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Arizona Rampage Coverage Examined

Aired January 9, 2011 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: The massacre in Tucson has confronted those of us in the news business with painful questions about inaccurate deadline reporting, about excessive partisanship, and whether we're aiding and abetting a political blame game.

While Gabrielle Giffords and the other victims of this horrifying shooting are still fighting for their lives, we will explore these questions this morning on RELIABLE SOURCES.

The shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 20 others yesterday at a routine political event raises questions we can't yet answer. Journalism is or should be about sticking to what we know. That principle was shattered at times yesterday afternoon, when some media outlets, including CNN, Fox News, and NPR, briefly reported that Congresswoman Giffords was dead, even as she was still in surgery, before pulling back.


MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN ANCHOR: Several people have been shot at a grocery store in Tucson, Arizona.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We are being told that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords has been shot, everyone. Shot in the head.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have one very reliable source on Capitol Hill confirming that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords has died.

SAUNDERS: CNN has confirmed, as you see, that the congresswoman has been killed.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: While we have reported that she is dead -- this according to NPR -- we've attributed them -- she remains alive right now, no doubt in very critical condition.

Are you 100 percent sure of this, Sheriff?

SHERIFF CLARENCE DUPNIK, PIMA COUNTY, ARIZONA: I am 100 percent sure, because our SWAT doctor is at the hospital where she is, and just five minutes ago reported that she's still alive.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Reports from Arizona, from NPR, were that Congresswoman Giffords had been shot and killed. And now Fox is confirming a source is saying she is still alive.

SAUNDERS: There are, and I stress, conflicting reports now whether or not the congresswoman has, in fact, died.

ALEX WITT, MSNBC: Little seems to be known among federal authorities in Washington about this gunman, other than he is in his 20s. We have heard nothing yet about his nationality.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Now we have confirmed here at CNN that this individual, Jared Lee Loughner, who's the suspected shooter in this case, 22 years old.

SHEPARD SMITH, FOX NEWS: They are actively pursuing an accomplice in this case, a white man in his 50s. He is not now believed to have acted alone.


KURTZ: And there are other temptations that journalists must resist. Among them, jumping to conclusions about the motivation behind the shooting. Was it related to a very tough campaign in which Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, was just re-elected, or her tough stance on border security? Was it an outgrowth of the political polarization?

We will proceed, cautiously, to examine this story and its coverage this morning.

Joining me now here in Washington, Roger Simon, chief political columnist for "Politico"; Clarence Page, columnist for "The Chicago Tribune"; and in San Francisco, Debra Saunders, columnist for "The San Francisco Chronicle."

You just saw that montage, Roger Simon, and you can't make a worse mistake than that, to declare a member of Congress dead. And I find it disappointing, because we've been through so many stores like that, where fragmentary information turns out to be wrong.

ROGER SIMON, CHIEF POLITICAL COLUMNIST, "POLITICO": Well, you're always going to get certain things wrong on these stories. The number of dead always climbs and shrinks, and climbs again.

I remember as a young school kid hearing that Vice President Johnson had been shot and President Kennedy had been wounded. That got flipped around. The fact is, we go with what we hear. That's often wrong.

KURTZ: But why not wait? Look, we understand it's happening, you're seeing sort of news gathering in its roughest and rawest form. Why not wait until it's confirmed. If she was dead, we would have found out 20 minutes later.

CLARENCE PAGE, COLUMNIST, "THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE": This is always the struggle in journalism, Howard. As you know, daily journalism, especially a breaking story -- several years ago, I think on your program, I stated Page's Law, the first casualty of any major news event is the truth.

And a major event like this, like the Ronald Reagan shooting and various other events in the past, the initial information is full of conflicts. You've got reporters, you've got sources, you've got police passing rumors along. You've got all kinds of things happening in a chaotic atmosphere in the early hours on a story like this, so we've all got to be very cautious whenever something breaks like this.

KURTZ: And on that point, Debra Saunders, a couple of hours after this tragic shooting, even as we weren't sure who was alive and who was dead, I Googled "Gabrielle Giffords" and "Sarah Palin." And lots of stories and blog posts came up talking about Sarah Palin, 10 months ago, putting up a map of the Democrats she wanted defeated, and using crosshairs, gun sites, to represent those targets, and, of course, she used the rhetoric about "Don't retreat, reload."

And in a way that I found to be -- you know, first of all, I guess how about a decent interval? The victims were still being rushed to surgery. But I also felt like, was it fair to bring her into something that she had nothing to do with?

DEBRA SAUNDERS, COLUMNIST, "THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE": Well, it was ideological opportunism. I mean, it's very human, when something like this happens, you want the villain to be the person you hate. And so a lot of people rushed to do that.

You know, I've got to tell you, I'm a conservative. When I heard this story, my first thought was, oh, no, it's a right-wing nut with a gun. And I think that these stories about the Tea Party being a ticking time bomb are crap. I find them offensive, but we know that there are extremists.

KURTZ: But you said, oh, no, it's a right-wing nut with a gun, because you feared that then anybody on the right would, by implication, be blamed for this shooting?

SAUNDERS: No. Because I feared it was true. I mean, that was my first thought.

KURTZ: And let's say it was true. Let's say it was true.

SAUNDERS: But you know, that's not our job.

KURTZ: Hold on. Let's say it was a right-wing nut with a gun. It does seem to have been a nut, a guy -- a 22-year-old kid whose political ramblings are utterly incoherent.

But so why should anyone else be blamed if it was a right-wing nut? Which is was not, by the way.

SAUNDERS: No, it wasn't. And I guess -- I mean, we know that there are extremists and we know that parties have to deal with the extremists on their side.

But I also, of course -- I mean, as somebody in the business -- and let's -- six people are dead. This is an awful tragedy. A little girl who just got on the student council shot. So this is just -- this is not a political event.

KURTZ: It's awful.

SAUNDERS: Let's get that -- it's just horrible.

But I also -- as an opinion person, I could just see myself getting sucked into this thing where a bunch of people -- and there were some people. There were people in the media with no impulse control. People like Keith Olbermann and Paul Krugman, who just, boom, started hitting Sarah Palin and, boom, started hitting the right before the facts were in.

You know, it's our job to first -- it's not our job to give our first impulses, because they are often wrong.

KURTZ: They're often wrong. Let me get --

SAUNDERS: It's our job to get the facts.

SIMON: Let me give you my second and third impulse then.


SIMON: I'm not ready to surrender the point that what Sarah Palin did by putting crosshairs over congressional districts was a good and innocent thing to do.

KURTZ: No, it was a dumb thing to do.

SIMON: More than dumb.


SIMON: More than dumb.


SIMON: In fact, Representative Giffords complained at the time that these ads went up.

KURTZ: Right. We have that tape.

SIMON: Because they were bad things to do, and that they degraded the political culture in America.


Let's go from that to -- Debra Saunders mentioned Keith Olbermann. He had a stinging special comment on MSNBC last night. I want to play it.

And Clarence, your response on the other side. Here is Olbermann.


KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: If Sarah Palin, whose Web site put, and today scrubbed, bull's-eye targets on 20 representatives, including Gabbie Giffords, does not repudiate her own part, however tangential, in amplifying violence and violent imagery in American politics, she must be dismissed from politics.

If Glenn Beck, who obsesses nearly as strangely as this Mr. Loughner did about gold and debt, and who wistfully joked about killing Michael Moore, and Bill O'Reilly who blithely repeated "Tiller the Killer" until the phrase was burned into the minds of his viewers, if they do not begin their next broadcasts with solemn apologies for ever turning to the death fantasies and the dreams of bloodlust, for ever having provided just the oxygen to those deep in madness to whom violence is an acceptable solution, then those commentators and the others must be repudiated by their viewers and listeners, by all politicians who would appear on their programs.


KURTZ: Clarence Page?

PAGE: Well, I think for one thing, as Roger mentioned, this is not a new issue. This -- ever since Sarah Palin first posted those pictures with the crosshairs, there were complaints about them. And right now I think if the situation were politically reversed, if a liberal was using this kind of rhetoric about a conservative, rest assured, you would hear from the conservative camp complaints.

KURTZ: But that would be just as wrong.

PAGE: That said, I'm not going to jump to conclusions about any particular incident like this one as to what motivated this young man. He obviously does show signs of being unhinged. And it's a little too easy to ascribe political motive to that.

KURTZ: It's a little to easy.

But Roger, you disagree.

PAGE: At the same time though, the atmosphere has gotten too volatile. The rhetoric has gotten too volatile. We need to tone it down.

SIMON: With all respect, Clarence -- and you know I respect you -- what is too easy to do is to ignore the Sarah Palin ads and say we can't know that these ads caused the killing. Absolutely true. We can't know it, we'll never know it.

SAUNDERS: No, no, no. Do not do this. Do not --

SIMON: But then say, therefore, such ads do not require our criticism, do not require us to speak out against them, when this wasn't called for.

KURTZ: At the time, yes, but it's 10 months later.

Debra, let me get you in here because you obviously feel strongly. SAUNDERS: Yes. Don't cheapen this whole thing. Don't do this yet. We don't know. Let's just -- this is a horrible, horrible tragedy, outrage, awful thing.

You know, what Sarah Palin did, the target stuff, Howie, you wrote about this. It's something campaigns do. It's sort of like an act of guilt, that she erased it. But, you know, this isn't about Sarah Palin.

This is about these six people. This is about a congresswoman who goes out and tries to talk to her constituents and is killed -- I'm sorry -- I made the mistake -- is shot. And don't cheapen this by trying to make it what you want it to be ideologically.

Maybe we'll find out that's the case later, but this is just not the time for it. It's wrong, and you shouldn't do that, Roger.

SIMON: This isn't about cheapening the deaths of those unfortunate people and the woundings of the others. This is about whether we collectively, as the news media, who has a big bullhorn, speak out against the use of such images of targets on people's faces. They didn't use faces, they used congressional districts.

You can't tell me we should say, oh, I'm not going to complain about that because it cheapens the death of those children. It doesn't cheapen it. It gives it meaning of some kind.

SAUNDERS: It has nothing to do with it. But, Roger, it has nothing to do with it as far as we know. If we find out something later, fine. But we don't know that there is any nexus.

KURTZ: We will continue this debate in a couple of moments.

But right now, I want to go to Phoenix. We're going to be joined by Howard Fischer. He's the chief correspondent for Capitol Media Services. He met with Congressman Giffords.

I guess just about a month ago, Howard?

HOWARD FISCHER, CAPITOL MEDIA SERVICES: Yes. I was in Washington for the Supreme Court hearing on the states employer sanctions law, and we went to breakfast and talked a little bit about politics and the nation.

KURTZ: I ask an obvious question. How much more difficult is it to cover a story like this, which is horrifying to those of us who have never met Gabbie Giffords, when she's somebody that you know?

FISCHER: Well, and I've known Gabbie Giffords since she was first elected to the Arizona legislature. I've known her her whole political career.

It is hard. And as your guests talked about earlier, as journalists we try to figure out, what do we do? I mean, we don't want to jump to conclusions, we don't want to let our emotions get ahead of us. But when you know somebody, when you've met with them, when you've had breakfast with them, how do you separate that out?

And then, of course, there is the trying to make sense of the whole thing. The initial reports about, was this related to the upcoming vote on the health care bill, that somebody wanted to take her out, we seem to find out that this is more a very deranged young man who never completed high school, who was kicked out of community college, couldn't get in the military, and he seems to be living in his own world. It doesn't make it any easier.

KURTZ: But on this question -- yes -- no, there are so many unanswered questions at this point. But from your vantage point, as somebody who lives in the community, another victim who did die, federal Judge John Roll, you knew him as well.

Do you try to -- can you put aside your emotions and just be a journalist covering it as a straight news story?

FISCHER: I think what happens is most of us in the business go into the same mode that firefighters and police officers go into. You're a firefighter, you run into a burning building, you do what you have to do, and then later you think about it.

As you mentioned, I interviewed John Roll just last week. He's trying to get more federal judges because Arizona has become overwhelmed with felony cases. They've added Border Patrol officers, they've added prosecutors, but we still have the same 13 federal judges we've had for years here.

And you think about it, and you say, gee, obviously, it's the last time I'm going to talk to John Roll. You know, how do you deal with it? But you just move on and you do what the readers expect you to do. You do what 40 years of training makes you do.

KURTZ: The larger question that we were just debating here on the set about whether or not it is fair to try to link or tie or suggest that politicians and, indeed, media people, commentators who have a very loud megaphone, create a climate where this could take place.

Is that going on in Arizona as well in a different way because you are there on the scene?

FISCHER: Oh, certainly it's going on. I mean, Arizona has been, as you know, as the media's reported, at the focal point of a lot of issues.

KURTZ: Immigration.

FISCHER: I mean, the passage of -- the immigration law last year, the fact that Arizona became the third state in the entire nation to allow anybody to carry a concealed weapon. Certainly, we have got the focus on the fact that we have a governor who has supported the change in the law that's led people perhaps to die because they can't get transplants. Again, on the front page.

Arizona is at the forefront of the effort to reinterpret the 14th Amendment. And so the rhetoric is always high, and it's a very fine line for the politicians and for those of us in the media to separate out the rhetoric that's expected, the attacks on "Obamacare," and to try then to report it without inflaming the situation even further.

KURTZ: All right. Howard Fischer, thanks very much for joining us from Phoenix.

Let me remind our viewers that at noon Eastern, there will be a news conference at the hospital where many of these people are being treated, the University Medical Center in Tucson. We will carry that live. And an hour later, 1:00 p.m. Eastern, FBI in Arizona will be holding a news conference. You'll see that here as well.

Let me get a break. Our coverage continues in just a moment.


KURTZ: We are continuing our look at the media coverage of the tragedy in Tucson yesterday. Six people killed, 14 others wounded, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

And Clarence Page, I wanted to ask you -- well, first of all, I wanted to mention, because we were talking about whether it was fair or unfair to bring in Sarah Palin, on her Facebook age she posted her sincere condolences to the Giffords family and the families of all the victims. She said that she and her husband Todd will be praying for them and their families.

Don't journalists use a lot of military language in covering campaigns? I'm thinking of the "air war," and so and so "dropped a bombshell," and this candidate "returned fire."

And can we really turn around and be shocked that politicians engage in the same kind of rhetoric?

PAGE: Well, you know, it's a very good question. I mean, I -- certainly, in the midst of all the political correctness debates that go on, I hate to go and water down our language. I'm not against robust language, but we all know that you're walking on really tender ground when you start bringing up images of crosshairs and nooses, weaponry in general, especially in political rhetoric, where you're trying to stir up the voters around some important issues here, of course.

Nevertheless, you know that you can also build up too much rage that gets in the way of common sense among sane people, let alone those who are on the verge of going off edge.

KURTZ: I'm very concerned about the climate here. I'm not excusing what Sarah Palin did, but I argued in a piece on "The Daily Beast" this morning that I just think we need to think twice, and three times and four times, about roping her into this tragedy.

And Roger Simon, if it's just one crazy guy -- we don't know about the accomplice at this point -- who admired Hitler, who admired Marx, whose blatherings about mind control and brainwashing are hard to decipher, it leaves television news people with nothing to argue about.

SIMON: Well, to me, the question is not whether violent language, violent cartoons, violent shows, the violence on the news makes people violent. To me, it's whether people who are predisposed to violence, children who kill pets, who collect guns, who are loners, who do -- you know, are in Neo-Nazi groups, are those people affected by the violence around them. Are those people affected by violent language, violent images, crosshairs on a person's district? That may be true.

KURTZ: And yet, I can't help but notice, Debra Saunders -- and you alluded to this earlier -- that all the people right now are jumping on Sarah Palin and others on right, and saying perhaps their excessive rhetoric -- and sometimes it's been excessive -- the woman who ran against Harry Reid, Sharron Angle, talked about Second Amendment remedies -- but that all the people who are jumping on them now are liberals who don't like these are folks, who are ideologically opposed to them.

SAUNDERS: Yes, but let's talk about the people who are showing restraint. I mean, you tweeted Rachel Maddow said, hey, we don't know enough yet.


SAUNDERS: I was heartened by the fact that there were so many people -- and by the way, I just -- I worked all day following this thing. I didn't tweet, I didn't blog. I stayed out of it. And a lot of other people were doing the same thing.

And I think you reflected that, that a lot of people don't want to turn this into a left-right debate. They want it to be what it is. And if the facts come out later, so be it.

So I'm actually heartened by the fact that while there were people who were doing that, there were a lot of people -- a lot of people in the opinion business who decided no, we don't have to be first.


SAUNDERS: We can actually --

KURTZ: I shouldn't leave the impression that everybody is doing this. There are lots of people who have shown restraint, who have called for calm.

A related question before we go to break, Clarence Page.

The inevitable profiles that we're going to read now of this guy, Jared Loughner, when the media do that -- and this has happened in other shootings, too -- do we somehow glorify these people, give them the fame that they are seeking, and perhaps unwittingly encourage this sort of thing?

PAGE: I have been hearing that debate since Lee Harvey Oswald, at least. And I just don't buy it.

I just think that people out there who have gone off the edge so much that they want to commit a major act of violence, I don't think publicity alone is what makes the difference. What I'm more concerned about is the public's right to know, the public's need to know.

You're going to have enough rumors, conspiracy theories, et cetera, floating around about anything that is covered up, suppressed, held back. Get it all out there, I think, for the public good. That's the best thing.

KURTZ: A brief thought before we go to break?

SIMON: You know, you can't know -- the nut who shot Ronald Reagan --

KURTZ: John Hinckley. And he wanted to impress Jodie Foster.

SIMON: Exactly. How are we going to figure out that connection?

KURTZ: Right.

SIMON: We could do 1,000 shows about violence in America. No one is going to say, and by the way, what about those people who shoot presidents to catch the attention of movie stars? People's minds are complex. We're not going to figure it out in advance.

KURTZ: Complex and sometimes diseased.

This, as I said at the top, raises very difficult questions. You all have helped sort our way through some of them this morning, and I appreciate it.

Debra Saunders, Clarence Page, Roger Simon.

Up next, "TIME" magazine's Joe Klein has some thoughts on this and about the role of cable news in particular.

Stay with us.


KURTZ: We are continuing our discussion about the coverage of the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabbie Giffords and 20 other people shot as well.

Let's get an update right now from CNN's Susan Candiotti. She's live in Tucson this morning.

Good morning, Susan.


Well, one of the things that is happening now is police have said they are continuing to try to look for a person that they would like to speak who they believe might possibly have some connection to the suspect who's already in custody, Jared Lee Loughner. They're not sure of that, but they released some security camera video of this unidentified man earlier this day, and they describe him as a white man, 40 to 50 years old, who is seen in the grocery store about the same time as Loughner was before the shooting occurred.

They describe him as wearing some blue jeans and a dark blue jacket. And they are trying to locate him, though, again, not explaining exactly what other reason they might have to speak with him.

The other thing that's happening, to update what's occurring with Loughner, as you know, he remains in FBI custody at this time. He is not cooperating with authorities.

They -- a law enforcement source is telling us that they have been able to definitely tie the purchase of the gun that has been picked up in connection with this case, believed to be the shooter's weapon, and said that he purchased it about a month ago from a big gun store here in the Tucson area. There have been reports from both the police and other authorities that he has had some minor scrapes with the law and some issues at a community college. He dropped out of that school.

And he's been known to make a lot of strange postings on the Internet that they are also looking into. In fact, he once talked about the members of Congresswoman Giffords' district as being "totally illiterate."

We know that FBI Director Robert Mueller is going to be appearing at a press conference later this day, and perhaps we'll hear more about what charges, if any, Loughner will face.

KURTZ: We will carry that. Let me jump in, Susan --


KURTZ: -- because I want to ask you -- we played some clips at the top of our program that showed CNN, Fox News, among other news organizations, being too quick to declare the congresswoman dead. Thankfully, that turned out to be wrong.

Does that kind of thing make you more cautious right now and it's difficult to gather information in this fast-moving environment?

CANDIOTTI: It is hard, indeed. And we've been in constant touch, of course, with hospital officials here. There are privacy laws.

At least the only people that are talking about Congresswoman Giffords right now -- she's the only person because of privacy issues involving the other people who are injured here. But they stress that she's sedated and unconscious.

They deny that she was ever put in an induced coma of any kind. And we hope to get the latest on her condition coming up very soon at a news conference.

KURTZ: Right. Well, we appreciate your being out there. I know it's been a long day and night trying to find out what's going on.

Thanks very much, Susan Candiotti, for joining us from Tucson.

CANDIOTTI: You're welcome.

KURTZ: Joe Klein's column for "TIME" magazine had nothing to do with the shootings that we've been talking about because it was written before that tragedy took place. But the words resonate perhaps a little more strongly this morning.

Klein, in the column, had this to say: "If you watched the news, especially the epileptic seizure that passes for cable news (and in certain precincts of the blogosphere) you would think we were facing Armageddon, Sodom, Gomorrah and the last days of Pompeii all at once."

With all the talk about the political and media climate in the wake of this Tucson tragedy, this is a good time to welcome Joe Klein from New York.

Joe, thanks for coming.

JOE KLEIN, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Good to be here, Howard.

KURTZ: You were upset about cable news and what you see as the craziness of cable news even before this. Talk about that for a moment before we turn our attention to the tragedy of the weekend.

KLEIN: Well, I actually have two problems with cable news.

Number one is the extremism, you know, in some precincts. Not CNN, but Fox News certainly, and MSNBC, and the inability on unwillingness to knock down untruths, to traffic in untruths.

Glenn Beck traffics in the most crazy and ridiculous conspiracy theories. He thinks that America is near death's door, facing imminent collapse. And when you have a respected --

KURTZ: He's an opinion guy.

KLEIN: When you have a respected figure promoting views like that, then, you know, it changes the Zeitgeist some. It makes things a little bit more heated. And that's problematic.

I have no problem, by the way, with Sarah Palin's gun site ads. I do have a great deal of problem with her bringing up death panels which didn't exist in the health care bill and completely polluted the discussion of health care reform in this country. That's the second thing.

KURTZ: But before -- before I move on -- before I move on, you didn't let this network off the hook. You wrote that, "Even modest, moderate CNN continues to descent into breathless irrelevance, overwhelmed by a thundering horde of hoary political consultants." There are a lot of commentators on this network, but breathless? I mean, CNN can be criticized for a lot of things. Breathless?

KLEIN: Yes, because, you know, a lot of times, especially during campaigns, you see a new poll come out with a two-point move, which is within the margin of error, and all of a sudden, you see President Obama's ratings are dropping or President Obama's surges. It's always this kind of hyperbolic breathlessness on issues that I think, by the way, are not nearly as relevant as other things that we should be telling our viewers and readers. I mean, polls, after all, are what journalists do when they are too lazy to actually do reporting.

KURTZ: All right.

Turning now to Gabrielle Giffords and, of course, other victims -- six people dead, as we know, this weekend, the shooting in Tucson -- first of all, this is not an abstract story for you. You know the congresswoman.

KLEIN: Well, I have met her a couple of times. She's totally delightful.

She's the kind of person who you really want to have in politics. She's clear-eyed, she is committed, she's rational. She's one of the reasons -- I mean, I like politicians, and you get the sense watching cable news that we're dealing with just a bunch of crooks and crazies in elected office.

And I think that that's another problem that we in the media tend to encourage. Gabbie Giffords is the exact opposite of that, and I really hope that she achieves a full recovery.

KURTZ: Well, we all hope that. I could not agree with you more on that.

Let me play a bite for you, Joe. The sheriff in Pima County, Arizona, Clarence Dupnik, was speaking to MSNBC, and he addressed the climate and some of what you see on the airwaves.

Let's roll that if we have it.


DUPNIK: People like myself are very, very angry at what's going on in our country, and I think that it's time that we, as a country, take a look at what kind of hatred we inflame with all the crap that goes on. I think it's time that this country take a little introspective look to see the inflammatory crap that comes out some of the radio and TV.


KURTZ: To use the sheriff's phrase, is there too much inflammatory crap, particularly on cable news?

KLEIN: Actually, I have used that very word, "crap," to describe what appears on Fox News.

I mean, you know, having an opinion is fine. For the most part, a guy like Sean Connery (sic) -- Hannity -- not Sean Connery -- Sean Hannity, you know what you're going to get. He's a right-wing guy, but he isn't crazy.

A lot of other things that you see on that network, in which the views of birthers are treated as if they might even be reasonable, where death panels are considered a possibility, and the conspiracies that Glenn Beck promotes, you know, and the notion that we're about to fall off the abyss, I think that helps to create a Zeitgeist where, you know, nuts are empowered.

I'm not saying that it happened in this case. We don't know what happened in this case.

But I do believe the temperature out there among a certain segment of the population who sees things like illegal immigration, or immigration of any sort, who sees things like a president who is a mixed race president, whose middle name is "Hussein," there are a lot of people who have been encouraged in their extremism by stuff you see on TV and on radio. You can't forget Rush Limbaugh.

KURTZ: You've mentioned a couple of times Fox News. MSNBC, we played earlier a clip from Keith Olbermann, bringing in Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly in a way that I question. Are they really part of this tragedy? And in your "TIME" column, you say that Olbermann had more than a few minutes of solipsistic self- righteousness.

KLEIN: Oh, yes.

KURTZ: So this is not necessarily only a Fox News issue.

KLEIN: Well, that brings me to point number two. It's really hard -- we choose -- cable news chooses not to really deal with complicated issues with the level of complexity that they deserve.

I was on Ed Schultz' show to discuss Afghanistan. I was just back from there. It is the most complicated issue imaginable.

And the guy writes on a piece of paper, "Get out now," and holds it up on the screen. That's so stupid and it's so unworthy. And it really -- it's one of the reasons why people hold us in lower regard than they do lawyers.

KURTZ: And doesn't cable news in particular, television in general, by the sound bites that are chosen, by the interviews that are chosen, by the debate segments that are set up, encourage conflict and argument, seize on it, feast on it? Because, as you say, having an in-depth or a thoughtful discussion about Afghanistan or about the economy is complicated, and maybe it's not great ratings.

KLEIN: That's right. The woman who you had on previously from The Chronicle --

KURTZ: Debra Saunders.

KLEIN: -- was absolutely right. You know, the whole business, our whole business, is itching for a left-right fight over this, and they'll find some way to make it one when it probably shouldn't be.

But I do believe, look, we're dealing with boutique audiences here. You can have a successful cable news channel with two million or three million people watching it. What I can't understand is why none of these three networks choose to seek an audience of the two million or two million most intelligent, rational sophisticated, the complexity junkies, the people who really actually want to know what's going on in the world.

I imagine they buy their share of Lexuses and iPads and things like that. You could probably get ads for that.

KURTZ: Is there an argument to be made that the people who program these cable news networks are giving the public what it wants, that if you could get great numbers for the kind of operation you just described, somebody would do it, somebody outside (ph) of PBS?

KLEIN: I may be wrong, but no one has even given it a try. You know, you might as well experiment with it. We have 1,000 TV channels, at least on my cable system, and you would think that someone would at least give it a try.

Now, look, just before you came on, my colleague Fareed Zakaria was on, and I think he does a fabulous job of really getting down into the complexities of foreign policy, which is a very erudite subject. I think there are other ways we can do this, and I don't think it has to be like cod liver oil. I don't think it has to be bitter medicine.

The BBC does really responsible coverage on the evening news in England, and it's a lot of fun to watch.

KURTZ: All right. I'm with you on that. I'd like to see more enlightenment, more light, less heat.

Joe Klein, thanks very much for joining us this morning from New York.

KLEIN: My pleasure.

KURTZ: Let me remind our viewers that there's a news conference coming up at 12:00 Eastern from the hospital. That's 12:00 Eastern, 10:00 out in Arizona. We will carry that live here on CNN. The same thing for the FBI news conference from the state of Arizona, 1:00 p.m. Eastern.

We'll be continuing our discussion of the coverage of the tragedy in Tucson in just a moment.


KURTZ: We are examining the media's role in what I call the blame game stemming from the tragedy in Tucson this weekend. And joining me now to continue this conversation, from New York, Rachel Sklar, editor-at-large for Mediaite; and Steve Malzberg, host of "The Steve Malzberg Show" on WOR News Talk Radio.

And Steve, there has been a lot of talk this morning, also on the blogosphere -- I've seen some of it on TV -- about whether your side, the conservatives, Sarah Palin in particular, might be creating a climate where this kind of violence can take place.

Does that kind of talk offend you?

STEVE MALZBERG, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, it's ridiculous. And let me just say that the second this tragic news broke, I got my CNN alert on my BlackBerry. I said to my 11-year-old son Robert, who is very political savvy, I said, "Wait. Five minutes, they're going to blame talk radio."

And, of course, it took a little more than five minutes, but absolutely, that's what's happened.

KURTZ: Not much more.

MALZBERG: Not much more. Now, let me just say this --

KURTZ: Who is "they"? Who is "they"?

MALZBERG: Oh, the liberal media, the liberal politicians, the blogosphere.

But let me just -- if I have a second --

KURTZ: Go ahead.

MALZBERG: You know, in 2008, June, Barack Obama said -- you want to talk about a climate? Barack Obama, running for president, said -- not somewhere on a Web site -- said, "If they bring a knife to a fight, I'll bring a gun."

Michelle Obama, as recently as November, or late October, said, "If you know somebody who is not going to vote, shake them." Shake them. Obama himself called Republicans the enemies of Latinos.

KURTZ: OK. Your point, Steve, is that aggressive language, military-type language, is not the exclusive province of conservative talk radio.

MALZBERG: Not by a long shot. And Mr. Obama and Mrs. Obama are certainly more prominent than Sarah Palin's Web site.


KURTZ: Rachel Sklar?

SKLAR: Can we just -- I think I need to respond to this.

First of all, I am so disheartened that this discussion began with the concept of "your side and the other side." Can we just stop and look at what happened and try to maybe make things better?

I don't think it's an accident that as soon as this happened, that, you know, the inclination was to think Sarah Palin had a target map out where she put a target over Gabrielle Giffords' district. Then, if Gabrielle Giffords is shot, it's not that big a leap to say, wow, that imagery was probably a bad idea. I just can't believe it's controversial to be talking about violent imagery.

KURTZ: Hold on. It was a bad idea 10 months ago. We discussed it 10 months ago. So did every television show in America.

SKLAR: Right.

KURTZ: Later, a 22-year-old nut job who's a fan of Hitler and Marx shoots a bunch of people, including a 9-year-old girl and three people in their 70s, and some people --

SKLAR: Everyone is a nut job.

KURTZ: And some people say, hey, let's go back and look at the Sarah Palin map. You don't think that's a stretch?

SKLAR: I don't think it's a stretch to bring it into a larger discussion. I do think it's a stretch to say, without any evidence, which we still don't have, that it had anything to do with what the nut job did.

But I think that everybody who commits murder, everybody who goes on a shooting spree, is a nut job. We have to begin from that assumption.

MALZBERG: All right. Let me bring something else up, Howard.

Again, I don't hold Barack Obama responsible for any of this. OK? I'm not one of those on the left who are holding Sarah Palin responsible.

But let me add this -- based on what I said about Barack Obama, we had this woman, Amy Bishop, a professor who was denied tenure at the University of Alabama. She went to the faculty lounge and shot and killed three people.

She brought a gun to the fight, which is what Obama said he would do. You see? But did anybody make that connection? No. Only Sarah Palin.

Why? Bias. Bias.

SKLAR: No. Actually, context. Context.

There is absolutely no context to bring Obama into what happened at that school. There is, however, context to bring Sarah Palin --

MALZBERG: Her family said she was obsessed. Her family said she was obsessed.

KURTZ: Steve, let her finish.



MALZBERG: I mean, we've got to at least deal on the same, like, field of informational agreement here.

KURTZ: Rachel, there is a history here. I mean, after the Oklahoma City bombing that killed, what, 168 people, President Clinton gave a speech in which he talked about voices of hatred on the airwaves. Everybody knew he was talking about Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh said the liberal media is trying to blame this on conservative talk show hosts.

So, you know, you seem to feel like you'll bring it up to a point, but then you'll certainly jump in and say that we shouldn't make a direct link here.

SKLAR: I think that there is a difference between holding someone like Sarah Palin responsible and wanting her to behave responsibly. I just think that those are two very distinct but related things.

MALZBERG: All right. Let me --

SKLAR: If we're talking about Oklahoma City, you know, then there's that -- there's the watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants imagery that you see pop up again and again. Timothy McVeigh, wore a tree that referred to that quote at a health care rally in 2009. You'll remember that guy who had the semi strapped to his leg and he was wearing a tree that referenced that -- I'm sorry, a T-shirt that referenced that quote.

KURTZ: Right. There is always somebody you can blame for violent imagery.

SKLAR: No, but there is a recurring theme here.

MALZBERG: I left out the most important part which made it relevant to Obama. The woman's family -- Amy Bishop's family -- said to the Boston paper she was obsessed with Barack Obama.

Look, Anthony Weiner, in "The New York Observer," was quoted as talking about punching. For every moment we're sitting here -- he was at a nightclub, he took the microphone -- we're missing an opportunity to punch Bill O'Reilly.

Chris Matthews said one day someone is going to shoot Rush Limbaugh in the head, and we're all going to watch it explode. What about that?

KURTZ: All right. I've got to --

SKLAR: What about that? That's great. I'm glad to hear that being condemned. MALZBERG: Does the right say that?

SKLAR: Can we all just stop and think about violent imagery and the fact that maybe we should be dialing it back? I don't know why this is a crazy thing to be discussing in this context.

KURTZ: In my view -- I've got to get a break. In my view, it would be nice if everybody dialed it back and toned it down just a little bit, and also stopped trying to use -- jump on every military metaphor that, whether as a politician or a pundit or a journalist uses, and try to tie it to something else.


KURTZ: There are crazy people out there, but we can't all be responsible for everything they do.

Let me get a break. CNN's coverage will continue on the other side.


KURTZ: Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who remains in critical condition after being shot in the head, one of 20 people shot at that tragedy in Tucson yesterday, she was concerned about this Sarah Palin Facebook map that we've been talking about this morning, and she talked about it on MSNBC back in March.

Let's take a look.


GIFFORDS: Really, we need to realize that the rhetoric and firing people up and -- you know, even things -- for example, we're on Sarah Palin's targeted list. But the thing is that the way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun site over our district. When people do that, they've got to realize there's sequences to that action.


KURTZ: Rachel Sklar, the concern that you've expressed about that imagery certainly echoed by the congresswoman back 10 months ago.

SKLAR: Yes. I mean, there's nothing I can say to that. She said it best. And she's, I mean, sadly, pretty credible on that point now.

Again, I really have to stress, though, that I don't even think that in that clip that she was necessarily saying that it's -- you know, in the future, if something happens to me, it will be Sarah Palin's fault. I think she was saying that, again, it was an irresponsible use of imagery and a repeated irresponsible use of imagery that, again and again, Palin has turned to. And she did it in the campaign and she really has never -- she's really never stepped up and said, you know, I'm a leader, I should lead responsibly and set a great example.

KURTZ: Steve Malzberg, would you agree with this proposition that it would be nice if people on both sides of the political divide and both sides -- partisan sides in the media, those of us who have platforms and sit in front of cameras and sit in front of microphones, as you do, toned it down just a little bit?


KURTZ: You're not in favor of toning it down?

MALZBERG: No, because the agenda hasn't changed. Barack Obama's still going to try to rule everything he wants to rule. He's going to rule by dictate. He's going to circumvent the Congress.

KURTZ: But wait. This has nothing to do with that, you shouldn't aggressively oppose anything in the Obama agenda.

MALZBERG: Well, what you mean by tone it down? What do you mean by tone it down?

KURTZ: I'm talking about the language. I'm talking about words like, you know, "Let's not retreat, let's reload." I'm talking about gun site imagery. I'm just talking about the language of politics and media discourse.

MALZBERG: I don't know. I don't say "reload." I don't say "Let's not retreat." I say, let's not retreat, maybe, let's not back down. I play every week Tom Petty on my Friday show, "I won't back down," and Johnny Cash, "I won't back down."

Is that violence?

KURTZ: No one's asking you to back down. I'm just talking about language.

MALZBERG: All right. Anybody who uses violent -- but you agreed at the premise at the beginning of the show that crosshairs, targeting a congressional district, that's not out of the norm. That's not violent rhetoric. That's been around for years.

KURTZ: Final thought, Rachel?

SKLAR: You don't think repeated use of it -- you don't think, like, a leader repeatedly using that kind of rhetoric -- for example, Sarah Palin at a rally --

MALZBERG: What about Barack Obama and Mrs. Obama? Huh?

SKLAR: Well, OK.

MALZBERG: Shake them. Get in their face.

SKLAR: OK. Oh, my God, you're right, let's blame Michelle Obama.

MALZBERG: Get in their face. Shake them. Bring a gun. How about that?

SKLAR: I'm sorry. Do you realize how crazy it is to go from Sarah Palin and "reload" and gun sites to Michelle Obama?

MALZBERG: Really? Get in their face and shake them?

KURTZ: I really don't want this descend into the same thing. I know you're not trying to do that, Rachel.

Steve, nobody's asking you to tone it down. I do think there's an important debate to be had here about language and sometimes inflammatory rhetoric.

Steve Malzberg, Rachel Sklar, thanks for joining us from New York.

MALZBERG: My pleasure.

SKLAR: Thanks, Howie.

KURTZ: A final thought in just a moment.


KURTZ: Thank you for joining our discussion this morning on this important topic. A news conference about to get under way in Arizona.

CNN's Candy Crowley will take over the coverage from here -- Candy.


We are awaiting a press conference at the University of Arizona Medical Center. It's in Tucson, of course.

We are looking for an update on the condition of Congresswoman Giffords. We expect to hear from them right now, so we're going to take you there, in Tucson.