Partisan politics is nothing new. In the spring of 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks, of South Carolina, nearly killed Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts.
Brooks beat Sumner with a cane on the senate floor because of a speech Sumner gave two days earlier. In that speech Sumner accused South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler of being a pimp for slavery. Butler was Brooks’ cousin, and so in retaliation of Sumner’s speech called “The Crime Against Kansas“, Brooks violently beat the unarmed senator on the senate floor nearly to death. It would be three years before Sumner would return to the Senate, having suffered severe head trauma and what’s now known as post-traumatic stress disorder.
The violence did not stop Sumner. He returned to deliver another speech 1860 denouncing the barbarism of slavery.
While much of today’s partisan rancor largely plays out on websites, in newspapers and on cable TV. Violence does happen. The assassination of Dr. George Tiller in 2009 by an anti-abortion zealot is an example of a far right-wing element of the Republican party and conservative movement using violence to achieve what it can not do so politically. Dr. Tiller was shot in the head in front of his family while at church.
Just this week, cable TV show host Bill O’Reilly has threatened several reporters for pointing out inconsistencies in his past statements about O’Reilly’s alleged time spent in war zones. O’Reilly said that David Corn of Mother Jones should be in the “kill zone” for what he and David Schulman have reported. O’Reilly also directly threatened a New York Times reporter for even reporting on Corn’s story.
While O’Reilly likes to talk tough, he’s actually not going to do anything to either of these journalists. He’s a blowhard. But what O’Reilly’s comments do is that they provide a safe haven for unstable people who watch his show and who own guns. To these people, O’Reilly is saying, “It’s OK to kill these journalists, because they’re scum.”
In 2014, 61 journalists have been reportedly murdered in the line of duty in 2014. Fortunately no journalists were confirmed murdered in the United States in 2014.
Modern media plays a role in this vitriol and hyperbolic behavior. Website and cable TV stations pick a side. For instance, MSNBC is for liberals and Fox News is for conservatives. CNN is a like fish flapping around on the deck of a boat, it’s difficult to tell what they’re doing.
O’Reilly is the big dog on cable news. His show is by far the most watched show of all of the cable news shows. For example on Feb. 24, O’Reilly’s show “The Factor” attracted just over 2.8 million viewers. His nearest “competitor” in that timeslot was Chris Hayes. On MSNBC, “All in w/ Chris Hayes” garnered approximately 638,000 viewers. In fact, Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show was closet to O’Reilly of any show not on Fox News, and she didn’t even pull in 850,000 viewers. That’s about 2 million less than O’Reilly.
While 3 million people sitting down every night to watch O’Reilly’s cable show is amazing, that number represents less than 1 percent of nation’s population. In contrast NBC Nightly News draws more than 10 million viewers a night. But even that is just 3 percent of the population.
What that means for folks like O’Reilly is that there’s no motivation to be civilized, measured with their words or to pursue honest and truthful discourse. Fox News has figured out the formula, which is to pander to a certain sliver of the population that’s largely incapable of critical thinking and is generally pretty ignorant. That audience isn’t looking for honest and measured political discourse, they’re looking for exciting hosts that say the crazy stuff that’s rattling around in their own heads.
That strategy works. Fox News is by far the most watched cable news channel. It’s not even close. This success gives those who watch Fox News the false security that they’re part of the majority, or at least a majority.
The same can be said for political news websites. They don’t need 40 million readers an hour to make money, a few thousand an hour is all that’s needed to sell ads. Aside from doing the right thing, there’s little motivation to be civil, professional or courteous, there’s money in being a flame-thrower. Unfortunately there’s a cost to our society, our democracy and our political process when voters retreat to their media silos to shake their heads in agreement to the talking head on the TV yelling about this or that.