Right-Wing Media and the Fringe: A Growing History of Violence (And Denial)

By John V. Santore

This week, the country’s attention was captured by the horrific shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, allegedly by James W. von Brunn, an 88-year-old man with ties to white supremacist and anti-Semitic organizations. The fatal shooting came just two months after an April 7 Department of Homeland Security report detailing potential increases in right-wing extremism.

As Media Matters for America documented, the DHS report was immediately and vehemently rejected by numerous conservative commentators, such as Lou Dobbs, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michelle Malkin, and David Asman, who portrayed it as an illegitimate and politically motivated assault on conservatives. (Media Matters Senior Fellow Karl Frisch puts the attacks in even broader perspective here.)

Following the Holocaust Memorial Museum attack, these commentators faced criticism for their earlier dismissiveness. Some have since unconvincingly (and in the case of Joe Scarborough, inaccurately) defended their past assessment, and a handful of reporters and analysts are still engaging in falsehoods and inconsistencies in criticizing the DHS report. But on Fox News, Shepard Smith took a different position — for which he was attacked by conservatives — saying that the report “was a warning to us all. And it appears now that they were right.”

The day before the Holocaust Memorial Museum attack, Media Matters Senior Fellow Eric Boehlert wrote that Fox News and its hosts “will have more right-wing vigilantism to explain.” He added that “militia-style vigilante rhetoric has become a cornerstone of the conservative media movement in America, and it’s now proudly championed by Fox News on a nearly hourly basis.” (He also appeared on CNN this week.)

While right-wing media are certainly not legally culpable for any recent attacks, they are responsible for promoting a culture of fear, paranoia, and violence that is anti-government in the extreme — a culture in which extremists, including von Brunn and Richard Poplawski, who fatally shot three Pittsburgh police officers, were apparently immersed. Poplawski was convinced that the Obama administration was going to take away his guns. Even though no evidence of such a policy exists, right-wing commentators and news organizations made the claim repeatedly before the shooting and have continued to do so since.

Predictably, conservative media figures responded to the museum shooting by attempting to shift attention away from themselves and onto political liberals and even President Obama himself. On June 10, the day of the museum shooting, financial analyst and radio host Jim Lacamp said on Fox News that “we have an administration that’s really done a lot of class warfare, a lot of class-baiting. And so, it sets the stage for social unrest.” That same day, conservative Tammy Bruce wrote that the Obama administration’s “increasing anti-Israel rhetoric and the pandering to the Jew-hating world Arab world … encourages all the beasts among us.” Newsmax.com published an op-ed, cited on Friday by Michael Savage, claiming that Obama “is most certainly creating a climate of hate against” Jews. Colorado radio host Bob Newman even raised questions about whether Obama’s recent visit to a concentration camp, or his statement about Israeli settlements, were factors in the shooting.

But as always, the most virulent reality-denier was Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh claimed that von Brunn “is a leftist if anything.” He said that Obama is “ramping up hatred for Israel” and that “anti-Jew rhetoric comes from the American left.” He claimed that MSNBC broadcasts “hate 24/7.” Despite the right wing’s repeated use of violent, revolutionary rhetoric, Limbaugh said that it was actually Obama who “thrives and needs chaos” to succeed. And in response to Shepard Smith, he remarked that the “claim that the atmosphere is somehow more violently anti-Obama is simply preposterous.”

Indeed, Smith’s remarks were the exception for the right. Despite its love of fearmongering, Fox News spent the 24 hours after the von Brunn shooting downplaying it. And on his broadcast that night, Bill O’Reilly, who hypocritically and incorrectly criticized the media for a supposed lack of coverage after the shooting death of Army recruiter Pvt. William Long, and who stokes the anger of viewers whenever it suits him politically, barely mentioned the shooting and instead featured what he called a “very important story” on gay penguins. “Do they wear tight T-shirts?” he asked, laughing. During the two shows after the shooting, Hannity barely mentioned it.

Other major stories this week:

Newt in the news

This was a big week for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is clearly attempting to position himself as the new (aka, old) voice of the GOP. (And according to USA Today, he’s in the running.)

Newt, who had previously backed off of referring to Judge Sonia Sotomayor as a “racist,” began the week by modifying his argument and repeating the dubious claim that she “clearly supported racial quotas” in the Frank Ricci case.

He followed it up at a congressional Republican fundraiser by proudly declaring that he was “not a citizen of the world,” saying that “the entire concept is intellectual nonsense and stunningly dangerous.” CNN’s Candy Crowley and CQ Politics‘ Jonathan Allen reported Gingrich’s statement without noting that President Ronald Reagan made similar remarks while addressing the United Nations in 1982. (You would think that Gingrich, a former history teacher, would have known better.) After Media Matters documented the oversight, MSNBC’s David Shuster and Keith Olbermann, as well as by NBC’s Brian Williams, subjected Gingrich’s remarks to scrutiny.

Newt closed the week by reacting to a Weekly Standard article discussing the ongoing U.S. practice of reading Miranda rights to detainees. On Fox News’ Hannity, Gingrich said that it was “unimaginable. It’s worse than anything Jimmy Carter ever did. It’s worse than anything that President Bill Clinton ever did.” In doing so, he ignored the part of the article reporting that the FBI also Mirandized people at “specific bases” during the Bush administration.

Newt’s factually challenged analysis has come to be so legendary that even MSNBC’s Mike Barnicle felt compelled to ask, “[W]hy would anyone pay attention to anything he says?” It’s a good question. Perhaps it’s because networks like Fox News do whatever they can to make Gingrich, who hasn’t held any office or official position since 1998, relevant.

Health care reform is coming, and the news is already making me sick

All three national networks covered a Thursday town hall meeting that Obama held in Wisconsin, during which he laid out his health care proposals in detail. And yet, not one of them reported on the substance of his remarks, focusing instead on a note he wrote for a 10-year-old girl who was skipping school.

On Friday, NPR’s Mara Liasson claimed that the American Medical Association opposes a public plan as a component of health care reform, even though the AMA had backtracked the same day, stating that it was “willing to consider other variations of a public plan that are currently under discussion in Congress.” Flaws in a New York Times story the day before about the AMA’s position were the subject of Media Matters Senior Fellow Jamison Foser’s column this week.

And during a Wednesday interview with Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, MSNBC’s Norah O’Donnell freely editorialized, lecturing him on how current proposals seemingly would “drive the deficit into these stratospheric numbers” and complaining that senators were engaging in “gobbledygook” on the issue.

The need for accurate and impartial reporting on impending legislation is made all the more acute by the long history and prevalence of misinformation from media conservatives on the issue. On Thursday, Limbaugh began pulling out the stops, sounding not unlike O’Donnell in the process. “And it’s all about control,” he said. “It’s not about cost. This man’s not worried about the cost of anything. He doesn’t care what anything costs: a trip to New York for a date — $12 trillion in debt over 10 years? He doesn’t care what things cost.” He went on to hypothesize that “exercise freaks … are the ones putting stress on the health care system” because they keep getting injured.

Buchanan continues to test how much MSNBC will tolerate

Media Matters has already documented Pat Buchanan’s racially charged and often sexist campaign against Sotomayor. Despite his recent (and past) behavior, however, MSNBC has provided Buchanan with a prominent platform from which to spew his invective. This week, Foser asked a question MSNBC — which in the past has had to fire Michael Savage and Don Imus for their remarks — should answer: just what would Pat Buchanan have to say to be fired from the network?

Well, during this past week, Buchanan was curiously absent from much of MSNBC’s commentary. Was it a sign that the network might be re-evaluating its relationship with one of its favorite “analysts”? If so, it should take note of the fact that Buchanan is set to host what the Southern Poverty Law Center called a “prominent white nationalist” at the upcoming conference of The American Cause, a Buchanan-led organization.

Conservative Misinformation U

Here now, for your enjoyment, is the graduating class, whose standouts are too numerous to name, of Conservative Misinformation University, 2009.

It would be funnier if it weren’t true. For America’s sake, they should have been held back.

This week’s media columns

This week’s media columns from the Media Matters Senior Fellows: Eric Boehlert prophetically details why O’Reilly and Fox News will have more right-wing vigilantism to explain; Jamison Foser explains why AMA reporting needs a second opinion; and Karl Frisch has something to say about that DHS report.

Don’t forget to order your autographed copy of Eric Boehlert’s compelling new book, Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press (Free Press, May 2009).

If you use the social networking site Facebook, be sure to join the official Media Matters page and those of our senior fellows Eric Boehlert, Jamison Foser, and Karl Frisch as well. You can also follow Media Matters, Boehlert, Foser, and Frisch on Twitter.

This weekly wrap-up was compiled by John V. Santore, an associate at Media Matters.