Earlier this week, NPR’s counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston drew justifiable outrage from conservatives for engaging in the following on air speculation about the Boston Marathon bombing:
The thinking, as we’ve been reporting, is that this is a domestic or extremist attack. Again, this is not because – this has got to be this because officials can’t get away from this idea of timing. April is a big month for anti-government, right-wing folks. There’s the Columbine anniversary. There’s Hitler’s birthday. There’s the Oklahoma City bombing. There’s the assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. And these are all rallying points for these kinds of extremist groups.
Clearly, Temple-Raston didn’t have much evidence to back up her theory and subsequent evidence has undermined her speculation. Further, her conflation of multiple events and ideological movements is particularly absurd. Last I checked, Nazism was not exactly about opposition to a strong role for government. Beyond this, I think the comment is worth revisiting to explain why it is that conservatives get so sensitive when members of the media leap to blame acts of violence on the “right wing.”
After Breitbart.com and other conservative sites took NPR to task, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg mused on Twitter: “It is not implausible that far right-wingers committed the Boston bombing. Not sure why conservatives are so upset by such speculation.” In an ensuing exchange with Josh Marshall, editor of the liberal site Talking Points Memo, Goldberg wrote, “I think it’s fair to say that mainstream conservatism has not very much to do with McVeigh types, no?” Though Marshall granted that, he added that “theres abundant history/evidence of deep GOP opposition to focus on far right violence.” Goldberg later responded, “There are dangerous far-right wingers, and we should watch them. Also, there are dangerous jihadists.”
The reason why conservatives get prickly about the focus on “right-wing” violence is that in typical political coverage, the term “right wing” is routinely applied to describe conservatives and conservative institutions. To demonstrate this, and to keep things consistent, I looked back at how NPR has used the term “right wing” in its political coverage over the past year.
Over the course of its coverage, NPR has referred to “right-wing think tanks;” an “extremely right wing talk show host; “right-wing filmmaker” Dinesh D’Souza; “right-wing groups” funded by Sheldon Adelson; and “right-wing blogger” Jennifer Rubin. NPR reports have described “right-wing rock star” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; “right-wing politician” Margaret Thatcher; and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “right-wing government.”
NPR reported that if Mitt Romney chose Condoleezza Rice as his running mate, her pro-choice views would be “an invitation for a right-wing revolt.” When Romney picked Paul Ryan, a story recalled that during the primaries, “the (Republican) party’s right wing was conspicuously unhappy with the idea of Romney.” Also, the campaigns’ mention of Romneycare, “brought howls from the right wing.” A story on George P. Bush’s political ambitions noted that he “has staked out his political territory with the right wing of the Texas GOP, supporting Tea Party candidates.” A piece on Jim DeMint’s departure from the Senate described how, “there was a note of unhappiness in right-wing circles…” It included a link to an Erick Erickson post at Red State and a quote from Freedomworks’ Dean Clancy.
So, the reason why conservatives get irked when “right wing” is used in reference to major acts of violence — often without an iota of evidence to back it up — is that the term “right wing” is broadly applied by the media to the entire conservative movement. I don’t think “right-wing” Jennifer Rubin and Sheldon Adelson get pumped every April for Hilter’s birthday, that “right-wing think tanks” like the Heritage Foundation burst out the champagne on the Columbine anniversary, or that “right-wing rock star” Scott Walker is a big fan of the Oklahoma City bombing.
Even putting aside the bias issue, it’s just lazy and imprecise journalism to use the term “right-wing” so broadly that it could refer to anybody from a libertarian who believes in a small centralized government to somebody who wants to restore the Third Reich.
As a rule of thumb, I think journalists should avoid terms like “right-wing” and “left-wing” in basic news coverage. But given that the idea of a right vs. left dichotomy is so ingrained in our political lexicon, it’s unlikely that shying away from this terminology would make a difference at this point. Instead, I think that if reporters mean to refer to a threat presented by a specific group — neo-Nazis, Islamic radicals, anarchists, white supremacists, or so on — they should do so. If they have broader category in mind, they should use a broader term, such as “domestic extremism.” But throwing around a term like “right wing” whenever violence strikes — which is associated with conservatism in the American political context — is irresponsible.