One of the ways that the media hypes the significance of events in the news is by declaring them "turning points." It's important to be skeptical of these statements, which frequently don't hold up to scrutiny. Despite the literal meaning of the term, journalistic claims about "turning points" are best understood as metaphors that are used to used to manufacture dramatic narratives.
The headline of Matt Bai's first story in the New York Times after the shootings in Tucson was titled "A Turning Point in the Discourse, but in Which Direction?" In it, Bai used the event to set up a series of false oppositions between possible future outcomes:
The question is whether Saturday’s shooting marks the logical end point of such a moment — or rather the beginning of a terrifying new one...
The more pressing question, though, is where this all ends — whether we will begin to re-evaluate the piercing pitch of our political debate in the wake of Saturday’s shooting, or whether we are hurtling unstoppably into a frightening period more like the late 1960s.
The country labors still to recover from the memories of Dealey Plaza and the Ambassador Hotel, of Memphis and Birmingham and Watts. Tucson will either be the tragedy that brought us back from the brink, or the first in a series of gruesome memories to come.
Just to point out the obvious: If you don't even know which direction the trend is moving yet, it's not clear you're at a turning point. Bai's headline enhances the dramatic contrast between two extreme scenarios -- a rosy world of civility or a doomsday scenario of political violence. In reality, neither is likely to occur.
Within a week, Bai was backtracking -- his Week in Review piece on Sunday can be read as a struggle to reconcile the dramatic "turning point" frame he had created with the more mundane, complicated reality of what we've seen since the Arizona massacre:
If the shooting didn’t feel like the turning point in the civic life of the nation that some of us had imagined it might become, then it may be because such turning points aren’t always immediately evident. Or maybe it’s because the murder suspect appeared to have no obvious ideology, his crime an imperfect parable for the consequences of political rhetoric.
Perhaps, though, we have to consider another explanation — that the speed and fractiousness of our modern society make it all but impossible now for any one moment to transform the national debate...
None of which is to argue that the country and its dialogue can’t be reshaped by events. But it may mean updating our theory of fundamental change to rely more on the power of cumulative, smaller revelations, rather than singular, transformational ones. Perhaps the modern society just changes more grudgingly and more gradually than it did before.
Bai contrasts a series of claims about supposed "turning points" in the past (such as the Army-McCarthy hearings) with the failure of the Oklahoma City bombings and 9/11 attacks to transform American society. He could be right that "modern society just changes more grudgingly and more gradually than it did before." It's far more likely, however, that single events almost never reshape social and political life. The turning points of the past seem more clear in large part because the messiness of those events has faded in our memory and we remember the narratives that have been constructed after the fact. Consider, for instance, the much-hyped moment in which Walter Cronkite condemned the Vietnam war and Lyndon Johnson realized he had lost the country's support -- it turns out to be a myth.
A related narrative speculates about whether President Obama's speech at the Arizona memorial service will have dramatic effects. These accounts typically invoke President Clinton's speech after the Oklahoma City bombing, which Clinton and supporters frequently cite as a turning point that revived his presidency and paved his path to re-election. Here, for instance, is how Clinton and an aide portrayed the events in a postmortem on the 1996 election:
One aide close to Mr. Clinton called the speech given by the President ''perhaps the single most important turning point,'' in restoring the President's voice and sense of purpose. On Air Force One today, returning to Washington from Arkansas, Mr. Clinton, too, called the bombing a turning point but said it was because it changed the public mood. ''The American people sort of began to move back to the vital center after Oklahoma City,'' he said. Recalling the ''bitter, bitter rhetoric'' of the time, he said the bombing ''broke the spell in the country as people began searching for the common ground again.''
In reality, as Mark Blumenthal points out, Oklahoma City wasn't a turning point in any measurable sense. It produced a "small, temporary increase [in Clinton's approval] that faded by summer's end;" "the real engine of his rebound was the ongoing revival of the U.S. economy."
It's possible, of course, that the Tucson shootings or the president's response to it will have some small effect on our nation's politics, but the idea that it will restore civility or decrease polarization is implausible. What's more likely is that the president's speech in Arizona and/or his State of the Union address will be framed as "turning points" if the economy improves and Obama wins re-election in 2012. If the economy continues to perform poorly and he loses, however, some other "turning point" will be selected to "explain" his defeat (the outburst of anger against health care reform in summer 2009, the Republican landslide in the midterm elections, etc.) -- whatever best fits the narrative.
Update 1/18 11:21 AM: Right on cue, Hotline on Call chimes in with the same narrative (via Mark Blumenthal):
If Pres. Obama earns re-election in 2012, expect most pundits to point to his gripping speech in the wake of the tragic Arizona shooting as the turning point in his first term. New polling from the Washington Post and ABC News shows why.
Obama's approval rating has jumped to 54 percent -- his highest in months. Eight in 10 respondents approved of how he responded to the tragedy, including 71 percent of Republicans. Even his approval rating among Republicans jumped from 8 percent to 22 percent.
The reason? Obama has reminded people why they like him -- even if they don't necessarily like his policies. Obama's personal ratings are very high in the poll. Nearly six in 10, for example, say Obama understands the problems of people like them -- his highest rating on that question in more than a year.
Even if this bump holds up in other polls, it will dissipate quickly (just as Clinton's did after Oklahoma City). The turning points that matter will come in the form of economic performance, not dramatic speeches.
Update 1/20 10:13 AM: W. Joseph Campbell, the author of Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism, did some digging into the supposedly transformational exchange between Joseph Welch and Joseph McCarthy that Bai cites in the piece, and finds that it doesn't appear to have been a turning point either:
[Bai] went on to consider a few supposedly “transformational moments” of the past, such as the televised Senate hearing in 1954, when lawyer Joseph N. Welch upbraided Senator Joseph McCarthy, declaring:
“Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
It was a moment, Bai wrote, that “resonated throughout a country that was just then discovering the nascent power of television. Years of ruinous disagreement over the threat of internal Communism seemed to dissipate almost overnight.”
The sweeping claim caught my eye...
As Thomas Doherty pointed out in Cold War, Cool Medium, a fine study of television during the McCarthy period,the hearings “were not a saturation television event in the modern sense. The refusal of NBC and CBS [for commercial reasons] to telecast the hearings blacked out whole regions of the country from live coverage.”
...Welch’s comment certainly attracted attention. But briefly.
...[A] database review of the reporting in the Times and four other leading U.S. newspapers indicates the Welch-McCarthy encounter was at the time essentially a one-day story.
The database search for articles, editorials, transcriptions, and letters to the editor that contained “McCarthy,” “Welch,” and “sense of decency” returned 14 items in the period from June 9, 1954, to June 30, 1955.
Ten of the 14 items were published June 10, 1954, a day after Welch rebuked McCarthy. The remarks were reported that day on the front pages of all five newspapers–the Times, Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post.
But none of the 14 items was published after June 25, 1954. In other words, none of the items was published during the time late in 1954 when the Senate voted to censure (“condemn” was the term) McCarthy’s conduct...
The Welch-McCarthy encounter assumed “turning point” status in the years after 1954. But in the moment, in June 1954, it was recognized as dramatic but not “transformational.”