As the news broke that the Washington Post had uncovered credible allegations that Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore had inappropriate and possibly criminal sexual relations with teenagers, the reaction was swift. Immediate calls rang out for Republican politicians and conservative outlets to demand he drop out of the race.
In the ensuing days, most Republicans did withdraw support, though notably not President Trump. Still, for many on the Left, the condemnation did not come quickly or harshly enough.
A few days later it was conservatives’ turn to be outraged by politicians and publications dragging their feet to comprehensively condemn Sen. Al Franken after evidence emerged that he, too, was a sexual predator. Within minutes of the allegations, and before Franken had even reacted to them, conservative calls for him to resign were exploding like popcorn.
In the weeks since these events, kneejerk reactions and outrage at a lack thereof seem to have had little or no effect on what actually happened. Moore is still in the race, albeit with less national GOP support, and Franken is still in the Senate, with a vague ethics committee investigation pending. The political lesson here, and a good one generally in life, is that instant angry reactions to events do little to clarify them or adjust their eventual course.
ABC News’ Michael Flynn Mistake Is a Prime Example
Former Trump advisor Michael Flynn’s recent guilty plea for lying to the FBI offered another object lesson, this time with more concrete and catastrophic consequences. As soon as the news came down, news outlets and social media accounts rushed to figure out what Flynn had offered special counsel Robert Mueller in exchange for this deal. Again, it was mere minutes before hot takes poured through the Internet.
Then, at about 11 a.m., ABC News reported that Flynn would testify that candidate Trump had directed Flynn to communicate with the Russians. Not only did social media and cable news go crazy with initial reactions, the stock market did, too. In the hours after the news broke, stocks plummeted at the prospect of a president in real legal danger.
Then, at 6:30 p.m., hours after the market closed, ABC came out with a correction. In fact it was president-elect, not candidate, Trump who allegedly instructed Flynn to meet Russians. The difference between the two accounts is that the first was a crime and the second was business as usual. This time, not only did the initial reaction turn out to be irrelevant to the development of the story, it had broad negative consequences beyond it.
It’s hardly a new idea that the speed of the 24-hour news cycle has profoundly affected how Americans consume and process news. But increasingly in the last decade, those forms of consumption are leading to a feedback loop, in which the news consumer influences news coverage in real time.
Our Impatience Accelerates Our Mistakes
In the days before social media, you would watch the news on TV, and if a story broke that angered you, you could yell at the TV, but that was all you could immediately do. Now, those screams at the TV, in the form of tweets and posts, are aggregated in real time, and quickly affect the coverage. When a scandal breaks, there is no time to take a calm and collected view of events. SOMETHING HAS TO BE DONE NOW.
The nice part of the old “yelling at the TV” model was that you got the catharsis of screaming, but nobody, except maybe your family, saw you. By the time you got to the water cooler at the office the next day, you had more information and time to develop a well-considered reaction to events. Now, public opinion in the moments after news breaks is changing the very nature of coverage in ways that confirm biases more than they inform.
In The Weekly Standard, Andrew Ferguson makes a compelling case that just this kind of cart leading the horse occurred for a recent New York Times story. The Times had profiled a neo-Nazi in the Midwest and focused on how normal he seemed, aside from his atrocious political beliefs. Outrage ensued, as social media insisted that the Grey Lady was normalizing Nazis. By the end of the day, the Times had apologized for running the story.
The next day, thankfully, the Times’ executive editor, Dean Baquet, rebuked the apology and the outrage, rightfully calling it all ridiculous. But had the damage already been done? Will there now be a chilling effect regarding such pieces, not only at the Times, but across media? It is a very real danger, rooted in the impetuous impatience of news outlets and their audience.
A Certain Kind of News Story that Offers Hope
It may be that technology has cast this insta-take nature of news in digital stone. It may be that the medium will continue to control the message in this dangerous way. But there are signs of hope. The news media has begun to do a better job of waiting for facts and not running wild with speculation for one type of incident.
When acts of terror or mass shootings occur, it is now normal and common for outlets, journalists, and social media accounts to insist that we wait for facts. We have learned the lesson in these cases, that information gleaned in the early hours is often a cacophony of mixed messages that do not tell an accurate story. To use CNN’s favorite analogy, just because something is red and has seeds doesn’t make it an apple.
There is a reason the media has a more clear-eyed and cautious approach to these incidents. They are, at least initially, generally non-partisan events. Yes, in cases of Islamic terror conservatives eventually talk about immigration, and in cases of domestic, non-Islamic shootings progressives eventually jump on gun control. But the killer, the main actor in the story, is rarely associated with either party. Unlike Moore or Franken, the killers are condemned immediately, by all sides, without equivocation. Patience is urged in understanding the full ramifications of the story.
We can learn from the handling of these tragedies, and try to apply the wait and see rule to our own reporting and rhetoric. Human nature will always pull us towards condemning those we oppose and protecting those we respect, but we can be aware of that, and try to work against it.
In the current political moment, such efforts are very important. We all want to be the first, the wittiest, the most cutting. That applies not just to journalists, but everyone on social media. If we ask ourselves the simple question, “How would I react if this story were about someone I support?” we stand a good chance of correcting the kneejerk reactions listed above.
We can still have hot takes and jokes and memes and merriment, but we can slow the roll a bit. Not everything needs to be reacted to in the first 10 minutes. Give it a try; take a breath. We might just get a better national dialogue out of it.