Chaos, alternate realities and media narratives

Some of the journalism being produced in the wake of the Tucson tragedy had been terrific. Much, of course, has been abysmal. I’m still trying to wrap my head about just what went wrong and why it continues. To that end, a few thoughts on how the media choose to frame different issues.

A few days ago, Abe Greenwald at Commentary posited the following question:

Quick question: If the media really thinks Sarah Palin’s political map with crosshairs encourages political violence, why do they keep showing it? Aren’t there more potential victims “targeted” on that map?

The media never showed the Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad because they really were scared it would trigger violence (against them). So we know they’ll self-censor when they truly believe violence can happen. That they keep reproducing the Palin map suggests they know it doesn’t inspire violence after all.

That comparison brings to mind another. When Army doctor Nidal Hasan killed 13 of his fellow soldiers, early stories attempted to explain Hasan’s actions as being motivated by mental health problems rather than his extremist religious views. There was even some Journolist action discouraging discussion of the role religion played in the shooting (despite early reports indicating it played a serious role). As the days continued, we saw what happens when journalists do the painstaking research and connecting of dots. It turned out that even Anwar al-Awlaki was involved in the story.

In this Tucson shooting, which almost immediately suggested serious mental health problems, that was not the narrative the media chose. In fact, some outlets are still pushing a narrative that has roughly zero connection with reality.

So why is it that so many in the media rushed to the “mental health” defense in the previous shooting and begrudgingly accepted it — if they have — in this case? I have no idea, but I did come across this comment to a fascinating post about some media mistakes:

They simply can not process, on an intuitive level, that he operated in a completely different reality from them. They assume that his world had the same day-to-day storyline that theirs did, with all the same big memes and touchstones defining his social context. The “atmosphere” marked by tea parties and Sarah Palins and Barack Obamas and hot stories churning in the news cycle didn’t have to be the atmosphere he lived in. It’s not the atmosphere for a LOT of people, but because it is the atmosphere of these pundits and hobbyists, it’s what they naturally attribute. It’s a classic “fish in water” category error.

To employ a bit of journalism lingo: His day-to-day world didn’t have the same nut grafs as theirs. And it’s been really telling that they’re incapable of grasping that.

Does that help explain why so many messed this story up? If so, does it tell us anything about why their early narrative-setting attempts on the Hasan shooting were also messed up? Does it say anything about general media coverage of religion news?

One of the best early reports about Jared Loughner was in Mother Jones. In it, a friend describes his take on the alleged shooter:

Since hearing of the rampage, Tierney has been trying to figure out why Loughner did what he allegedly did. “More chaos, maybe,” he says. “I think the reason he did it was mainly to just promote chaos. He wanted the media to freak out about this whole thing. He wanted exactly what’s happening. He wants all of that.” Tierney thinks that Loughner’s mindset was like the Joker in the most recent Batman movie: “He f***s things up to f**k s**t up, there’s no rhyme or reason, he wants to watch the world burn. He probably wanted to take everyone out of their monotonous lives: ‘Another Saturday, going to go get groceries’–to take people out of these norms that he thought society had trapped us in.”

Earlier in the story, we’re told of Loughner’s views that words have no meaning. With the media choosing and pushing a narrative with no basis in facts — that, essentially, certain political elements are to blame for what happened in Tucson — it almost seems as if they’re choosing an alternate reality, too. Over at Slate, Jack Shafer had some provocative thoughts about the mainstreaming of alternate realities. I think his words are also worth considering:

As long as we’re using Jared Lee Loughner’s tastes in philosophy and literature to probe his psyche–and I’m not saying we shouldn’t–let’s scrutinized (sic) our own tastes, too. I’m not suggesting a Mailerian equivalence between Loughner and the average man, so stop composing that irate e-mail to me right now. But Loughner’s obsession with alternative realities, his idea that the universe is malleable and a function of an individual’s will, is mirrored almost everywhere we look in pop culture.

He goes on to discuss everything from “Inception,” “Lost” and “Harry Potter” flicks to the life and works of Philip K. Dick. I wonder, too, if this embrace of alternate realities wasn’t also on display in the media coverage we were subjected to for much of this week. The normal barriers of relying on facts and evidence before reporting were easily overcome. The world in which some journalists hoped to live (one in which political opponents are blamed for the worst crimes), became the world we lived in.

Speaking of alternate realities, this Jesse Walker piece in Reason discusses the New Age ties of the Zeitgeist Movement (which Loughner was interested in). Sarah Posner at Religion Dispatches reported on some Christian opposition to that movement. It seems the Zeitgeist Movement includes 9/11 conspiracy theories and teaches that Jesus never lived.

Here is a good discussion of media framing problems in The New Republic. And here’s a bit more on flat-out errors.

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  • Ben

    Arg. This has nothing to do with religion and feel like a post where GR jumps the shark.

    This clip is the reason for the media narrative. It wasn’t invented out of whole cloth.

  • R9

    Is the press not getting religion today or just being mean to Sarah Palin? (it’s ok she won’t retreat, just reload).

  • Tomas

    This is right on the money and a bit unsettling for certain religiously minded individuals.

    First off, there seems to be an inability for the news and media, which is (arguably) a reflection of modern, secular society, to understand religion. I’m starting to worry if the American/Western milieu is really just chock full of the same tensions as the Middle East (utterly opposing world views e.g. Muslims/Christians, East/West) though thankfully only coming out (for the most part) in confusion and “spins.” Most journalists will simply look at religion through the lens of politics. Even here, when religion is perhaps on the outskirts of the story, it is a political understanding: Evangelical and right-winged Sarah Palin inspiring Christian jihadists.

    The fact of the political spin also leads to the second point – if mention of “demons” has you roll your eyes, just skip to disliking this. Also, this will not be “religiously PC” to many. Certain religious traditions (mine own, Roman Catholic, is showing signs of bringing this back) believe strongly in forces outside of the physical realm; our world view is intrinsically tied to a belief in demons and angels. Secular media does not often work in this worldview. The ties that are becoming apparent to this man Loughner would traditionally open to theories of demonic influence. Not possession, but allowance of entities outside of the normal “natural” world to guide and affect one’s actions. This will probably, I pray, not come up in such a story. But if it did how would journalists deal with such issues? Does anyone know Loughner’s religious upbringing and how that may have influenced his later actions (e.g. an interest in the occult as a rebellion? Was he Evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox then got involved in the Zeitgeist movement?

    I mean, mental disorders have been misdiagnosed as demonic influence in the past. If one believes in the possibility of demons, the reverse is also possible. Would journalists be willing to explore these occurrences or theories if they come up in a proper context, or will it be left to the tabloids?

    Getting religion also means evenhandedly dealing with those issues perhaps at the outskirts of what secular man is used to.

  • Mollie


    This is certainly a more esoteric post than what I usually write, but I have a hard time seeing that some of these questions about truth, relative truth, alternate realities, and ability to understand people off the political grid all have “nothing” to do with how the media cover religion news.

    It does require a bit more thought than a typical post, but I would hope we could discuss these issues thoughtfully rather than just react in the same defensive ways.

    I have no idea, really, what made the coverage so bad this week. But I think it points to some serious problems in how we frame stories and why we frame stories the way we do. Though The New Republic piece I linked to at the end doesn’t deal heavily with religion, I think a religion journalist can learn from what is written there.

  • R9

    Well you can’t take a photo of a demon or quote someone who’s done scientific research on one. Or, well, verify anyone’s claims that they actually exist. So if journalism has a problem with them, it’s cos rational inquiry itself has nothing to say beyond “nope, no evidence yet”.

    So the best a journalist can do is soberly report what the believers have to say then mention any scientific explanations that may exist.

  • Mollie

    If people are interested in thinking more about the issues raised in this post or Tomas’ comment (as opposed to deriding it as shark-jumping), I recommend you visit the comment on a previous thread (in which we also started talking about some of these deeper and more systemic issues in journalism)

  • Ben

    Hi Mollie,
    Thanks for the note. Alternate realities is an interesting journalistic point. I’m more turned off by the sense that you seem to know what motivated this guy and to know that the rhetorical atmosphere played no role. No trial has happened yet. It just feels like a rush to judgment on the right similar to the one on the left. That’s why this feels like a political post not a post fundamentally about journalistic framing of religion.

  • Sam Osborne

    Why does Sarah Palin keep dancing around on evil media?

    In Plain’s latest public video appearance she excoriates the news media for their pictorials and words that she says have stirred up a volatile climate; then she pretends that her graphic displays of gun-sight crosshairs on a map targeting peoples and encouraging people to reload do not do what she pretends to now find fault with.

    Out of a hostile context of this insane tragedy we are not going to know what all set off this deranged person and ignited this life-exploding devastation.

    And for whatever self-serving reason squirming demagogues and their minions now find fault or forgiveness from blame, the lesson to be sanely taken away is that the insensitive targeting of a potential victim is akin to playing with matches atop a powder keg.

    Weeks ago, the warning was given and plain to see:

  • Mollie


    Well, there is literally no evidence to support the idea that the rhetorical atmosphere motivated this guy. It would be one thing if it were brought up in one sidebar in one media outlet. But there’s been wall-to-wall coverage of just that angle. And it began before the bodies had cooled.

    But no evidence. Everything we know indicates his obsession began in 2007, that his vendetta had to do with grammar, not politics. That he didn’t watch the news, much less listen to talk radio. That his politics were, if anything, more left-leaning conspiratorial than anything. And yet the narrative was just forced through.

    I don’t think you have to say that we know what motivated him to say that such framing is deeply flawed.

    As for the rest, I’m more interested in AVOIDING politics as opposed to making a political point. I don’t think anyone could reasonably defend the defamation that took place this week. But what happened does tell us something about how strong the instinct toward political framing is.

    In some way, seeing how the media forced the shooter into not just a political frame but a partisan one, helps shed light on why we sometimes see problems with the framing of ANY non-Protestant group, or any religious group that is not focused heavily on politics.

    I concede this is much more nuanced and less focused than a typical post — but I think it raises interesting questions about religion coverage.

  • Passing By

    I have no idea, really, what made the coverage so bad this week.

    Whose ox was being gored, or, more precisely, who saw their neighbor ox as being gore-able (is that a word). If I understand the philosophy on this site, obsession with politics is a This is a good example, with the added note that it’s clear they don’t “get” mental illness, either.

    As to Tomas’ post, it would be a shame if journalists tried to prove or disprove demonic possession, but there is a great deal of literature and experience out there to be reported. Unfortunately, they would probably just call Kirk Cameron back in for some words of wisdom. Cynicism aside, it really would be easy to pit Pat Robertson against Marcus Borg, without any meaningful discussion at all.

  • Dave G.

    I think the word ‘narrative’ hits the nail on the head.

  • Passing By

    Bad editing (in a hurry):

    I’m saying the bad coverage is explainable by political hay-making, more precisely the application of a political model to what is not, apparently, political. But if you believe that everything is political, then you won’t get religion or mental illness.

    Hope that clarifies.

  • Jerry

    I was really hoping GR would highlight the media handling of President Obama’s speech the other day. Mollie mentioned it in her recent “pod people” post but I have to assume many missed it. But since this topic is about chaos, alternate realities and media narratives, this was my note to GR:

    The expected happened. Our President did not, at least with most media outlets, mention God, religion or heaven-forbid (!) the Bible during his speech. Instead we had a very nice and uplifting totally secular eulogy.

    There were a few media outlets that felt otherwise and even, gasp, shock, mentioned President Obama’s Biblical quotes. I would have loved to have found a news story where a few ministers commented on what I would call the sermon-like sections of his eulogy especially his reference to Job. is not a news story, but it deserves a gold star for somehow mentioning that important part of his speech. mentioned the scriptural references.

    I did find others by searching for Obama Bible speech in google news but as usual the MSM in general blew it.

    No wonder some can get confused about Obama’s religion when it’s a “no go” zone for too many outlets.


  • Tomas

    Perhaps I shouldn’t have brought up the demon angle. It was the first thing to come to mind after a title about chaos, alternate realities, and media narratives.

    My bigger issue has to do with the media allowing itself to evenhandedly work in a certain cultural/religious/ideological framework of the world that is, perhaps, irreconcilable and even antithetical to a number of the basic norms and assumptions of journalism (which I still say, arguably, is a pretty good reflection of modern western society as a whole).

    Demonic influence is, I admit, a far fetched proposal, but that’s clearly a part of a number of religious world views. Just like it’s apparently the world view of journalists to assume that if there is an attempted assassination on a Democrat, a Republican must be involved or at least have motivated the issue. Personally, I believe both assumptions are too dicey to just “go with” and shouldn’t be jumped on without a good deal of evidence. The media’s already proved its willing to do one of the two.

    Which puts us back to a rather large question: Can the press Get Religion? Or even broader, can the press get anything outside of the modern, secular world view?

    Mollie’s direction to the other post is incredibly illuminating on this idea. Is the press even able to work in a religious world view or comment upon it? I bring up demons because that’s an extreme example. But what about a sacramental vision of reality? Can the press be willing to treat this as a viable world view or is that just for crazies? What about a Christian anthropology? Can the press be willing to treat such a view of the human person as viable or is that just the milieu of those “behind the times?” Is the scientific view of the world the only world view which the press can function in?

    Or perhaps is it even smaller, as the shooting coverage proves? Is the bi-partisan political world view the only world view which the press can function in?

  • michael

    “Well you can’t take a photo of a demon or quote someone who’s done scientific research on one. Or, well, verify anyone’s claims that they actually exist. So if journalism has a problem with them, it’s cos rational inquiry itself has nothing to say beyond “nope, no evidence yet”.

    I hold no brief for demons, but it seems that much the same thing, R9, could be said of the thoughts in your head. No one has taken a photo of them either. Does that mean we should doubt their existence?

    And, oh, Mollie: we were talking about “structural” issues, not “systemic” ones. :-)

  • Robert King

    A very tangential comment here, on the whole rhetoric of “alleged” acts by accused persons. From the cited Mother Jones article:

    why Loughner did what he allegedly did

    Shouldn’t it be “why Loughner allegedly did what he did”?

    Or is the “alleged” not really a grammatically meaningful part of the sentence? Is it simply a word that, so long as it is included anywhere in the statement, covers the paper’s legal hindquarters?

    I hope this fits in with the whole “alternate realities” theme.

  • Harry

    I want to defend the media for a second. The profile of contemporary political terrorists in the U.S. includes two groups: far-right conservatives and (more recently) Muslims. Therefore, it is not unreasonable for journalists to determine whether this young white guy was connected to far-right extremists given an assassination attempt on a Democratic member of Congress.

    It was Fox News that first connected the idea that the government was looking at Lougner’s relationship to white supremacist groups. And there was a great deal of speculation about his reading list. Based on your Twitter feed, you appeared to be actively doing it yourself, trying to argue he was a liberal.

    In the immediate reporting, I want journalists to probe the background of terrorists. Mistakes are going to be made, but I don’t want them to be cowed from doing that kind of reporting whether we are talking about Muslims or far-right extremists or just the mentally ill.

  • Mollie

    Well, the contemporary political terrorist profile might include those groups, but it also includes people who wouldn’t fit into either profile, such as the man who assaulted the Discovery Channel a few months ago and other eco-terrorists.

    But apart from that, I didn’t argue he was liberal. I did retweet the comments a former bandmate of his made. She said he was “quite liberal” and “left wing” but those were her words. And I noted the communist, anti-religious and anarchistic influences in his reading list and videos. If you review, you’ll see I argue against politicizing the murders without facts, and for the view that mental illness was a key player.

    People who have family members with schizophrenia, as I do, were probably unable to avoid picking up on that.

  • Ira Rifkin

    Another point:
    Muslim groups are making the argument that when a Muslim in involved its always about religion, yet in this case ideology (religious or political) is now being rejected as a prime motivation in favor of the mental health narrative – which they see as a further sign of anti-Muslim media bias.

  • Hector

    Re: So if journalism has a problem with them, it’s cos rational inquiry itself has nothing to say beyond “nope, no evidence yet”.

    I rather think that the history of, say, Germany from 1933 to 1945 provides us with all the evidence for the reality of the demonic, that one should need.

    One of the dangers of failing to believe in God is that you also lose the ability to believe in the devil, and thus the ability to recognize real evil when you see it.

  • MJBubba

    Harry (# 17) says: “The profile of contemporary political terrorists in the U.S. includes two groups: far-right conservatives and (more recently) Muslims. Therefore, it is not unreasonable for journalists to determine whether this young white guy was connected to far-right extremists given an assassination attempt on a Democratic member of Congress.”
    First, many of us conservatives think that the terrorists that have been identified as “far-right conservatives” are actually libertarians that are so far off the scale that they are actually anarchists, though they don’t seem to use that label. Second, it began to come out within a day that Loughner may have opposed the Congresswoman from the left rather than from the right, but the mass media chatter continued the narrative that the conservatives had created the conversational climate that Loughner moved in, and so the conservatives must bear blame for his action.
    I think Mollie is right. Our mass media continued their anti-conservative spin for several days after the evidence began to paint a more complex picture of a very troubled and incoherent young man.
    I actually think Mollie has been quite restrained in her criticism on this point, probably because the story actually is much more political than religious. I do see that the press groupthink in this case is very much akin to the groupthink problems that lead to the poor coverage of religious topics that is the core subject of GetReligion.

  • Dave

    Where is the GetReligion hook in this post? The few peripheral references to religion sound forced. This is the kind of post whereby GR threatens to become a pedestrian conservative complaint board.

  • michael


    I appreciate this post. Your point about ‘framing’ is crucial and helps to focus the issue we’ve been batting back and forth across a couple of threads now. To specify the point a little in terms of the argument I’ve been trying to make, the question as I see it is this: is problematic framing, especially where religion is concerned, simply the result of some journalistic defect–bad will, group-think, political partisanship, lack of self-awareness, carelessness, cynicism, religious illiteracy, etc.–and therefore an accident that can be remedied in principle? Or is the problem endemic to the journalistic method itself, to journalism as a form of reason? Is journalistic method neutral, or is journalism itself a frame?

    These aren’t mutually exclusive of course, and we can all call up many examples of journalistic framing that is defective in one or more of these ways. But my view is that if we content ourselves with the defects and don’t think critically about the nature of journalism itself, then we haven’t gone deep enough.

    If the deep problem has to do with the nature of journalistic reason, then the question becomes, “now what do we do?”

  • Worldmind

    > Speaking of alternate realities, this Jesse Walker piece in Reason discusses the New Age ties of the Zeitgeist Movement (which Loughner was interested in). Sarah Posner at Religion Dispatches reported on some Christian opposition to that movement. It seems the Zeitgeist Movement includes 9/11 conspiracy theories and teaches that Jesus never lived.<

    FYI, the first Zeitgeist Movie was an art video created by Peter Joseph a year before the Zeitgeist Movement came into existence. It was his personal opinion at the time. Then, because of the movie, he met Jacque Fresco and he realized that the conspiracy and religious stuff was completely irrelevant. The movies after that expresses the real orientation of the Zeitgeist Movement far more accurately.

    There are people with religious beliefs in the Zeitgeist Movement, all religions, but it is not the Movement's orientation. We consider 'beliefs' to be personal and irrelevant unless that belief demands violence in it's expression.

    We are not political either. And we are not sponsored by anyone but the members of the Movement who pay for what they choose to out of their own pocket. There is no central collection or accounting. While the Venus Project has tax exempt status in the USA, from before the ZM existed, the Zeitgeist Movement does not nor do we have central leaders in our movement, including Jacque Fresco and Peter Joseph. They are just members and Peter Joseph owns the website.

  • Bern

    The framing issue is certainly very important as it affects all aspects of narrative: from how individuals involved interpret events, to how journalists receive and report them, to how readers/viewers receive and react to them.

    I can’t find the links now but I recall very early reports from Tucson quoting the chief investigator talking about the highly polarized political climate in which the crime was committed. I remember thinking, wow, that’s not the kind of talk you usually hear from a law enforcement official. His remarks most certainly did not assign any blame but it seems to have done nothing whatsoever to foster any more civility or sense in the reports.

  • MJBubba

    Mollie, further on the appropriateness of this post at GetReligion. I happened to be driving to a meeting across town and back on Thursday, and spent the drive time listening to Christian talk radio from the American Family Association. They were reporting favorably on Obama’s speech, remarking on the Bible quotes. They were also sharply critical of the media coverage, and they had a long list of quotes and soundbites to support their critique. They connected the coverage to typical coverage of religious people and issues, as similar and due to the same biases from within the media. They made no bones about referring to “secularist mass media” as “the enemy.”

  • Mollie


    Surely you’re not suggesting that reporting the facts accurately is a partisan issue. You don’t have to *like* a group to think it’s wrong to accuse them, inaccurately, of being an accomplice to murder.

    As for the rest, I’ve already admitted that this is much more complex and nuanced than my typical posts, where I usually just point out a basic error.

    But just because it requires a bit more abtract thinking does not mean that religion reporting can’t benefit.

    This week was a dark week for the media. This wasn’t, primarily, a religion news story. But religion is interwoven into all these stories. To that end, it’s appropriate for discussion here.

  • Passing By

    This post is quintessential GetReligion material, and (pardon the fan mail) well-done. Religious frameworks are a routine part of these stories, though admittedly less now. Surely someone has written a book on the media framing of these events.

    In 1999, a man walked into a local Baptist Church and killed 7 kids. It was not a random event, and religious factors were considered, but the (real) factor of chronic schizophrenia eventually dominated (if memory serves; links are scarce this long past).

    Columbine, Conyers, Fort Worth, Fort Hood, now Tucson. It would be interesting to see the interplay of political, religious, and mental illness story frames pre- and post- 9/11 – politics wasn’t in play in 1999, despite the heated rhetoric of the 90s.

  • Dave

    Mollie: In none of which do I see the press not getting religion.

  • R.S.Newark

    It can be very, very,very clearly stated that the “shooter” at one time in his life probably, probably watched …on television an installment of “Ozzie and Harriet”..huh, so there’s there, their?