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Big Media, Big Politics, and Violence in America

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Speaking at a press conference aired nationally several hours after a mentally unstable young man killed six people and wounded 19 during an assassination attempt in which U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) was shot in the head in Tucson, AZ on Saturday, January 8, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik expressed the concerns and sentiments of many Americans regarding violence in media, cultural decline, and the dangerously divisive tone and content of our political discourse.

"I think it's time as a country that we need to do a little soul-searching, because I think the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business and what we see on TV and how our youngsters are being raised, that this has not become the nice United States of America that most of us grew up in. And I think it's time that we do the soul-searching," said Dupnik.

"When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And, unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry. " All I can tell you is that there is reason to believe that this individual may have a mental issue, and I think that people who are unbalanced are especially susceptible to vitriol," said Dupnik.

Toward the end of press conference, Dupnik reiterated his criticism of inflammatory media programming: "Let me just say one thing, because people tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol that we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of doing that. That may be free speech. But it's not without consequences."

Dupnik, a sheriff for 30 years and an Arizona law enforcement officer for more than 50 years, directly addressed elements of a socially-destabilizing dynamic at the center of American cultural and political life. He was not the first to do so, and the questions Dupnik raised are not new ones. In her book, Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment, published in 1998 during a series of 15 school shootings across the USA that took more than 40 lives between 1995 and 2000, Sissela Bok noted, "The United States has the highest levels of homicide of any advanced industrial nation in the world."

Is it alarmist or merely sensible to ask about what happens to the souls of children nurtured, as in no past society, on images of rape, torture, bombings, and massacre that are channeled into their homes from infancy?" asked Bok, who received her B.A. and M.A. in psychology from George Washington University in 1957 and 1958, and her Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University in 1970.

Formerly a Professor of Philosophy at Brandeis University, Bok is currently a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, Harvard School of Public Health. The accomplished philosopher and ethicist hoped for a wide-ranging debate about the mass marketing of violence as entertainment, a public discussion that would lead to effective remedies and a reduction in gun violence. As evidenced by continued high levels of gun violence in America, including a school shooting at Virginia Tech in April 2007 that took 32 lives, despite a general reduction in crime rates, that discussion never quite seems to find purchase or result in any significant reduction of violent programming in media. Instead, by many standards our nation falls ever more obviously into decline, becomes more and more violent, and our politics are increasingly polarized, more divisive than at any time since the Civil War.

Most right-wing Big Media talk show celebrities and pundits, including Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Republican 2008 Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin, mightily offended by Dupnik's remarks, responded defensively and angrily during the following days as a media frenzy developed. Limbaugh, Beck, Palin, and others who fan the flames of angry political rhetoric have a lot to lose should Americans lift themselves out of their Big-Media-induced paralysis and demand effective action based on the sheriff's concerns.

Media giant Clear Channel pays Limbaugh about $38 million per year. That amount doesn't include his income from speaking engagements, the stock market, or other investments. Beck's annual income from Fox News, Premier Radio Networks, Simon and Schuster, and other sources has been reported to be some $32 million. Palin, who quit her job as governor of Alaska to pursue a lucrative career in Big Media, signed a multi-year contract with Fox News and is reported to have earned some $12 million since deciding that she didn't want to become "a lame duck." Those millions, a mere fraction of the amount of loot Limbaugh and Beck earn for inciting fear and loathing, are about one hundred times what Palin would have earned had she remained governor of Alaska.

"Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them," said Palin on January 12, denying any connection between media violence, talk radio vitriol, and gun violence.

The vast majority of media figures involved in what is called the public discussion have chosen to ignore the issue of violence in media programming, preferring instead to cast doubt on any suggestion of a causative link between overheated political rhetoric and the Tucson shooting while focusing on mental illness and questions about gun control legislation.

On January 11, one of the nation's most accomplished former law enforcement administrators, one whose area of expertise is motivation and behavior, commented on the issue of violent media programming and angry political rhetoric.

"I've been asked this question about the movies and the media and the negative impact of violence in these areas, which is much more profound and significant than a little political rhetoric," said Roger Depue, a 21-year veteran of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and a former chief of the FBI's Behavioral Sciences Unit, during an interview conducted by Charlie Rose.

"What I basically say is, "Most people can handle it. Most people can deal with it, normal, stable individuals, they can see it for what it is, and they can deal with it. But if a person is predisposed, or if he is psychotic, or if he is having these dangerous fantasies and something like that comes along, it can trigger, it can cause him to go off in that direction,'" said Depue.

Though two of the nation's most experienced law enforcement professionals, one at the local level and the other at the national level, voiced grave concern about violent media programming and its socially destabilizing effects in the wake of the Tucson tragedy, when President Barack Obama spoke in Tucson at the memorial service for the victims on January 12, he told the nation, "None of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped those shots from being fired."

As the President's remarks suggest, it is most unlikely that what will pass for a national public discussion of violent media programming and bitter political rhetoric will, in reality, be wide-ranging, meaningful, or productive.    

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Michael Gillespie writes regularly about peace and social justice issues. A 1999 graduate of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Iowa State University, he was inducted a member of Kappa Tau Alpha, the national honor (more...)

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