Heckling the Victim: A Common Right-Wing Tactic

Yesterday, a friend of mine posted on her Facebook page,

“I am appalled by MSNBC’s reporting morals, for editing the news with the purpose of sensationalizing the polarizing topic of gun control for their own agenda, and misleading people about what really happened during a hearing about gun control in Hartford, Conn. . .
There was no ‘heckling’. A question was asked by Neil Heslin, the father of six year old Jesse Lewis who sadly perished in the tragedy of the Sandy Hook school shooting. There was no response to this open question directed toward the audience during his heartfelt testimony. Complete silence. After this respectful silence, Mr. Heslin stated that ‘not one person can answer that question’. It was then that people with opposing views spoke up with their answers.

No matter which topic a news outlet is reporting about, the whole story should be told. It is tragic that some news agencies feel the need to create news rather than report it. The fact that MSNBC chose this tragedy to showcase their sensationalistic agenda is unconscionable. Shame on MSNBC. I don’t subscribe to television service, but if I did, I sure would not trust anything reported by MSNBC.”

It wasn’t just MSNBC that was being criticized for using the word “heckled” when characterizing the interruption of Mr. Heslin’s congressional testimony. The Huffington Post and several liberal/progressive websites also used the word “heckle” to describe the event.

Media opinion blogger Erik Wemple of the Washington Post agrees with my friend and has spilled a half gallon of ink on his blog explaining why he thinks MSNBC and Piers Morgan of CNN were wrong to label the event heckling. Wemple has called Morgan’s use of the word, “Misleading, at the very best: Heslin, as explained here, actually invited members of the audience at a meeting in Hartford to rebut his testimony.

Here’s the relevant transcript:

Heslin: “I don’t know how many people have young children or children. But just try putting yourself in the place that I’m in or these other parents that are here. Having a child that you lost. It’s not a good feeling; not a good feeling to look at your child laying in a casket or looking at your child with a bullet wound to the forehead. I ask if there’s anybody in this room that can give me one reason or challenge this question: Why anybody in this room needs to have an, one of these assault-style weapons or military weapons or high-capacity clips…..Not one person can answer that question.”

Crowd/Alleged Hecklers: “Second Amendment shall not be infringed”

Public official: “Please no comments while Mr. Heslin is speaking. Or we’ll clear the room. Mr. Heslin, please continue.”

Wemple goes on to point out, “MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell votes in favor of the “heckling” interpretation. He said on last night’s show, “Heckling’s when you say something stupid from the audience. And when a speaker rhetorically or directly asks an audience why you need 30-round magazines and assault weapons, and you yell a response which is basically ‘I think the Second Amendment says I can have them,’ you have not answered the question about why you need them.’

Clever thing that O’Donnell has done here — redefine the term “heckling” to apply narrowly to what happened in that hearing room. In doing so, he bypasses a more common definition, one that doesn’t help his case quite as much.” The more common definition Wemple provides by Merriam-Webster states, “Heckle: to harass and try to disconcert with questions, challenges, or gibes”

Wemple goes on to point out the audience showed great restraint throughout the majority of the testimony and therefore the disruptive comments were not intended to heckle Mr. Heslin. However, the crowd (two or more in the audience) was disconcerting and challenged Mr Heslin. Let’s also keep in mind comments were not permitted from the peanut gallery. Wemple’s argument that the audience showed great restraint prior to the outburst doesn’t hold a lot of weight given the fact that they were required to and had they not they would have been thrown out .

Whether it was fair to call the inappropriate outbursts heckling or not is really more about a media personalities working to improve their ratings, sell papers, or get clicks on their articles than any real scandal or breach in media ethics. It’s simply a game of semantics played out by media elites in order to create news out of a non-news grammatically technical sidebar. Much to do about nothing.

Victim heckling, the most sickening of all heckling, has been all too common amongst the right-wing. Certainly both the political left and right are guilty of heckling. In fact, some organizations, like the liberal anti-war group Code Pink, make heckling their trademark. It is one thing to heckle a politician or authority figure. However, it is entirely a different thing to heckle a victim. Unfortunately, this type of victim heckling has become all too common a tactic coming from the right-wing.

While many may take issue with whether Mr. Heslin was actually heckled while giving testimony, there is no doubt that many of the family members of those that lost their loved ones at Sandy Hook Elementary have been heckled and harassed by a vicious group of right-wing zealots.

One of the many articles on the conspiracy theories circulated by the right-wing that has resulted with the harassment of the Sandy Hook families can be found in a recent article by Salon. One egregious examples of this harassment would be the attacks on the Parker family. The parents of 6-year-old Emilie Parker, who died of multiple gunshot wounds, have received dozens of threatening phone calls and letters from the Christian right-wing accusing them of faking their own child’s death. Here is how Salon explains the Emily Parker conspiracy attacks:

“The girl in question is Emilie Parker, a 6-year-old who was shot multiple times and killed at Sandy Hook. But for conspiracy theorists, the tears her family shed at her funeral, the moving eulogy from Utah’s governor, and the entire shooting spree are fake. Welcome to the world where Sandy Hook didn’t really happen.

There are dozens of websites, blog posts and YouTube videos extolling the Emilie Parker hoax theory. If you Google her name, the very first result is a post mocking her father for crying at a press conference after the shooting…”

Because victim heckling has become such a common tactic for the right-wing, it should come as no surprise that liberal leaning media elites were quick to use the word heckling in the inappropriate interruption of Mr. Heslin’s testimony.

As I’ve pointed out, this victim heckling is now part of the right-wing’s playbook. Remember when the Affordable Health Care Act was being proposed and Teabaggers verbally attacked the uninsured, terminally ill, and disabled? If you don’t, here is a video that might help jog your memory. All over the country the right-wing heckled victims. It’s becoming a common practice. For more examples of right-wing victim heckling and harassment check out this article I published in back April of 2010.

In response to the criticism, MSNBC has reviewed the use of the word heckle in their programs and determined, “Our team reviewed the unedited clip and determined that it was heckling. The distinction was made because the shouts did not directly address the question being posed and were disruptive.

I agree. But whether my friend and I or for that matter the media wordsmith intelligentsia agree or not on the definition of heckling really means squat. What matters is how we treat one another. Whether we learn to listen and respect opposing opinions or we descend into believing think it is right to attack the victims of ill fortune to promote an agenda remains to be seen. The real story here is not whether MSBNC breached journalistic ethics by choosing to use the word heckle to describe the event. The real dialog that should come out of this story should be if it is ever right to attack the victims of hardship just because you disagree with their perspective or personal ideology.


Originally published at ExpatsPost.com.