I was in airports and out of touch Monday before settling in front of my home computer to explore coverage of the Oklahoma tornado devastation from that afternoon.

Like most of you, I suspect, I was horrified by early accounts of dead and unaccounted-for children at two flattened elementary schools, a dread much like that distinctive despair I felt after last December’s school massacre in Newtown, Conn. Reports of adult fatalities certainly provoke powerful emotions, but the deaths of children in their grade schools carry a special and awful resonance.

My go-to source for online national and international news, The New York Times, provided thorough and sensitive coverage, but then I began exploring the reader comments there and on other sites.

Predictably, I suppose, many comments had zoomed right past the first phase of the news-tragedy checklist: counting and recovering bodies, caring for victims, assessing scope of damage, expressing sympathies and offering help.

No, many were already on to the second phase, and this time it was the left-leaning crowd asking questions: I wonder what those global-warming deniers will say this time? I wonder what those small-government Oklahoma Republicans who griped about federal spending after Hurricanes Katrina (gulf coast) and Sandy (the “liberal” northeast) will say about federal aid now?

Here in Madison, former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz was already online Tuesday morning with an Isthmus column headlined “Don’t blame God for the Moore tornado” discussing climate change.

This, I conclude, is what it has come to.

On almost any news event — local, national or international — we react for what seems a millisecond as Americans (or Wisconsinites or Madisonians). Then we split into our two massive left and right ideological tribes to determine how the news fits our master narrative and suggests blame for the other side.

In fact, it’s impossible to recall a major news story during the past year in which we all simply reacted as Americans for very long.

Perhaps 9/11 was the last time we reacted in unison. Americans rallied around President Bush after deaths of about 3,000 Americans even though reports suggested Bush had been slow to take seriously threats from Osama Bin Laden.

Compare that to today’s “scandal” over Benghazi, last year’s attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Libya. The gist of the ongoing GOP preoccupation is that the Obama administration withheld for political reasons some damning details concerning the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, prior to November’s election.

This Obama-is-evil Benghazi narrative is reflected by Pew Research Center polling showing that 70 percent of Republicans believe Obama has been dishonest on the topic, compared with only 16 percent of Democrats.

This spring, the right has turned its Benghazi focus away from Obama, whom it has apparently concluded is literally unimpeachable, and toward Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, whom conservatives mightily fear and want to weaken as a possible 2016 presidential foe.

The latest edition of The Week, a mainstream news-in-review magazine, has a cover cartoon illustration of Clinton clinging to a branch, high in a tree and looking fearful with three angry dogs on the ground barking after her. “Hunting Hillary,” reads the large headline. “Will Benghazi damage Clinton’s presidential chances?”

It’s as if there is no news, just red-state news and blue-state news, conservative Fox news or liberal MSNBC. While much of this journalistic reality is not new, what does seem different is how the demarcation occurs almost instantly.

Not that long ago there was, more or less, an agreed-upon set of facts around news events. Opinions would flow some time later. Even longer ago, there were trusted national voices such as Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley delivering what seemed largely undisputed facts.

By contrast, consider our most-recent past half-year of yelling at one another about guns. The awful enormity of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre set off a blistering national debate on guns that started on the day of the shooting.

After last month’s Boston Marathon bombing, I followed live coverage of the house-by-house hunt for bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev that ensued four days later. It won’t take long, I recall thinking, for someone in the pro-gun crowd to crow that Boston’s anti-gun types probably wish they were gun owners that day.

My wait was short. Doug Funderburk, a GOP state lawmaker in Missouri, issued this jab during a defense-of-guns floor debate: “I bet those folks in Boston wish they had guns in their home when terrorists were running around with bombs.”

Here in Madison and Wisconsin generally, this penchant for instantly shifting news for viewing through partisan lenses has been exacerbated by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who seems oddly proud that nearly half of his constituents disagree with him on almost every issue. He then leverages the fact that he survived a recall effort as a badge of honor to enhance his national right-wing credibility.

Republican Tommy Thompson, who seemed to relish impressive approval ratings among Democrats while governor, was a product of his times, and Walker is a product of his.

Within the fortress of liberal Madison, the rush-to-judgments are slower and elbows predictably less sharp; our disagreements are more about narrower cultural divides and leadership styles. But, we must remember, we mostly belong to the same tribe.

Oh, I imagine I will be called hypocritical for this column, given that The Capital Times has a century-old reputation for progressive editorial viewpoints. Moreover, our central focus is the progressive enclave of Madison, so some of that criticism is to be expected.

Another response I anticipate is derision for living in the past, that politics has always been rough-and-tumble, and that many people find today’s free-wheeling Internet culture to be refreshing. It is democratizing and in-your-face in a satisfying, authentic way, they would say.

Looking forward, it’s hard to imagine anything that could cause a pendulum swing back given our current technology-fueled tribalism. And besides, partisans would argue that backing down even a little from the incessant rhetorical knife-fighting would be naïve and tactically dangerous.

For decades, journalists have worked to craft stories that answer questions about who, what, when, where, why and how.

Sadly, in my view, today’s news consumer seems most interested in jumping — even before bodies are counted — to “who can I blame?”

Paul Fanlund is editor and executive publisher of The Capital Times. A longtime Madisonian, he was a State Journal reporter and editor before becoming a vice president of Madison Newspapers. He joined the Cap Times in 2006.

You might also like

(22) comments

MAJC1957
MAJC1957

Paul, I agree with you. Instead of "who can I blame?" in should be, "how can I help?"!

Don Schwab
Don Schwab

Not until the column’s end do we learn that Editor Fanlund is opposed to the divisive nature of today’s journalism. Until then he was too busy using Republicans and the right to illustrate the point he ultimately finds objectionable. His hypocrisy is beautifully illustrated in the paragraph:
"Perhaps 9/11 was the last time we reacted in unison. Americans rallied around President Bush after deaths of about 3,000 Americans even though reports suggested Bush had been slow to take seriously threats from Osama Bin Laden."
He couldn’t even finish the sentence without slamming Bush.

AllAmerican11B
AllAmerican11B

Paul,
"On almost any news event — local, national or international — we react for what seems a millisecond as Americans (or Wisconsinites or Madisonians). Then we split into our two massive left and right ideological tribes to determine how the news fits our master narrative and suggests blame for the other side."

This should come a no surprise to you, it's been getting noticeably worse since 1998.

hughjazzsoul
hughjazzsoul

Journalists used to be the voice of truth. Even though bias skews us all there were enough journalists to overcome the biases and find the truth. Journalism died with instant media.
We no longer can wait for the truth so we filter news on our beliefs. The fact that any media would use a tragedy to push their agenda and blame others for real human suffering is pathetic. Yet that is what drives the "news".
Key words used in their coverage draw partisan lines and sympathies depending on the news outlet. We seek the source that reinforces our beliefs.
The fourth estate has failed America. We no longer have time to find the truth. By the time those who do find it, and write a book, half a decade has passed and we no longer care.
Truth finders are always needed. They can cut through the partisan cheese and expose the cash cows. In America all truths lead to money. When journalists sell out we lose trust in all of us.
Greed rules our souls and jealousy our minds.
The CT is toilet paper for the right and paper towel for the left. Your entire article lamenting the
decline of truth seekers is loaded with partisan key words. Do you want to believe what is true or what you want to believe is true?
A new day will dawn for journalists. Those that can again seek truth and use the media to tell it.
It will not include partisan conglomerates controlling the topics. It will be live coverage of people uprising as they scream for answers and dispute the partisan assurances of blame. Real truths
overcome party lines if allowed to breath.

deezus
deezus

I didn't get swept up into the Oklahoma twister story, but I've seen exactly what you're talking about with pretty much everything else. My guess is it's the result of having the two most polarizing presidencies ever back to back. People are just sick and tired of the people they don't agree with and are willing to speak up about it. I certainly am and do admittedly get caught up in it. It's so hard not to when you're angry at how embarrassingly pathetic our government is.

spooky tooth
spooky tooth

After Clinton was in office the two most polarizing presidencies began. How old are you?

Lionheart
Lionheart

Paul, if 9/11 was the last time we all reacted the correct way, then I hope we stick with the partisan bickering we have now. Our unified reaction gave us: the Department of Homeland Security (George Orwell anyone?), the Patriot Act (the largest erosion of our liberty in history), the TSA (perhaps the second largest erosion - hyperbole), and two wars no one wanted to pay for. In his wildest dreams Bin Laden could never have imagined how much his attack would effect this country. We have thrown our liberty, freedom, economic security, and the lives of our young men and women away for almost nothing.

P Fanlund
P Fanlund

I appreciate many of the comments here. As I wrote, I do not consider this an easy subject that lends itself to sweeping conclusions. I think it was the dead kids that got me going.

RichardSRussell
RichardSRussell

Opinion is easy. Any fool can do it, and many have taken advantage of that fact.

Journalism is hard. You have to work at it, get out and about, interview people, dig out facts, read tedious reports, attend boring meetings, occasionally put yourself in harm's way.

And then, just for one added kick in the teeth, the modern audience seems to be more taken with the bloviating than the objectivity.

I could blame it on the fractionation that the internet enables — where the news doesn't come to you, you go to it, and you can pick ONLY the "news" you already agree with — but in fact it began long before TIm Berners-Lee with the proliferation of cable-TV channels and "narrowcasting", where you could find your Sean Hannity or your Rachel Maddow instead of your Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley. That started the retribalization of America — no longer based on geography or ethnicity — and the internet (to say nothing of social networking) is only speeding the process up.

May as well get used to it; the rest of the technology is way too useful for anyone to even dream of giving it up.

Mr_Deeks
Mr_Deeks

Well said, Richard. There was a time that one could defend one's position by supplying real facts. Now the other side will not accept the facts, calls them lies or produces non-factual counter facts. We have seen this on this board from right and left time and time again. That results in bloviating ad nauseum. My own posts are rare anymore because my opinion really does not matter and facts are not recognized. Hence we are relegated to the likes of tomtom & nav to scream at one another.

spooky tooth
spooky tooth

With the concentration of wealth we lost the 4th estate to a couple obscenely rich anti democratic plutocrats. Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers control what the republican message will be. They control the TV, radio, newspapers and the commercials. They control what conservative gets the nomination and any republican candidate that can't be controlled by these two has about zero chance to finish the race. Lying, hate, fear, rewriting history, no problem, they own the media.

Wonder why 1% has seen their wealth increase 275% since 1979 while the other 99% saw an 18% increase?

Turn off Fox and Hate Radio it makes you poor.

Cornelius Gotchberg
Cornelius Gotchberg

@spooky tooth;

I know what you mean. Those obscenely rich anti democratic plutocrats very shrewdly kept Benghazi, Dr. Kermit Gosnell, the IRS, Pigford, etc. out of soooo many Lefty news outlets to keep youses on tilt.

No that that's any kind of real challenge.

Hyper-partisan weapons-grade thickend blinders screen out reality and the truth.

I'd rather be poor, but not for the reasons on continuous auto-play in your head.

The Gotch

spooky tooth
spooky tooth

Gotch, The more outrageous the more believable for the gullible, then rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat. Liberal, Benghazi, liberal, Benghazi, liberal Benghazi. You're really good at this.

Cornelius Gotchberg
Cornelius Gotchberg

@spooky tooth;

Last night, CBS briefly mentions Lois "I'm pleading the 5th; please pass me one" Lerner being placed on adminstrative leave.

NBC & ABC had no time for such frolicsome minutiae. What they BOTH did have time for was a hard-hitting decades old scoop about Obama's prom replete with a photo of a "foxy" friend.

As yet undetermined is if this "foxy" friend was a "composite" or not.

Darn those obscenely rich anti democratic plutocrats controlling the news!!!

The Gotch

Cornelius Gotchberg
Cornelius Gotchberg

We'll leave aside the fact that the U. S. of A. is a constitutional republic for now.

True career Lefties don't want anything to do with a democracy; the President certainly doesn't. He'd have to give up making recess appointments when there's no recess. He would have had to KEEP his promise to eliminate the State Secrets Priviledge and the Patriot Act.

Many (not all) Lefties see civility as a weakness and seem to be unable to embrace the fact that intelligent people are able to consider differing world views without accepting them.

A "true" democracy will NOT allow forcing others to adhere to their lifestyle. No matter how fervently (in a secularly religious sort of way) you believe "it" to be the "one and only" path. No matter how unquestioningly steadfast your conviction. No matter how "stupid" others that can't (or won't) see the light must seem because they simply don't see things the RIGHT way, which by definition is the way THEY see them.

"Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote." B. Franklin

"He who owns the youth gains the future." A. Hitler

The Gotch

PapaLorax
PapaLorax

"so some of that criticism is to be expected."

Let me go a step further - that criticism is justified. While you and Craver are generally reasonable in your writing, Zweifel and Nichols make no attempt at being anything other than people who throw gasoline on the fire.

But lets recap this article:
Criticism of left on tornadoes
Give left the pass for 9/11 reaction (remember the video of Bush in the classroom?)
Use "quotes" for scandel in Benghazi (because anyone who thinks it's an issue must be crazy
Right attacks Hilary
There was gun debate after Sandy Hook (and then crazy pro-gun people after Boston)
Short reminiscence of Tommy being so much better then Walker who is crazy and hates lefties

So in your attempt to show any semblance of balance of crazy from both sides...the only criticism of the left was the weak opener.

DriveThru
DriveThru

A defining characteristic of extremely unequal societies is social discord and animosity. As the class system becomes more and more inequitable, the rancor will just heighten. Not expecting anger in extreme class systems is like not expecting mass civilian casualties in war: One follows the other. The Corporate Predator State is illegitimate. Only a real Democracy can save us.

Robert James
Robert James

Completely agree. It is amazing to me how successful the effort at clouding the realities of the ongoing class war has been, to the point where most of the foot soldiers don't even understand that they've taken up arms against their own.

Norwood44
Norwood44

They media has created this dynamic. Sadly, in a challenging financial model for traditional media, many have resorted to demagoguery. Thus the media pits us against each other for profit.

Renaissance Man
Renaissance Man

No...people like you divide us Paul. With your non-stop divisive partisan half truths and rhetoric. With your vicious personal attacks and politics of personal destruction. With your head in the sand close-minded ideological tunnel vision. People like you divide us Paul. You.

Robert James
Robert James

Seriously? You're pointing at Fanlund and saying it's *his* fault? You're at ground zero of divisive behavior, and you want to put the blame on someone else?

Fanlund and voices in the media do not control your actions. You do. If you are divided from others in your community, your state, your country, then you are responsible. You could choose to hear Fanlund's voice as just one among a spectrum of voices, and sift the truth of his words from whatever partisanship he also carries. If you don't do that, then that's *you*. You divide us.

Troy Thiel
Troy Thiel

Excellent column Mr. Fandlund. I always respond "How's it working for us?" when talking with someone about how this extreme us vs. them theme pervades so much of our lives. We simply must do better if we want to improve our communities, our State and our Country.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it clean. Exchange ideas and opinions on posted articles. Don't promote products or services, impersonate other site users, register multiple accounts, threaten or harass others, post vulgar, abusive, obscene or sexually oriented language. Don't post content that defames or degrades anyone. Don't repost copyrighted material; link to it. In other words, stick to the topic and play nice. Report abuses by clicking the button. Users who break the rules will be banned from commenting. We no longer issue warnings. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.