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Capitol Shooting: Violence provides a reality check during surreal shutdown

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Oct. 3, 2013: Police secure the area around the U.S. Capitol after a shooting in Washington.REUTERS

I rushed to the Capitol after reports of a shooting yesterday afternoon and found a California congressman who had just had an unnerving encounter with the police.

Juan Vargas told a knot of reporters that he heard two pops, that a policeman running like a “maniac” had told him that two Capitol officers had been shot, and that he should take off his congressional pin because “you could be a target.”

Then the Democratic lawmaker said something quite telling. In light of the budget impasse, Vargas said, “the rhetoric is unfortunate, it’s so high. It does bring out the crazies.”

Now this was sheer speculation on his part. But it did make me reflect on the contrast between the manufactured crisis that forced the government shutdown and the real-life attack on government employees, to which the public workers known as police officers and Secret Service agents quickly responded.

In fact, the Boston Globe reported, “U.S. Capitol Police on the plaza around the Capitol said they were working without pay as the result of the shutdown.” (I know they will most likely get back pay, but still, that shows a level of dedication.)

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer made the linkage in an interview with Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold, saying: “Something like this, which clearly scares everyone up on Capitol Hill. Do you think it’s going to propel you guys up there — Democrats and Republicans — to say, ‘You know what? Enough is enough. Let’s get back to work and end this shutdown’?” The Texas lawmaker said he was trying to end the shutdown anyway.

And some couldn’t resist taking political shots. Brad Woodhouse, former top spokesman for the DNC, tweeted: “Will John Boehner visit the UNPAID Capitol Police Officer who got injured protecting him today?”

As someone who works in the neighborhood, on the heels of the Navy Yard massacre not far away, I have to say: Here we go again. This is Washington’s new normal.

The initial media reports said the alleged shooter was a woman and that police had taken her into custody. Then ABC, followed by NBC, said the woman was dead. Fox News said more than an hour later that it had confirmed the suspect had been killed during the pursuit, which turned out to be true.

By last night, the Washington Post was reporting: “Law enforcement officials said the car was registered to Miriam Carey, 34, of Stamford, Ct. The officials said they believe Carey was driving the car.”

NBC went a step further: “The suspect — a dental hygienist with a history of mental issues, according to sources — had a 1-year-old child with her who was not hurt, police said.”

It is a stretch, obviously, to tie the actions of one woman who tried to ram the White House security gate to the political climate that has produced a shutdown now in its fourth day. But it is at the very least a reminder that not all government employees are faceless bureaucrats of dubious merit.

Earlier in the day, President Obama was revved up in Rockville, Md., ticking off all the benefits that would flow from reopening the government.

“The SBA gives $1 billion a month to small businesses… Right now those can’t be processed because there’s no one there to process them… Little kids who deserve a Head Start have been sent home from the safe places where they go every day… The longer this goes on the worse it will be, and it makes no sense.”

The Weekly Standard, picking up a conservative theme, tried to downplay what’s been closed down:  

“We're led to believe it's a bare bones operation (Michelle Obama won't be tweeting, the National Park Service website is down, etc.). But in reality it appears the number of folks working is higher than half the federal employees. Or, in raw numbers, about 1,350,000 ‘essential’ federal government employees are still working. And that does not include the 589,000 postal employees, who are working, too.

“That's 63 percent of the federal work force.

“Here's how one gets to those numbers. According to the federal government's Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 2,150,000 non-postal federal employees. (Postal workers make up about 589,000, bringing that totaly to 2,739,000 federal workers.) Multiple press reports list the number of furloughed federal employees at 800,000.”

Fair enough. It’s a partial shutdown. But if all government employees had been furloughed—even just the air-traffic controllers—the White House and Congress would have ended the shutdown within hours.

The shutdown, of course, has been totally eclipsed by the latest Washington shooting. By late afternoon, the media were still lacking crucial details: Who was the woman? What was her grievance? Why did she refuse to stop after ramming a police car, even when surrounded by officers with guns drawn? Was she crazy? 

Once again, the media are covering an outbreak of violence in fits and starts, with piecemeal reports and conflicting information. Once again, a sudden tragedy overtakes every other story—whether the government is open for business or not.

Boehner’s Reassuring Message

How does a House speaker let it be known that he doesn’t plan to plunge the country into default, at a time when the president is hammering him over the budget shutdown and debt ceiling?

Easy—he has it leaked.

Here’s how the orchestrated effort went.

New York Times: “Speaker John A. Boehner has told colleagues that he is determined to prevent a federal default and is willing to pass a measure through a combination of Republican and Democratic votes, according to multiple House Republicans.”

Washington Post: “House Speaker John A. Boehner, apparently sharing Obama administration alarm about a possible debt default, has told colleagues he will act to raise the federal debt limit even if he has to rely on the votes of House Democrats, GOP aides said Thursday.

“It was not immediately clear, however, whether Boehner (R-Ohio) would stand by such a position publicly or whether it would prove to be a trial balloon allowing him to gauge the reactions of the GOP’s tea party wing.”

Politico: “Speaker John Boehner told a small group of his closest congressional allies Thursday afternoon that he planned to use the upcoming confluence of the debt ceiling and continuing resolution to get a large-scale budget deal.

“He just doesn’t know how he’s going to do it.”

Roger’s Memo

This went out to the staff yesterday from Roger Ailes about the network’s new approach to breaking news:

“As we approach our 17th anniversary at FOX News, we are beginning to dramatically change the way news is presented to the public. This has been a vision of mine for several years. I always felt that the most powerful means of communications (video) was restricted to a tape mark, a teleprompter, a talent reading and a control room. That should not be true today.

“The NEWS DECK STUDIO which I envisioned has been pretty much completed and Monday starting with Shep’s 3pm program, news will be integrated throughout the evening. Shep and I are both excited about this new approach. Control of the program will be split between the studio and an off-camera control room. The producer’s function and director’s function will change somewhat.

“The talent will be more like an NFL quarterback with the ability to call audibles when he sees openings. We will move seamlessly between the teleprompter and storytelling, and the public will have an opportunity to see how the news is being put together and how the programs are built. This will be more organic in terms of the feed sources including video, all digital, and even social media.

“I expect there to be a few mistakes along the way because this is a high wire act without a net going live to the public. Any mistakes, however, will not justify changing the need for a special talent presenting the news and using the most updated technology to inform our public.

“I know everyone has worked hard to get ready for the October 7th launch. I expect the innovations I’ve envisioned to be a cutting edge news presentation and I have confidence in all of you to deliver it. If something goes wrong, don’t be afraid to let the audience in on what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Don’t apologize for trying to speed up how, when, and where people get their news. Do your best. Thank you for everything you’ve done so far.”

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.