Trayvon Martin's death is a tragedy, no matter how you look at it. And when struck by tragedy, people look for someone to blame. But there's a difference between searching for meaning and political opportunism. For an example of the latter, look no further than the commentary of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO Arlene Holt Baker, or Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist who recently guest hosted for MSNBC's Martin Bashir. She blithely, and wrongly, suggested that the National Rifle Association, Charles and David Koch, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, were somehow responsible for the shooting.
While I frequently and forcefully disagree with the ideas and policy recommendations of many on the left, the tactic of simply maligning political opponents has no place in the real debate of ideas. Nevertheless, it seems to have become the dominant note of the prominent left these days. Finney referred to her named troika as the "Typhoid Mary" responsible for the Trayvon shooting because they had "opposed gun regulation at every turn." Arlene Holt Baker accused "conservative, right-wing policies" of "literally supporting legislation that is literally killing our children." Paul Krugman has called for the defunding of ALEC because of what he asserts is their role in the Martin shooting.
These statements are inflammatory and misleading while threatening to coarsen public conversation over important ideas to the point that it undermines rather than strengthens our country. Unfortunately, such cheap talk has become all too common in news outlets.
Consider the response of many on the left when Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was gunned down at a grocery store alongside many others, including a federal judge and a little girl. High profile Democrats wrung their hands over the "violent language" of the Tea Party and Republican candidates, implying that it had prompted the shooter to violence. When it turned out that the shooter was a mentally disturbed person with no partisan affiliation, no apologies were offered. That silence was deafening. It took President Obama to finally call for an end to the partisan gamesmanship. That should have been the end of it.
Communicators, and especially journalists, have a responsibility to ensure that the things they say in public are truthful. But too many don't feel bound by that duty and instead, opportunistically take the political football and run with it. That's what appears to have happened with Baker, Krugman, and Finney.
Krugman is an avowed liberal with an agenda. Baker is a union boss. And Finney is a former spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee (and a former U.S. News blogger). Had Finney been a guest invited to offer her perspective, it might have simply been a wince-worthy moment. However, a week ago she was hosting a news program when, without offering a shred of evidence, she accused people of participating in the tragic death of a young man. Even MSNBC should have known better: Finney's job has been to politicize everything and exploit opportunities.
And that's just what this was for these people: an opportunity. Most journalists would at least call for comment, or maybe do a Google search—something, anything—just to make sure that the opinion offered is vetted and strong. I doubt I'd agree with Finney on much, but I would hope we could agree on drawing the line at exploiting someone's untimely death. Instead, while sitting in the anchor's chair, she made wild assertions while providing no opportunity for a contrary opinion. Any communications expert knows that the least a journalistic outlet can do is offer an opportunity for a rebuttal. Perhaps she knew how thin the claim was. Who knows? In this case actions speak louder than words.
So here are the facts: Koch Industries lobbied on gun regulations in Florida in opposition to a law that would allow employees to bring firearms to work. That's it. (Full disclosure: I am an occasional spokesperson for the Kochs.) ALEC's legislation sought to address a need for stronger protections of a person's right to defend themselves. They remain opposed to murder. The NRA has been a stalwart defender of the Second Amendment, and can no more be blamed for Martin's death than the National Concrete Association can be blamed for George Zimmerman's injuries.
There is a way to have a constructive debate over differing ideas. But scapegoating and exploiting tragedies for political gain is not it.