The New York Times editorial board screwed up a 6-year-old story on Wednesday. It wasn’t a small story, either. They attacked Sarah Palin for a crime she didn’t commit—influencing Gabby Giffords shooter Jared Lee Loughner. They did miss another target of criticism, though, by focusing on the wrong suspect. And the actual story demonstrates how off the deep end our political conversation has shifted in the age of Trump.
In an editorial titled “America’s Lethal Politics,” the Gray Lady argued that Wednesday’s horrific attack on congressional Republicans by a man who had eagerly professed liberal politics online was probably “evidence of how vicious American politics has become.” The newspaper then cited its own criticism of heated political rhetoric in the wake of the 2011 assassination attempt on Gabby Giffords that left six people dead including a congressional staffer.
Here’s what the paper wrote, with the key lines in bold:
In 2011, when Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in a supermarket parking lot, grievously wounding Representative Gabby Giffords and killing six people, including a 9-year-old girl, the link to political incitement was clear. Before the shooting, Sarah Palin’s political action committee circulated a map of targeted electoral districts that put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs.
Conservatives and right-wing media were quick on Wednesday to demand forceful condemnation of hate speech and crimes by anti-Trump liberals. They’re right. Though there’s no sign of incitement as direct as in the Giffords attack, liberals should of course hold themselves to the same standard of decency they ask the right.
This was straight up wrong. There was never any evidence to demonstrate that Loughner’s attack was linked to Palin’s district target map in any way whatsoever. Ultimately, the paper acknowledged that by issuing this correction:
An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated that a link existed between political incitement and the 2011 shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords. In fact, no such link was established.
And by changing the copy to remove the key words about incitement and add a crucial sentence:
In 2011, Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in a supermarket parking lot, grievously wounding Representative Gabby Giffords and killing six people, including a 9-year-old girl. At the time, we and others were sharply critical of the heated political rhetoric on the right. Before the shooting, Sarah Palin’s political action committee circulated a map that showed the targeted electoral districts of Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs. But in that case no connection to the shooting was ever established.
Conservatives and right-wing media were quick on Wednesday to demand forceful condemnation of hate speech and crimes by anti-Trump liberals. They’re right. Liberals should of course be held to the same standard of decency that they ask of the right.
It's a good thing that the paper of record corrected the record. The Times, though, by focusing incorrectly on Palin missed the forest for the trees. There is a key political figure in 2017 conservative politics who’s work appeared to have profoundly influenced Loughner’s worldview at the time: Alex Jones.
Jones of course is the conspiracy theorist who President Donald Trump has helped make into a mainstream conservative political media figure with his support of his ideas and his show. As Michelle Goldberg wrote for the Daily Beast at the time of the Giffords shooting, Loughner was a huge fan of two Jones-approved products: The first was the 9/11 conspiracy theory documentary Loose Change, which was executive produced by Jones. The second was the conspiracy movie Zeitgeist about a one world government inserting microchips into everyone’s arms—a film that was endorsed by Jones and took footage from Jones’ documentary Terrorstorm.
As Goldberg wrote at the time:
The point … is not that Alex Jones, Zeitgeist or The Tea Party are responsible for Loughner's crimes. The point is that he targeted Giffords for a reason, one rooted in his unhinged interpretation of recognizable conspiracy theories. Right-wing activists and politicians have traded on such theories, giving them far more mainstream exposure and credibility than they ever had before. Experts on political violence have been arguing for months that this is extremely dangerous. People like Loughner are the reason why.
Trump—with the help of the Republican Party apparatus—has made Jones and his views mainstream. This has been infinitely more influential on—and corrosive to—America’s political dialogue than Palin’s target map could ever have been. I agree with the stance Jones took in 2011—and is not taking today—that it is antithetical to American patriotism and Democracy to attempt to stifle criticism of those in power. But if the Times wants to make a point about the destructiveness of inflammatory political rhetoric in the future, next time it should start with Alex Jones and not Sarah Palin.