Years ago, when Howard Kurtz had his show on CNN, I was on to talk about whatever the media story of the moment was. Before we got started though, there was “breaking” or “live footage” of some purse-snatching or robbery caught on a security camera in a parking lot somewhere. The report didn’t take long. But it always struck me as a good example of the distorting power of video. I strain to remember the details of the crime, but I do remember thinking that if there had been no video, the event probably wouldn’t have even made the local paper beyond, perhaps, the police blotter. But dramatic video made it worthy of a national news network. We still see this sort of thing all the time. Highway police chases are still worthy of breaking news alerts on all the cable networks, particularly on slow news days, even if they really aren’t anything more than a minor local news story. Dramatic footage of weather often makes its way on to the national news, solely because the images are cool.
The advent of social media has taken the same logic and bent it to the culture war. The difference of course, is that there is almost no partisan angle to a car chase in Nevada or a flooded store in Ohio or a sinkhole in the middle of a Nebraska highway. The Covington confrontation — both the reality and the competing myths — wasn’t remotely a major national news story. There was no violence. Some kids were (falsely) alleged to have been rude, including some who were wearing MAGA hats. Some cultish fanatics yelled some bad words. An American Indian banged a drum. If you were telling this story as an anecdote, it might — or might not — be interesting but you wouldn’t dream of calling the Washington Post or the New York Times to say “Have I got a story for you!”
But the reaction(s) to this event on social media and the mad rush to turn it into a matter of sweeping national importance transformed the whole spectacle of it into a cultural and media phenomenon.
For a while now, media outlets have responded to “events” on Twitter as if they are profoundly important in their own right. Politician X says something on Twitter and a few dozen — or a few thousand — nasty or silly responses somehow confer “newsworthy” status to what in reality is . . . nothing; St. Elmo’s fire coursing across the virtual sky of the Internet. These stories are the product of a number of mutually complementary biases. Journalists think Twitter is more important than it is, particularly young journalists. Controversy garners clicks and eyeballs. Attracting the wrath of the right enemies attracts donations from the fanbase.
And, most importantly, the reactions reinforce confirmation biases on the Left and the Right, and feed readymade narratives. “See? Conservatives hate dancing!” or “I told you so! Liberals despise Christians.”
Don’t get me wrong some — but not all — of these narratives exist for good reasons. But in a nation of 326 million people, the responses of even a few thousand people (assuming all of them are genuine people) of various motivations and varying levels of sincerity is not proof of much of anything and is only rarely evidence of “news.” We choose to invest grandiose meaning to these events, creating a signal to fight over amidst all the noise that is social media. A fight over Thanksgiving dinner about Trump or the wall or even the transgender aunt who showed up by surprise could easily be turned into a national news event if properly captured by someone’s iPhone.
I don’t have any solution to this mess. But it seems obvious to me the mainstream media (never mind the government) is woefully unprepared to even start thinking about how it could be part of any solution.