Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry
New York Times reporter Yamiche Alcindor (6/14/17) started with a false premise and patched together a dodgy piece of innuendo and guilt-by-association in order to place the blame for a shooting in Virginia on “the most ardent supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders.”
We learned in the wake of an attack on Monday that left five injured, including Republican House Whip Steve Scalise, that the shooter, James T. Hodgkinson (who was subsequently killed by police), had been a Sanders campaign volunteer, and that his social media featured pictures of the Vermont senator and his brand of progressive, anti-Republican language. This was enough for Alcindor to build a piece based on the premise that Sanders’ “movement” had been somehow responsible for the attacks, and was thus “tested” by them.
From the beginning, Alcindor framed the shooting as essentially tied to the Sanders campaign by virtue of Hodgkinson’s political sensibilities:
The most ardent supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders have long been outspoken about their anger toward Republicans—and in some cases toward Democrats. Their idol, the senator from Vermont, has called President Trump a “demagogue” and said recently that he was “perhaps the worst and most dangerous president in the history of our country.”
Now, in Mr. Sanders’ world, his fans have something concrete to grapple with: James T. Hodgkinson, a former volunteer for Mr. Sanders’ presidential campaign, is suspected of opening fire on Republican lawmakers practicing baseball in Alexandria, Va.
Sanders’ supporters are positioned as crazed religious adherents, with an “idol” rather than a political leader. These “fans,” the article continues, “now…have something concrete to grapple with”—apparently in contrast to the non-concrete claims of Sanders that Trump is a dangerous demagogue.
The sleaziest section, and one that solicited the most online outrage, uncritically echoed the conventional wisdom that Sanders fans were uniquely menacing and aggressive:
To be sure, supporters of Mr. Trump, as well as Mr. Trump himself, have assailed opponents and the news media.
But long before the shooting on Wednesday, some of Mr. Sanders’ supporters had earned a belligerent reputation for their criticism of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party and others who they believed disagreed with their ideas. Sanders fans, sometimes referred to derogatorily as “Bernie Bros” or “Bernie Bots,” at times harassed reporters covering Mr. Sanders and flooded social media with angry posts directed at the “corporate media,” a term often used by the senator.
The suspect in the shooting in Virginia put a new spotlight on the rage buried in some corners of the progressive left.
Alcindor insists Sanders supporters had “earned a belligerent reputation” without examining whether or not this claim was supported by any empirical data whatsoever. (One study found Clinton and Trump fans to be far more aggressive than Sanders backers online, but let’s not let facts get in the way of a good narrative.)
Who’s pushing the term “Bernie Bros”? Is the image being presented of a seething cauldron of leftist hate at all fair—especially relative to the other candidates? It’s not examined. They are “sometimes referred” to that way—and that’s enough to prop up collective responsibility for the actions of one disturbed man among Sanders’ tens of millions of followers and partisans.
The literal “to be sure” paragraph, ostensibly acknowledging that Trump and his supporters have “assailed opponents and the news media,” actually serves to equate those assaults—which are quite literal—with the “belligerent reputation” of Sanders supporters. Never mind that you’ll never find Sanders urging supporters to “kick the crap out of” protesters, as Trump has (Slate, 3/15/16), or reminiscing about how “I love the old days” when “they’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”
The first Sanders supporter to be heard from in the Times piece is former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, who agrees with the article’s premise that “both sides need to look in the mirror,” and warns that “we have to decide what kind of language we are going to use in our political discourse.” (One gets the sense that “corporate media,” cited as a sign of “Bernie Bro” belligerence, is the kind of phrase Alcindor wants to see stricken from the discourse.)
Alcindor does quote Daily News columnist and Black Lives Matter supporter Shaun King saying it “doesn’t make sense” to blame all Sanders supporters for one individual’s actions, though he’s not given a chance to develop the idea.
It’s not until paragraph 22 of the article that a meaningful rebuke of its premise is presented. National Nurses United union head RoseAnn DeMoro ends the article, telling Alcindor that it’s a “‘boldface lie’ to connect the shooting to Mr. Sanders’s push for opposing Mr. Trump’s proposals.” The New York Times here plays the “both sides” game to perfection, promoting the premise that Sanders laid the ground for radical leftist violence in the headline and lede, while tossing in a counter-argument at the very end.
Considering only 41 percent of people read past the headline, and only 11 percent of Americans are likely to finish an article, it’s still reassuring to know some readers will stick around long enough to see meaningful pushback.
Well before then, Fox News contributor and pro-Trump flack Harlan Hill would offer up some of the more cynical comments of the piece:
Harlan Hill, a political consultant based in New York who supports Mr. Trump, said people should not blame Mr. Sanders personally, but he said the senator’s description of the president as “dangerous” illustrated the “apocalyptic terms” and “melodrama” that have created a combustible political atmosphere.
“It is a passive justification for the kind of violence we saw,” Mr. Hill said. “If you don’t believe that, and you’re just casually using these words, then you should accept the consequence of those words because you are empowering the people that follow you to take whatever sort of action that they deem necessary to avert what is being described to them as a potential genocidal leader.”
So calling the president “dangerous”—when he’s actively tried to ban Muslimsfrom the US, deported immigrants at record rates, pulled the US out of the world’s only meaningful anti-climate change agreement, worked to take health care from millions, and ratcheted up tensions with Iran and North Korea—is “passive justification for the kind of violence” carried out on Monday? Alcindor allows this self-serving and patently absurd premise to go unchallenged, as a paid advocate for Trump eagerly uses the tragedy to paint his side as the real victim of political extremism, rather than its No. 1 champion.
The innuendo and guilt-by-association only got worse from there:
On Tuesday, Mr. Hodgkinson posted a cartoon on Facebook explaining “How does a bill work?” “That’s an easy one, Billy,” the cartoon reads. “Corporations write the bill and then bribe Congress until it becomes law.”
“That’s Exactly How It Works….” Mr. Hodgkinson wrote.
That is not far from Mr. Sanders’ own message. On Saturday, during a conference in Chicago filled with Sanders supporters, he thundered, “Today in the White House, we have perhaps the worst and most dangerous president in the history of our country,” to cheers from thousands. “And we also have, not to be forgotten, extreme right-wing leadership in the US House and the US Senate.”
See, the killer vaguely acknowledged the obvious reality that corporations influence legislation, and on Saturday Senator Sanders said something mean about Trump. It’s all connected.
Left unmentioned in the piece were two entirely relevant pieces of context that would mitigate the burden of responsibility for Sen. Sanders and provide alternative theories of the crime. The first is Hodgkinson’s history of domestic violence—a common factor in most mass shootings (CounterSpin, 6/17/16).
“Mass shooting experts say past violent conduct and access to weapons, not specific ideology, are biggest risk factors,” said Alex Yablon of The Trace, a website dedicated to gun violence in the United States.
The second—and perhaps most salient, given the tone of the piece—was Hodgkinson’s obsession with President Trump as a pro-Russian “traitor.” His Facebook was filled with content calling Trump a “traitor,” including a petitioninsisting “Trump Has Destroyed Our Democracy” and “It’s Time to Destroy Trump & Co.”
Since Hodgkinson’s political leanings are being probed as somehow responsible for the shootings, it’s curious why the New York Times decided to highlight his pro-Sanders stance and not his obsession with Trump as treasonous pro-Russian agent—an accusation that Sanders has not aggressively pressed and, indeed, has sometimes been on the receiving end of. Why “Attack Tests Movement Sanders Founded” and not “Attack Test Democrats’ Trump-as-Russian-Agent Inquiry”? Why note Hodgkinson’s support for Sanders but not his love for Rachel Maddow, more than half of whose show, one study found, is dedicated to the Russia/Trump story?
The answer is that the former is easy—and convenient—to smear, whereas the latter implicates a whole host of powerful institutions: the Democratic leadership, most major media and, above all, the New York Times itself, which has published, and thus legitimized, the most extreme and irresponsible fringe of the Russia/Trump dot-connectors in the form of Louise Mensch (FAIR.org, 3/31/17).
Of course, neither Sanders nor Trump-as-Russian-agent media personalities are responsible for what Hodgkinson did Monday, but it’s notable that only one is being blamed. Sanders unleashing crazed “Bernie Bros” is a simple narrative that reinforces existing, media-flattering narratives, whereas the latter is far messier, and would require the New York Times to examine its own role. Guess which one we’ll be getting nonstop coverage of in the coming days?
ACTION: Please contact the New York Times and ask for more responsible coverage of the Virginia shooting incident.
Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Feel free to leave a copy of your messages to the New York Times in the comments for this post.
First published in FAIR.org.
Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org.