There’s no shame and much honor in the job of coming to judgments about news events.
But we don’t have to rush there.
That’s what too many of us pundits did upon first seeing video footage and hearing accounts of the encounter in Washington on Friday between teenagers from a Catholic boys’ high school in Kentucky and a Native American elder and veteran playing a drum. There were glimmers of something cruel and even dangerous happening to him. Glimmers were enough for us.
Now, of course, we’ve seen extra footage, heard additional accounts and moved to a place that should more frequently be our starting point: uncertainty. Tweets have been deleted. Outrage has been put on hold.
It won’t stay there for long. It’s too electric, too profitable, and there will be prompts and genuine cause for it. But will we pause next time to make sure that we understand what we’re reacting to and whom we’re condemning? Even if that means fewer retweets? Will we filter our responses through a mature acknowledgment of what, in real time, we can and cannot take for granted?
Only if we’re honest about what we’ve been doing and why we’ve been doing it.
With everything from Twitter followers to television bookings, we’re rewarded for fierce conviction, for utter certainty, for emphatically taking sides and staying unconditionally faithful to what we’ve pushed for and against in the past. We each have our brand, and the narrower and more unyielding it is, the more currency it has and the more loyal our consumers. Instead of bucking the political tribalism in America, we ride it.
We react to news by trying to fit it into the argument that we routinely make, the grievance that we usually raise, the fury or angst or sorrow that we typically peddle. We have our narrative, and we’re on the lookout for comments and developments that back it up. The response to the initial footage of the teenagers — and, in particular, to the one who wore a red MAGA cap as he stood before and stared at the drumming veteran — adhered to this dynamic.
Was that a smirk on the teenager’s face? A sneer? His expression was just indefinite enough to become a symbol of entitlement for the pundits who favor that locution, of the white patriarchy for another group, of the wages of Trumpism, of the fraudulence of Catholicism.
And while many pundits’ outrage was correctly calibrated to what they assumed was going on, it was built on assumption. It was hasty. A crowd was forming and the clock was ticking and nobody wanted to be late to the inquisition. A “hot take” is prized — hence the well-known phrase for this instant analysis. Nobody talks about a “cold take,” though that’s the temperature of truth.
To glance at Twitter as the video of the Covington teenagers went viral over the weekend was to see each pundit one-upping the disdain of the pundits who vented before him or her. It was also to wonder about the degree of preening and performance involved. They weren’t merely spreading the word of what had supposedly happened in Washington. They were seizing the opportunity for a fresh and full-throated reminder of their own morality and politics. They were burnishing their brands. And that self-interest was — and is — the enemy of caution.
I’m not going to single out any particular pundits and tweets, because there were many and because, under different circumstances, one of those tweets could easily have come from me. As it happens, I missed this pile-on. But I’m sure that if I scrubbed my Twitter history, I’d find that I’ve behaved in the fashion that I’m lamenting here.
My focus on pundits may seem narrow, but we’re stand-ins for a much larger group of Americans, including politicians, many of whom denounced the Covington kids as prematurely and confidently as pundits did. Also, we’re visible, and our trade is influence. We’re sometimes called “thought leaders,” for heaven’s sake. Do we mean to be leading people toward overconfidence in their ingrained perspectives and a disposition to see all of life through one narrow lens? Should we be modeling snap assessments and press-a-button derision? The teenagers have received death threats.
The rest of the media didn’t behave all that differently from how we did, and to some degree probably followed our example. Newspaper and television stories bought into preliminary versions of what happened in Washington, which encouraged readers and viewers to do the same. And we all abetted our detractors’ efforts to delegitimize us. Witness the way President Donald Trump framed the initial condemnations of the Covington kids as “fake news.” We let him keep banging his drum.
Some of the condemners counter that their essential point remains, that entitlement, cruelty and racism persist and even thrive in today’s America. That’s for sure. But when the evidence cited for that turns out to be inconclusive or wrong, their position is weakened. Their goal isn’t served.
Some conservatives are gleeful about how this went down. But isn’t their vengeful joy its own rushed celebration, its own self-serving simplification of a complex sequence of events? We’ve realized the error of the first draft, but we’ll probably never produce a final, indisputable one. I wish more of us had the humility to concede that.