Presswatch

‘Civility’ Was Always Dead

By From the May 2011 issue

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Remember when the New York Times was lecturing us about "civility"? Neither do I, but I wrote about it recently ("A Week in the Death of the New York Times," TAS, March 2011). In January the Times seized on the Tucson massacre to blame "Republicans and particularly their most virulent supporters in the media" for "the gale of anger" that had "produced violent threats against scores of politicians and infected the political mainstream with violent imagery"-even though it was clear that suspect Jared Loughner had no recognizable political motive.

By "supporters in the media," the Times seemed mostly to mean people at Fox News Channel. At a National Press Club event January 31, Times executive editor Bill Keller was asked about the competitive threat from the Wall Street Journal. He ducked the question and talked instead about the Journal's corporate cousin:

I think the effect of Fox News on American public life has been to create a level of cynicism about the news in general. It has contributed to the sense that they are all just out there with a political agenda, but Fox is just more overt about it. And I think that's unhealthy.

We have had a lot of talk since the Gabby Giffords attempted murder about civility in our national discourse, and I make no connection between the guy who shot those people in Tucson and the national discourse. But it is true that the national discourse is more polarized and strident than it has been in the past, and to some extent, I would lay that at the feet of Rupert Murdoch.

The week before, the Times had targeted a Fox host in a news story titled "Spotlight from Glenn Beck Brings a CUNY Professor Threats." That professor, Frances Fox Piven, is a hard-left sociologist. Her name, the Times reported, "has become a kind of shorthand for 'enemy' " on Beck's program. A three-part, 15-letter, five-syllable name is "shorthand" for a five-letter word? That wasn't the only thing the Times got backward.

Piven claimed to have received at least three threatening e-mails, which an editorial in the Nation quoted. All three were hostile and offensive, two of them wished her dead, and two used adult language. (The one that is printable read: "May cancer find you soon.") But none included a direct threat. Neither the Times nor the Nation reported that police were treating any of the e-mails as a true threat. According to the Times, some direct threats were posted in comments on Beck's website, TheBlaze.com, but they were quickly deleted.

What prompted the outpouring of anger at Piven, as the Times was forced to acknowledge, was an earlier article in the Nation in which she called for unemployed Americans "to develop a proud and angry identity" and "mobilize for collective action." What did she mean by this? "An effective movement of the unemployed will have to look something like the strikes and riots that have spread across Greece in response to the austerity measures forced on the Greek government by the European Union."

On May 5, 2010, rioters threw Molotov cocktails into an Athens bank, setting it ablaze. A man and two women, one of whom was four months pregnant, died from asphyxiation. Piven was advocating violence; Beck was merely criticizing her for doing so-and yet, in the Times's telling, he was the uncivil one.

In Madison, Wisconsin, in February and March, something like what Piven was hoping for came true-only the "collective action" was on behalf of the overprivileged: unionized government workers who have job security, are handsomely paid, and enjoy fringe benefits far more generous than is customary in the private sector. Protesters at the Wisconsin capitol carried signs equating Governor Scott Walker with Hitler, accusing him of "raping public employees," and declaring that he "terrorizes families."

A boilerplate note on the website of the Service Employees International Union informed readers that "SEIU welcomes civil discussion about Richard Negri's article Dropkick Murphys release new song in support of Wisconsin workers!" The song is titled "Take 'Em Down," and here's a sample of the lyrics:

When the boss comes callin' we gotta organize
Let em know
We gotta take the bastards down
Let them know
We gotta smash them to the ground

There were threats as well. In March, Walker and seven Republican state senators received a 300-word e-mail that read, in part:

We feel that you and your republican dictators have to die. This is how it's going to happen: I as well as many others know where you and your family live, it's a matter of public records. We have all planned to assult [sic] you by arriving at your house and putting a nice little bullet in your head. However, this isn't enough. We also have decided that this may not be enough to send the message. So we have built several bombs that we have placed in various locations around the areas in which we know that you frequent.… We will "get rid of" (in which I mean kill) the 8 of you.

Unionized police interviewed 26-year-old Katherine Windels, who admitted having sent the message. They concluded that it was not a true threat and did not arrest her even after prosecutors charged her with two felonies. In any case, this message was at least as menacing as any of the e-mails Frances Fox Piven was reported to have received.

ANN ALTHOUSE, a politically moderate law professor at the University of Wisconsin, was targeted for her blogging, which was sympathetic to Walker. "Whoever video taped this has no life and should be shot in the head," wrote a commenter on YouTube. A young union hanger-on, Jim Shankman, posted a lengthy "manifesto" directed at Althouse and her husband: "We will harrass [sic] the ever loving sh-- out of you all the time.… Because we aren't anti-social, life-denying, world-sterilizing pieces of human garbage like the two of you. WE WILL F--- YOU UP." Shankman told an interviewer he had no intention of making good on the threat, and he eventually deleted the manifesto.

Politicians got into the spirit, too. Rep. Michael Capuano, a Massachusetts Democrat, told a Boston "solidarity" rally: "I'm proud to be here with people who understand that it's more than just sending an e-mail to get you going. Every once in a while you need to get out on the streets and get a little bloody when necessary." When criticized, Capuano halfheartedly atoned: "I wish I had used different language to express my passion." On the floor of the Wisconsin Assembly after the contentious vote, Democrat Gordon Hintz told Republican Michelle Litjens: "You're f---ing dead." He later called her to apologize.

The New York Times, not surprisingly, took the unions' side in the dispute. Did the paper at least deplore all this incivility? Not a chance. If anything, the Times had egged it on. "The unions should make their voices heard and push back hard," the paper had editorialized in February-the same advice it gave supporters of the Ground Zero mosque six months earlier (see Presswatch, TAS, November 2010).

If Bill Keller and his colleagues at the Times wish to learn where the public got the idea that journalists "are all just out there with a political agenda," they should begin their inquiry by looking in the mirror. 

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About the Author

James Taranto, a member of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board, writes the Best of the Web Today column for OpinionJournal.com.