One decade ago, on a lovely July 27 morning in Knoxville, Tennessee, 200 Unitarian Universalist churchgoers, proud parents among them, were watching a children’s performance of Annie, Jr. That’s when 58-year-old Jim David Adkisson opened fire in the church with a sawed-off semi-automatic shotgun that he carried in a guitar case. “Liberals are evil,” he had written. He believed they had “ruined” America, which he believed was in the grip of a “left-wing conspiracy.”
With a desire to kill “every Democrat in the Senate and House” and “everyone in the mainstream media,” Adkisson shot dead two people and injured eight more before parishioners tackled him to the ground. Adkisson chose liberal churchgoers because, as Democrats and liberals who were “transforming the world through love and justice,” they had voted for his true targets — the politicians — who he said were “inaccessible to me.”
Believing he was on a proud mission in service of his country, Adkisson pleaded “guilty as charged” at his trial. An avid consumer of right-wing media, he came to believe their messages that liberals were “scourge” who “are destroying virtually everything they touch” and “raping” values, democracy and America itself,” words that had been broadcast by Rush Limbaugh. Or that liberals are “treasonous,” and “always rooting for savages against civilization,” according to Ann Coulter. Now, the consumer-in-chief, Donald Trump, has become the Tweeter-in-Chief of these hate messages.
What are the consequences? As fact-based journalism has shrunk and polarizing, rumor-based media has grown, disturbing trends have arisen. For one, Trump’s anti-Islam tweets correspond with a rise in anti-Muslim hate crime, particularly in high Twitter-use counties, which did not, before the Tweets, have anti-Muslim hate crimes, according to research by Karsten Müller and Carlo Schwarz of University of Warwick. Memberships in conspiracy-rooted and anti-government organizations have also surged. In 2017, “patriot” groups tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center rose to 689 chapters, and the number of “hate groups” reached 954, of which the largest grown were neo-Nazi groups, which grew by 22 percent. Some of these organizations believe that the “genocide” of the White race is underway. Their growth has corresponded with an increase in sales of guns and ammunition.
When ethical journalism is silenced and denigrated while messages of hate became dominant, it made possible some of the worst-case scenarios in history. In Rwanda, after decades of inter-marrying and living in relative harmony, in spring of 1994, one group, the Hutus, rose, en masse, to annihilate their Tutsi neighbors with machetes, clubs, boiling water and the spread of AIDS. Within three months, they had exterminated three quarters of the entire Tutsi population. The violators were not criminals and had no violent histories. They were teachers killing their students, neighbors killing friends, church members killing fellow parishioners, doctors killing their patients. Many were remorseless, convinced that the Tutsis were a pestilence that had to be eradicated.
“It could never happen here,” said Bosnians in Prijedor, before friends, neighbors and colleagues turned on them with incarcerations, torture, rape, and murder. Again, mass media in the hands of ideologues helped convince ordinary people of the necessity to oust and destroy a horrible “other.” This process — turning neighbors, colleagues, and friends into monsters — was not particularly dissimilar from what happened in Nazi Germany, a country previously considered an icon of high culture. Again, extremists used mass media to disseminate a narrative that built acceptance among enough people to make the Holocaust possible.
These worst-case scenarios were abetted by the destructive combination of extremist messages, misinformation, and the silencing of ethical journalism. At other times in history, the proliferation of corrosive media combined with weakened ethical journalism tainted information, diminished understandings, and polarized societies. In Chile, for example, as media messages grew inflammatory the quintessential genteel culture known for its remarkable courtesy and respect disintegrated into rabid exchanges and increased acceptance for the CIA-backed 1973 coup that wrecked South America’s longest-standing democracy.
In contrast, ethical, responsible media can have profoundly positive influences. Contrast Rwanda with a short-lived turnaround of its “twin,” Burundi. Both countries were polarized, and both faced an internecine carnage. But while in Rwanda, mass media encouraged the rampage that left some 800,000 dead, in Burundi, a new media backed by international NGOs (including US-based Search for Common Ground) sought to combat rumor-mongering and hate-baiting while disseminating information intended to help all Burundians understand the true underpinnings and dynamics of their conflict. Burundi’s violence markedly subsided, and meanings shifted. With the arrival of the new media, rescuing one of the “others” shifted from being a treasonous act to a heroic one. That ended once again when extremists shut down the ethical media outlets.
In Northern Ireland, shifts in reporting “the Troubles” helped facilitate the peace process. And while it is an imperfect peace, parties once embattled in lethal conflict are now engaged in democratic processes. Great journalists also deserve credit for helping bring about transformations in South Africa, Mexico, and Senegal. In South Africa, while facing banning and other oppression, local and international journalists relentlessly fought to expose injustices and oppressive government activities. Their work informed the local and international communities, propelling the efforts that ultimately brought about the end of apartheid.
Information is like DNA for societies. When that information is flawed, societies, democracies, and markets malfunction. Today, we face a double whammy: while many traditional media face downsizing and other detrimental changes, misinformation spreads instantly via new technologies and other less responsible media, misleading people about the nature of our shared sociopolitical realities and foisting unfair blame onto one group or another. That misinformation can, at times, mean life or death for people.
Given modern developments that allow one person or small group to destroy an entire city with easy, small-scale modern technologies, perhaps it is time to focus our valuable talent toward building a better humanity. That will require breathing new life into ethical journalism that dispels misinformation and simplistic blame frames and helps us all better understand the true dynamics of our sociopolitical realities.