Whose Outrage?

December 6, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

Moral outrage is the stock in trade of tabloids. They love stories of the indefensible, the Inexcusable – stories that offer us the gift of  easy moral clarity.

In New York this week both tabloids, the Post and the Daily News, have focused on the same outrage – the San Bernardino shootings. But the two tabloids have been duking it out over how to frame the event. Do we focus on guns or on Muslims? What is the real outrage?

On the day of the shootings, it was religion that was taking it on the chin, and from both sides.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

The Post headline reflected the idea, very popular on the right, that Islam is inherently a religion of terror and that all Muslims are potential terrorists. Or as Keith Ablow on Fox put it, “If somebody named Syed leaves your party, you know what, call the cops.”* In an early edition, the Post headline was “Murder Mission,” but the editors changed it to “Muslim Killers,” shining the beacon of blame on an entire faith.

While the Post might have been out to offend Muslims, the Daily News was jabbing if not at God Himself, at everyone who believes in God, or at least those who believe in a kind and beneficent God. More specifically, the news was sticking it to big-name Republican lawmakers (Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, et al.) who refuse to make laws restricting guns and whose only response to each mass shooting is “thoughts and prayers.”

(In case the News print is too small to read, it says in part, “Cowards who could truly end gun scourge hide behind meaningless platitudes.”)

Two days later, both tabloids had the story about the woman in the San Bernardino shootings and her allegiance to ISIS.

The Post front page was all about Tashfeen Malik and ISIS. But the News gave pride of place to a local story about the serious weaponry that a Long Island man had stockpiled in his house. (I guess it’s just coincidence that both well-armed homes – in San Bernardino and in Syosset – are “lairs.”) If you read the Post, the danger to Americans is ISIS and by implication all of Islam. If you read the News, it’s guns and ammo.

A good front-page tabloid story paints the moral boundary line in bright unmistakable colors. We are one side, the evildoers on the other. What kind of story can do that? Sometimes the crime is so horrible that no defense is possible. The perpetrator is not even human – a “monster.” Sometimes, the crime may not be so horrible, but the perpetrator’s wealth, power, or privilege eliminates any defense. No mitigating factors for celebrities.

Then there is the derivative or secondary outrage – the failure of authorities to condemn or adequately punish the original outrage. That’s the gist of the News front page both on Thursday (“meaningless platitudes”) and Saturday (“and the cops say he ISN’T A THREAT.”)

Today’s front pages repeat this theme of the outrage of insufficient outrage.

The Post tells us that the ISIS is praising the killers – clearly outrageous. But the message in smaller print is that the president’s reluctance to use the language of moral condemnation is also a moral outrage. (“But Obama thinks it’s only ‘possible’ they were Islamic terrorists.”) For the News, the outrage is the refusal of the NRA to condemn weapons whose main virtue is that they can kill a lot of people quickly.

Today we have a divided New York – the Jets v. the Giants, the News v. the Post. The football game will have a clear winner. The tabloids are playing on a much larger field: the national debate over which is the greater threat in our midst – guns or Muslims.

 * On his podcast “The Gist,” Mike Pesca does an excelllent takedown of Ablow. Go here  and start at about the 24:00 mark.

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