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?”