Markey: Incendiary Rhetoric Can Prompt Violent Action

Former House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) Monday said incendiary rhetoric in political debate "can trigger unstable individuals to take violent action."

That came in reaction to the shootings in Arizona over the weekend and the dialog about what, if any effect, violent rhetoric has on violent action.

"The shooting in Arizona reminds all of us that the coarsening of our public discourse can have tragic consequences. Robust debate and discussion help breathe life into our democracy, and the best policies are forged after Americans engage in good faith efforts to find solutions to the pressing problems facing our country," he told B&C in an e-mail. "However, sometimes such debate crosses the line into the type of incendiary rhetoric that can trigger unstable individuals to take violent action. While First Amendment protections and the fundamental liberty of free speech should not be eroded, all of us have a responsibility to be aware of and accountable for the power of our words."

In 2007, top Democratic legislators including Markey (D-Mass.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) called on the National Communications & Telecommunications Association, NTIA to update its hate crimes and communications study, saying they sought information about "the current uses of telecommunications media, particularly uses by broadcast facilities licensed on behalf of the public by the Federal Communications Commission, and whether such uses convey messages of bigotry or hatred, creating a climate of fear and inciting individuals to commit hate crimes."

The National Hispanic Media Coalition signaled Monday it would use the Arizona shootings as impetus to push NTIA for the update--and Congress for the funding--as well as the FCC to act on its petition to open an inquiry into hate speech. NHMC has defined hate speech as speech whose cumulative effect is to create an atmosphere of hate and prejudice that "legitimizes" violence against its targets." It was prompted to launch the inquiry by the rhetoric surrounding immigration, but says that rhetoric has now spilled over to other areas.

Markey did not comment on whether he would renew his call on NTIA to update the report.
Asked about the suggestion that the shooting Saturday of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others could be related to violent on-air rhetoric, FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell said: "Today is a time to keep the victims of this horrible tragedy, and their families, in our thoughts and prayers."

President Barack Obama seemed to share McDowell's focus. "In a couple of days we're going to have a lot of time to reflect, but right now the main thing we're doing is to offer our thoughts and prayers to those who have been impacted and making sure that we are joining together, and pulling together as a country.

The shooter was being arraigned Monday on five federal counts of murder and attempted murder against government officials. Immediately after the shooting, the issue of violent rhetoric and its impact on violent action was brought up by Giffords' supporters, who cited as an example the fact that Sarah Palin's Web site had put crosshairs on Giffords' district after she voted for the Obama healthcare bill, something Giffords noted with concern in an MSNBC interview at the time.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.