as a "baby killer" for his performance of late-term abortions.

First, in the interest of full disclosure, let me mention that I consider Joan Walsh a friend, and one of the heroes of the new media age (my forthcoming New New Media book has a blurb on the back from Joan). At the same time, I have been on O'Reilly's television and radio shows a bunch of times - and the last time, on his radio show, was even told to "shut up" - but I enjoy the rough and tumble discussions I have had with him, and like to think they make a contribution to the public discourse. I have never been on Keith Olbermann's show, though he did quote me several years ago about who might best succeed Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News (I mentioned Chris Matthews, Paula Zahn, and Shepard Smith - Olbermann left out Smith when he quoted me).

So bearing all of that in mind, here is how I see what happened with Joan Walsh, Bill O'Reilly, and Keith Olbermann regarding the murder of Dr. George Tiller:

1. Joan was right to want to go on O'Reilly's show with the goal of cooling down some of the heated rhetoric. Calling people "killers" in an already volatile situation - as O'Reilly had been doing for years about George Tiller - does little to help reach a rational conclusion or course of action.

2. But, just to be clear, Olbermann's view that O'Reilly was an accomplice to Tiller's murder, and bears some direct responsibility for it, is not supported by what we know about how media influence our actions. Olbermann repeatedly cited advertising, and the big dollars that are spent on it, as proof that what we see on TV can guide our behavior. But advertising works because it appeals to already existing human needs. An ad for McDonalds can get us to buy a hamburger because we already are hungry. And if McDonald's wasn't around, we'd sooner or later get something else to eat. These needs are profound and deep-seated, as psychologist Abraham Maslow realized more than 50 years ago. Tiller's assassin, who had a record of violence and mental instability, clearly had a need to act violently which predated O'Reilly's condemnations of Tiller. O'Reilly's words may or may not have been a trigger - but, sooner or later, someone else's words would have had the same consequence. But what then can we do to prevent madmen from acting on their needs?

3. Joan Walsh was also right to bring up the question of gun control, and O'Reilly missed a valuable opportunity to bring this into central focus. Because, a gun in the hand of a madman is what killed George Tiller. The question that everyone who was horrified by Tiller's murder (O'Reilly has condemned Tiller's assassination) should be asking is: how does someone with a record of violence and mental illness get in possession of a gun? At very least, our laws on gun control don't seem to be working. At worst, what if there was an organized group that put the gun in the assassin's hand?

4. Seeking to use concern about violence committed by guns as analogy, Joan asked O'Reilly if it would be right to denounce stores that sell guns as having blood on their hands. O'Reilly found the analogy not relevant, but seized the language and threw it back at Joan, saying she had blood on her hands. And this is precisely why such rhetoric, coming from O'Reilly or anyone else, does no good. O'Reilly started by using it about Tiller. Joan Walsh tried to show its inappropriateness by asking if it made sense to use it about gun dealers. O'Reilly responds by using it against Joan Walsh - not someone who either performed an abortion or sold a gun, but who was only defending George Tiller.

Still and all, I think Joan Walsh's confrontation will Bill O'Reilly was valuable to watch, and contributed to the public dialogue. At least O'Reilly - unlike Olbermann - has people on his show with whom he vehemently disagrees. Sure, the nine minutes that Joan had on O'Reilly did little to cool the rhetoric. But in the end, they allowed two people passionately committed to their views to exchange them in public view.
Post a Comment