Could talk radio really drive someone to kill?

What role, if any, did talk radio play in the Tucson tragedy?

When 22 year old Jared Lee Loughner went on a shooting rampage in a Safeway parking lot in Arizona, many, including the local sheriff, postulated that vitriolic and provocative voices in the media - in particular talk radio - may have played some role in the tragedy. Conservative talk radio personalities were quick to launch a defense, playing down this possibility and pointing to Loughner's mental instability as the primary cause of his actions.

At this point, we may not be able to state anything with certainty about Loughner. That does not mean, however, that we cannot analyze the basic questions of whether exaggerated, vitriolic rhetoric may be playing a role in our culture, and whether such rhetoric could contribute to violence. Because we still do not have sufficient information about the specifics of Loughner's background or motivations, let us put aside his case for the moment and instead delve into these more general questions.

Could talk radio drive someone to violence?

While we must hedge our bets on Loughner, at least until further evidence trickles in, there is no question that talk radio could lead to violence. This is not speculation. This is not conjecture. This is established historical fact. There are many examples. The most well-known example of propaganda in the promotion of violence is Nazi Germany. The Nazis used film, newsprint, comics, textbooks, and radio, among other media, to promote their agenda of genocide. As summarized by wikipedia:

Certainly the Nazis recognised the importance of radio in disseminating their message and to that end Goebbels approved a scheme whereby millions of cheap radio sets (the Volksempfänger) were subsidized by the government. Goebbels claimed the radio was the "eighth great power", and he, along with the Nazi party, recognized the power of the radio in the propaganda machine of Nazi Germany.

Rwandan genocide

Another somewhat lesser known - but perhaps more concrete - example of radio provocateurs contributing to violent acts, including rape, torture, and wide scale murder, is from the Rwandan genocide of the mid 1990's. Radio played a pivotal role in instigating the violence in which the majority Hutus killed over 1 million Tutsis. Again, wikipedia does an exemplary job summarizing:

The [Rwandan radio station] Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) had used terms such as "inyenzi" (cockroach in Kinyarwandan) and "Tutsi" interchangeably.The RTLM also repeatedly stressed the need to be alert to Tutsi plots and possible attacks. It warned Hutu to prepare to "defend" themselves against the Tutsi. After April 6, 1994, authorities used the RTLM and Radio Rwanda to spur and direct killings, specifically in areas where the killings were initially resisted. Both radio stations were used to incite and mobilize populations, followed by specific directions for carrying out the killings.

While historical scholars studying the Rwandan genocide disagree over the exact extent of the direct effect of the radio propaganda, all of them attribute a significant role to radio. Even Professor Scott Strauss, of the University of Wisconsin Madison, who generally downplays the role of radio in Rwanda's genocide, indicates that around 15 percent of perpetrators whom he interviewed in Rwandan prisons attributed their participation in the killings directly to radio broadcasts. 15 percent sounds somewhat insignificant until one realizes that 15 percent represents over 150,000 people - killed directly as a result of radio instigation. Moreover, 15 percent is probably a significant underestimate, as many other perpetrators attributed their participation to peer pressure or the fear of reprisal if they did not participate; but that could be due to the radio broadcasts as well, in that those pressuring them or threatening them with reprisals could well have been amongst the 15 percent influenced directly by radio. In other words, the role of radio in the Rwandan genocide cannot be attributed to "only" 15 percent of the killings (but even if it could, that is still 150,000 deaths)!

Sure, but is right-wing radio in the USA really that bad?

So it's clearly possible for radio or other media to contribute to violence; this is simply historical fact. But that doesn't mean it's happening in the good ole' U.S. of A. Are people merely trying to make political hay of this tragedy, or do they have a point in criticizing "hate speech"? Or, rather, are the people who are citing hate speech as a problem merely crying wolf, as Fox News commentator Brit Hume stated:

“It has become a habit of the American left to equate disagreement with liberals and liberalism with hate,” Hume said. “So convinced do they seem of the virtue of their cause that the only possible explanation for resistance to it must be hatred."

Hume has a point, at least in general terms. It is perfectly valid for right-wing folks to disagree, if they so choose, with political policies in Washington or elsewhere. It is perfectly legitimate for them to voice this disagreement. Many of them do so in a completely civil manner. They certainly aren't hateful. But here's where Brit Hume goes astray - he's obviously not a listener to right-wing talk radio. However, I am. I listen to talk radio a lot. I disagree with it about 99 percent of the time, but I still listen. I've listened for years. I can say with confidence that much of it is propaganda, but that still doesn't make it hateful.

What is hateful is when someone such as talk radio personality Michael Savage - who has an audience second only to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, and has written several best-selling books including The Enemy Within: Saving America from the Liberal Assault on Our Schools, Faith, and Military and Liberalism is a Mental Disorder - repeatedly uses terms like "evil", "scum", "vermin", "enemy" and words of that ilk to describe people with whom he disagrees. While Michael Savage is probably the worst of the right-wing talk radio pundits, he is by no means alone. These words have consequences. They have consequences in the abstract, but they also have tangible, concrete consequences.

So Loughner's case is an open question; what about previous cases?

As stated, we need more information on Jared Lee Loughner. We don't, however, need more information on David Atkisson. On July 27, 2008, David Atkisson walked into the Knoxville Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, pulled a shotgun from a guitar case, and began firing, killing two instantly and injuring many others. We do not need to speculate as to Atkisson's motivations. He made them very clear in his manifesto. He also made them very clear to the police who interviewed him. According to a sworn affidavit by one of the officers who interviewed Adkisson on July 27, 2008:

During the interview Adkisson stated that he had targeted the church because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country, and that he felt that the Democrats had tied his country's hands in the war on terror and they had ruined every institution in America with the aid of major media outlets. Adkisson made statements that because he could not get to the leaders of the liberal movement that he would then target those that had voted them into office. Adkisson stated that he had held these beliefs for about the last ten years.

On Atkisson's bookshelf were the following books:

  • Liberalism is a Mental Disorder by radio talk show host Michael Savage
  • Let Freedom Ring: Winning the War of Liberty over Liberalism by talk show host Sean Hannity
  • The O'Reilly Factor: The Good, the Bad, and the Completely Ridiculous in American Life by television talk show host Bill O'Reilly

Lessons to be learned?

Words have consequences. They have subtle consequences on all of us, changing our behaviors in subtle ways that may be almost imperceptible unless viewed over a span of many years. On mentally unstable individuals such as David Atkisson or Jared Lee Loughner, the consequences may not be so subtle and may take effect much quicker.

Talk radio is currently the most widespread playground for vitriolic speech in the USA, but there are plenty of other problems with the media. Hate speech also exists on television and in print. Violent video games and movies are a separate, but related, topic that can also have effects on all of us - with more extreme effects on those on the edge, children, or those suffering from mental illness.

Do not underestimate the capacity of media to alter behavior, both of those on the edges of society, who are most easily and radically influenced, but also of the rest of us. Remember this: if media could not alter people's behavior, there would not be a multi-billion dollar advertising industry. Nor would there be propaganda. Nor would 40 percent of the public disagree with 95 percent of climate scientists regarding the threat of global warming.

Sound bite, attack-style, and ratings-driven media are not a substitute for civil discourse. We can do better. We should do better. We must do better.

Santa Fe Bike Commuter

Bravo!

Well researched and written article, high time we had this discussion. I was amused by the sheriff of Pima County, who said something to the effect that the gun lobby won't be happy until we put an Uzi into every baby's crib.

Violence and the media

Thank you, Mr. Harrington! You have succinctly and successfully laid out several issues that contribute to violence in our society. The power of the media is undeniable. Communication researchers have studied this for years. And, as you say, there would not be a huge advertising industry (that sets cultural norms for beauty, weight, etc.) if it did not work to influence consumers' behavior.

We are at a crossroads in U.S. society. We can learn to listen to others' views completely and with respectful disagreement or we can devolve into more violence. Let's call on the media to be polite and civil, to model respectful expression of differences. I challenge the media to think more carefully about the power of your words and less about the importance of your ratings. Just because something sells does not mean it's honorable, true, or conscionable!

Thank you!

Thank you for this post!

I am concerned about the huge rise in threats, vandalism, and acts of violence in the US against elected officials (tripling in one year). I've noticed that though both Republicans and Democrats may insult each other, only Republicans have said things like "Don't retreat, reload" (Sarah Palin), "Second Amendment Remedies" (Sharron Angle), "Gather your armies" (Rick Barber), and the Republican who ran against Giffords had a fundraiser to shoot an M16 event titled "Help Remove Giffords from Office".

I've never seen the Democrats do any of this, even during the George W. Bush years when he was a very hated president by Democrats, there was no talk of assassinating him or Republicans.

I think many Americans are very angry in our country due to the many problems we face and that right wing talk radio gives them a scapegoat for their anger.

indeed

Words do have consequences - independent of the tragedy in Tucson. We have so many, many historical cases that we can cite where inflammatory rhetoric (and especially now via electronic media) has been "fuel-to-fire" for unbalanced and unstable minds. The far-right wing (both politically and churchly) seem to be the current inciters to some form of activism. I think one could easily make the case that the antiabortion movement has tipped some of its fringe members over the edge.

Back in the '60's and 70's we had the Weathermen, and the Simbionese Liberation Army (remember the Patty Hearst business?) on the "left." But when today, one has one major TV channel, and countless talk-shows and bloggers who spew vitriolic hatred of "government-as- enemy" and make use of the word "enemy" - then we are at a stage of demonization, etc. that makes one shudder.