Elaine, a bright, ebullient, media-clinical psychologist colleague of mine, sent this "appeal" out on the listserv for Division 46 (Media Psychology) of the American Psychological Association. Her mood was markedly without ebullience:

Dear Fellow Media Psychologists:
Watching TV this morning was horrifying. The violence, threats of violence and murder, growing mob anger is very frightening and very wrong. Seeing this makes me wonder whether we could/should do our part in helping to quell what's going on.

Not doing anything and just watching makes me feel like we are like those who watched while Kitty Genovese was attacked [and murdered] in full view of residents in the apartment building [in Kew Gardens, Queens], in 1964. No one called the police or did anything to help.

Are psychologists only going to watch and later assess and analyze and research what is going on now? Is there something we can do to help now?

I'm not sure what we can do... I'm just posing the question out of frustration.
Maybe we can encourage ourselves to get vocal regarding the severity of the actions and threats and have leaders on both sides condemn the actions.

The violent activities are being repeated and repeated on TV, internet etc. This only fuels more of such behavior. My guess is that it was this media exposure from the start that fueled the emotions and aggressive actions.
Should psychologists, Departments of Communications etc., across the nation speak out to help put order back? I'm thinking even if it's a small part, we'd be part of the solution.


To paraphrase the endlessly satirized send-up of America's first and only Presidential Empath-in-Chief, Bill Clinton, I feel your pain, Elaine... I feel her frustration and her fears of politically inspired violence. The deluded nonsense that some Americans espouse that fascists and demagogues couldn't take power in the U.S. was put to rest a long time ago with McCarthyism, with Sinclair Lewis' novel, It Can't Happen Here, and with our close call in 2000 when our Supreme Court rode shotgun for Dick Cheney and his running mate, (a man whose legitimacy in office the political right somehow never found a reason to question).

Let us not forget our rabble-rousers-in chief, the four horsepersons of the Foxapocalypse: Glen Beck, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Sarah Palin, and their fellow traveler, Rush Limbaugh. Together, this tag team throws enough red meat out to their faithful, to give the right wing a colossal case of gout, enough red meat that FoxNews should rebrand itself "The Butcher to the airways" and drop the borderline psychotic "fair and balanced" masquerade.

In this hyper-mediated, wireless, digital age, the tag team manufactures extreme political slogans and toys with veiled threats that make audience actions and demonstrations more and more likely.

Limbaugh's explosive, angry rhetoric easily reaches out to people who are already angry, already frightened, already beset by a sense of impotence in the control of their lives and fortunes. The inciting rhetoric by party leaders the polarizing, anger-, menace- and violence-aggravating daily theater of TV and radio shock jocks just keeps fanning the flames. Disrespect and catcalls in the halls of congress easily yields disrespect in the streets, in town hall meetings and at tea parties and protests.

"Let's beat the other side to a pulp!" Rep. Steve King, Republican of Iowa, shouted to the Tea Partiers after the Democrats passed the health care reform legislation by circumventing the Republican "juggernaut of no." "Let's chase them down" [the Dems who voted "yea"]! There's going to be a reckoning."

Other Republicans (has the term "republic" lost all meaning to the party leaders and faithful?) reacted similarly.

In response to the House vote, Rush Limbaugh told his listeners they are in a "death match with Hitler. ... "We need to defeat those bastards" ...We need to wipe them out."

Glenn Beck compared the health care bill to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Hindenburg disaster, while shock jock Neal Boortz said, "Today will do more damage than 9/11."

Hyperbole Uber Alles, mesdames et messieurs.  Welcome to the Kit Kat Club.

Rep. Michele Bachmann announced, "I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous... and then quoted a founding father, Thomas Jefferson, "...having a revolution every now and then is a good thing."

Such patriotism. And during war time. Shame, shame, Michele.

Rep. John Boehner exclaimed on camera (why be shy, John?): "Take [Democratic Congressman] Steve Driehaus, for example. He may be a dead man [with his health care vote]. He can't go home to the west side of Cincinnati."

It's a rhetorical, spittle-spewing jungle out there right now. The 24/7 media help to polarize, to raise fears in both the left and right. God help those in the middle, the moderates who start Coffee Parties to counter extremist Tea Party (TP) drumbeats and war dances.

Do they get much TV coverage?

Not on your life! Really, how televisual are people preaching sanity in coffee klatches around the country? They just don't know the drill.

"Gimmie something," the news cameraman pleads.

You want to get media face and voice time, you've gotta breath fire, raise fists and scream bumper sticker epithets to demonize Obama, meet at the mouth of a volcano or at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery - and scream into the camera.  It's tru but it's not pretty.

Studies show that constant attention to extremists on broadcast and cable news and opinion shows facilitates TV savvy in protesters of all stripes, political and otherwise. During the yearlong hostage drama at the American Embassy in Tehran in the 70's, during the Carter Administration, Islamic fundamentalist protesters and agitators supporting the new regime, would daily gather when they knew TV cameras would be waiting, hungry for exciting evening news footage.

They would go into street theater mode, enact pseudo news events march, raise fists, burn American effigies, and generally scare the hell out of Americans glued to their TV screens for this political circus. Protesters fed off the electronic adrenalin of TV and TV fed off them. It was a heavenly match, a perfect relationship.

It's the same today with the American fundamentalists anti-gays and anti-abortionists. TP protesters with open mouths, raised fists, offensive and emoticonic signs find the juice by feeding off each other. They feed off the media coverage, off punditry's hand wringing portentous analyses; they feed off TV, print and the Internet 4th estate- in-training venues and news aggregators that offer face and text time to TP and GOP leaders. In so doing, the media capture sounds and images and repeat slanderous screeds, sloganeering, their threats, brandished 45 caliber phallic symbols and other weapons of mass annoyance. Then they recycle it all back into the system to keep the tension primed and everyone's powder dry and ready to go. It's called "the system."

And the system works. But for whom? For what? Surely not the sanity and civility of the nation. Maybe for Rupert Murdoch and his true believer, (or simply Machiavellian sorcerer) Fox News Sultan of Spin, Roger Ailes.

The GOP, in its patriotic wisdom, tries to harness and use the conservative activists' crowd mentality and ideological fervor by regularly stroking it with inflammatory images, similes, metaphors, and rhetoric wrapped in plausible deniability, as when Palin recently spun her gun scope cross hairs Facebook graphics into mere "encouragement to get out there and vote."

Right!-like "oh, and don't forget your voting permit... and some extra ammo clips. The Democrats can be very violent and dangerous, not to mention socialist fascists who want to take away your freedom and Granny Emma's right to live a few more years."

About the Author

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D.

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., was Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

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