CSotD: Responsible commentary in a polarized society

Jen Sorensen explains the interplay of polarization and bothsidesism.

We used to joke about the mainstream media’s obsession with presenting both sides, saying that if someone said Hitler was a bad person, reporters would be ordered to find someone who would say he was good.

It seemed like clever hyperbole at the time, but now we’ve got a Republican candidate for Governor of Pennsylvania who is apparently paying to promote his candidacy on a platform overtly geared towards antisemites and white racists.

Hyperbole has become a challenge, particularly if you accept the idea that, while political cartooning relies on things like hyperbole and sarcasm, it remains a branch of journalism that should be responsible.

Sorensen uses exaggeration to make her point about polarization, but she’s right about the threat. It’s one thing for particular editors to only run cartoons that attack Biden and praise Trump or vice-versa, because opinions matter.

The Gannett chain has decided that the key to retaining readership is to avoid offending them in any way by running opinion pieces, which brings to mind what it says in the Great Unread Users Manual,

Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.

But who ever reads the manual?

The polarization of America brings up a particularly difficult challenge for political cartoonists: In moderate times, you would expect political figures to be criticized by commentators of all stripes. Not attacked, but held to account.

We have become so polarized, however, that any criticism of one side is viewed as an endorsement of the other. It’s bad enough for writers, who have the chance to be nuanced in their discussion, even if half their readership won’t catch the finer points.

But for cartoonists, the simplicity of the format translates to one more quote from the Manual: “He that is not with me is against me.”

Perry Bacon has written a much-discussed opinion piece in the Washington Post headlined “How media coverage drove Biden’s political plunge,” and he’s certainly not the first to suggest that Biden’s falling approval ratings are largely caused by the media having gotten into a kneejerk habit of treating failures as news, but assuming successes.

For cartoonists, the effect of polarization is stark: A cartoon that criticizes Biden is seen as praise for the GOP. Voters will go to the polls in November and have to choose one side of the chasm or the other, and a steady diet of “Biden is failing” — from either side — will have an effect.


It’s not a problem for Lisa Benson (Counterpoint), who is a rightwinger and, taking the word of Saudi PR representatives, calls the president a liar for saying he brought up the Khashoggi murder with MBS.

She not only exploits the fist-bump photo but resurrects the conservative trope that Biden is an ineffectual president because he likes ice cream.

Biden does enjoy ice cream, like every president, with, as I reported, the possible exceptions of Monroe, John Quincy Adams, William Henry Harrison and Garfield, who probably ate the stuff but didn’t leave a record of it.

But it’s an attack, not a history lesson.


Similarly, the fact that Eric Allie (Counterpoint) misspells “Inflation” seems secondary to his misspelling “50 cents,” but, since his intention is a partisan attack, it’s hard to call it an error.


But consider Lee Judge (KFS)’s piece: It’s a commentary on Biden’s inability to pass effective climate change legislation, but is he calling the president incompetent or is he noting Biden’s limited ability, given the Supreme Court’s decision about the EPA combined with the deadlock in the Senate?

It’s food for thought for a contemplative reader, but an attack on Biden for the casual one.

Judge may not have intended it as a boost for the GOP, but the net effect is likely to be that.


Steve Brodner’s latest cartoon raises a different issue in our polarized times, best expressed in the old Internet term RTFM.

Facts matter.

For weeks, people have fumed and speculated over the fact that police huddled in the hallways of Robb Elementary School rather than immediately attacking the shooter.

But the recently released report cited in Brodner’s piece repeatedly documents that, while the first responders followed the shooter into the building within minutes, the murders were over by then.

The report is a depressing litany of bad decisions by everyone — both law enforcement and people at the school — but the only deaths attributable to the delay were that of a handful of survivors who died en route to the hospital and might have survived with quicker recovery.

So many people have made up their minds about what happened that having the report available will not likely change their minds, even if they bother to read it, but that doubles the burden on journalists, particularly in such a polarized society.

It’s nothing new: When I was in the newsroom, there was a term I didn’t much like that reporters used for those people at meetings who made furious, impassioned statements that showed that their emotions were way out ahead of their thoughts, and, too often, that they didn’t know the facts over which they were so upset.

The term — “Stupid Angry People” — was insulting, but the frustration for reporters was real: These disruptive speakers had an impact on the meeting that required being reported, and, besides, they genuinely deserved to be heard.

However, reporting on their passion had to be balanced by reporting on their errors, which needed to be done in a fair and concise manner, without abandoning the main point of the story.

Responsible journalism isn’t supposed to be easy.


The police have long been under attack for stonewalling, but Nick Anderson (Tribune) appears to have RTFM, because the report criticizes authorities less for their silence than for releasing unverified preliminary information:

And the press for failing to doublecheck what little information they had:

I wish this sort of disconnect only happened in Uvalde.

But I wish a lot of things only happened in Uvalde. And not there, either.

Be careful. Be competent.



9 thoughts on “CSotD: Responsible commentary in a polarized society

  1. It’s ignorant or disingenuous to state “but the only deaths attributable to the delay were that of a handful of survivors who died en route to the hospital and might have survived with quicker recovery.” As if the slow police response hastening these deaths didn’t matter,

    There’d have been more wounded to take to the hospital if the police had acted 90 minutes sooner, as well as the possibility that treatment 90 minutes sooner might’ve saved them.

    I believe there’s also reports (audio) of shots being fired while the police are in the hallway- The same police who first said they couldn’t handle the shooter because he had a rifle and they only had pistols. An argument which would make sense if the shooter was in a tower 100 yards away but when they’re all on the ground within pistol range and confines of a hallway your classroom makes no sense at all, as well as video showing police armed with rifles and ballistic shield still standing around doing nothing.

  2. I didn’t have access to the medical examiner’s report, nor did the investigators whose work I’m quoting, so, yes, I’m ignorant of how many wounded might have been saved by quicker action. I said “attributable” because that was all the information I had. Please provide your source for the medical examiner’s report.

    The investigators’ report, however, is — as you know if you followed the link and read it — clear about how many shots were fired before and after the police entered, and why they mistakenly thought it was a barricaded subject, as well as why they could have known better but weren’t getting the information they needed.

    I’m not sure why a hidden person with an AR is less dangerous 50 feet away shooting through Drywall than he would be at a far greater range. The issue was rate of fire, not accuracy, and the perceived risk factors were between attempting to talk him out versus provoking a fire fight.

    So, again, the error was in thinking it was a hostage situation and the reasons for that grievous error — lack of radio communication, lack of a clear chain of command, lack of an outside command center — are made clear in the report.

  3. Also from the report

    “After the attacker already had fired over 100 shots in Robb Elementary’s west building, two
    separate groups of officers converged on the building at the same time from different
    directions. From the time of their initial entry and over the course of the next five minutes,
    the attacker fired approximately 16 additional rounds.”

    “While waiting, he also
    periodically attempted to communicate with the attacker in English and Spanish, including
    immediately after four shots were fired inside the classroom at 12:21 p.m.”

    Although we can not be 100% sure I think it is a reasonable assumption that in at least one of those two instances of additional shots being fired a child was killed. Or maybe wounded just to die en route to the hospital.

    And then there is this account: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/crime/ulvade-shooting-survivor-classmate-help-b2088715.html

    By the way that outside door was unlocked. Who’d have thunked it?

  4. I assume nothing. A barricaded gunman is apt to fire his weapon as a warning or show of defiance, but your guess could also be correct. But it would be a guess. They reported minor injuries from wall fragments, which suggests but does not dictate level rather than downward fire. Again, pure guesswork, and lord knows there’s been more than enough of that.

    Still, I’d also note that it’s OVER five minutes rather than AFTER five minutes, which makes a difference in terms of clearing a cross-fire hazard and mounting an attack, even if they’d carried it out. That additional gunfire was over a period, not a single burst.

    That link goes to a paywall.

    As noted in the portion I posted, this isn’t over, but, as I said in earlier posts, it’s as much a matter of asking the right questions as getting full answers.

  5. BTW and not apropos of any comments here, but I wonder, had that first guy on the scene shot the gym teacher, how it would alter the accusations of too much caution.

  6. So – thiose kids who called 911 from the Uvalde classrooms were already dead ?

    I did take Judge’s cartoon to illustrate that “nothing” is exactly what Biden could do. As could Trump…or Lincoln, for that matter.

  7. The kids who called 911 were alive then and are alive now.

    The relevant point — as clearly stated more than once in the report — is that the lack of a command post and clear chain of command, plus the incompatibility of radios among the various departments, plus the poor wifi system in the school — which also kept some teachers from learning about the lockdown — meant that the 911 dispatchers were not able to effectively relay the messages from the children to the police in the school.

    Read the report. Here’s a fresh link, as the previous one may have gone stale:

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