When the news broke Wednesday afternoon that a guard had been shot at the Family Research Council’s headquarters in Washington, conservatives instantly prepared for battle. The first reports of the shooting came around noon, and within hours, conservative pundits, political groups and bystanders were gathering behind two narratives: that the media was ignoring the shooting, and that liberal groups that have called FRC a “hate group” were somehow responsible for the violence.
Twitter has made breaking news events a tangle of misinformation, from the incorrect initial reports that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had been killed in a 2010 shooting to the now-weekly false death rumors to CNN’s infamous dead-wrong first report on the Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision. It also allows the punditry to begin, as it did today, before the story has been reported. Increasingly, a political battle is under way before anything of substance is known about the actual crime, setting up horrific tragedies as proxies for debates about political discourse and media bias.
On Wednesday, the media narrative came first. At 12:30 p.m., John McCormack, a writer for The Weekly Standard, tweeted, “Only reason to cover the FRC shooting differently than the George Tiller killing is bias.” Katie Pavlich, a columnist for Townhall.com, tweeted at CNN, demanding to know why they weren’t covering a “domestic terror attack.” Erick Erickson, of the conservative blog RedState, predicted that “because the Family Research Council promotes the values shared by a majority of Americans, but only a minority of the left in and outside the media, this story will move on off the radar.”
Meanwhile, a second narrative was emerging: that gay rights groups’ intolerance had instigated the crime. First Things deputy editor Matthew Schmitz wrote, “The same-sex marriage lobby set out to reorient the social consensus by labeling anyone who disagreed as bigoted and hateful. They spoke in the name of tolerance, but embraced intolerance as their main tool.” PowerLine’s John Hinderaker echoed, “If [liberals] are looking for haters, it would seem that the mirror is a good place to start.” By Wednesday afternoon, social conservative groups were pushing the line even further, connecting the crime to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has designated FRC a hate group on account of its leaders’ consistent psuedoscientific claims about homosexuality.
“Today’s attack is the clearest sign we’ve seen that labeling pro-marriage groups as ‘hateful’ must end,” said Brian Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage. Concerned Women for America president Peggy Nance added, “This shooting is yet another reminder that recent comments by the Southern Poverty Law Center and Human Rights Campaign labeling FRC a ‘hate group’ are not only false, they are irresponsible and should not be tolerated.”
The pouncing tweets, blogs and press releases had the unmistakable tone of vengeance, and it’s not difficult to see why. The Family Research Council shooting was the latest in a string of violent crimes that sparked instant political clashes on Twitter, fights that often have left conservatives seething as liberals, sometimes falsely, attributed violence to right-wing radicalism. On Twitter on Wednesday, conservatives were still calling attention to an incident several weeks ago, when ABC News reporter Brian Ross incorrectly reported that James Holmes, the suspect in the massacre at a Colorado movie theater, was a member of the Colorado Tea Party.
The erroneous ABC News report was only the most recent incident where conservatives perceived the media to be dramatizing a killer’s political persuasion. Conservative bloggers were outraged a year ago when the New York Times reported that the 1,500-page “manifesto” written by Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in Oslo, Norway, referenced right-wing American blogs known for anti-Islam screeds. Some conservatives also objected to the use of the term “Christian extremist,” which is how some U.S. media outlets described Breivik.
But the event that stirred up the most conservative ire was liberal journalists’ hasty declarations on Twitter, in the moments after Jared Lee Loughner shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 11 others in Arizona in 2010, that Loughner was motivated by the rhetoric of conservative politicians. “Mission accomplished, Sarah Palin,” Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas tweeted, referring to a graphic Palin had released featuring target symbols drawn over Democratic politicians’ districts. Moulitsas called the shooting a “political assassination.” In a blog posted hours after the shooting, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote that odds were strong that Loughner’s attack was politically motivated, and, implying Republicans were responsible, that “violent acts are what happen when you create a climate of hate.” Keith Olbermann, then an MSNBC pundit, demanded that Palin repudiate “her own part, however tangential, in amplifying violence and violent imagery in American politics.” Loughner was later revealed to be mentally disturbed and his political views were an incoherent hodgepodge of anti-religious, anti-government paranoia; there is no evidence he was attuned to conservative rhetoric.
Unlike with the liberals in Arizona, conservative speculation about the FRC shooter was vindicated, offering them the chance not just to turn the focus away from the right-wing violence still fresh in the headlines, but to turn their correctness into a platform for lectures about how the media covers politically-motivated crimes. “No surprise that the left-wing mainstream media is either ignoring or downplaying the FRC attack,” tweeted Fox News journalist Todd Starnes, and followed that assessment with nine more tweets noting President Obama’s silence on the shooting. Starnes and other conservatives continued to tweet about liberal “hate” into Wednesday night, even as dozens of gay-rights groups and LGBT bloggers denounced the violence.
So far, their predictions of media bias seem manifestly wrong: by Wednesday evening, every major U.S. media outlet, including The Daily Beast, had posted stories on the shooting. The Washington Post covered the story in several items as it broke. Conservatives looking for the “wall-to-wall coverage” they believe they would see had the shooting happened at Planned Parenthood or the Human Rights Campaign are missing the obvious factual differences in the story. Unlike in the other recent shootings believed to have political motives, only one person was shot and none was killed. (Contrast that with six dead and a congresswoman shot in Tucson, 77 killed in Oslo, and 12 killed in Aurora.)
Of course, the facts of the case are unlikely to temper the outrage. In a culture war on social-media steroids, violent crimes have the power to take on symbolism entirely beyond the evidence at the scene.
Correction: This article originally stated, incorrectly, that a First Things item was posted before the shooter's political views were reported. It has been updated.