Hillary Clinton was diagnosed with pneumonia this past Friday. Despite that, she attended a 9/11 memorial on Sunday. Upon leaving the event, Clinton was caught on video stumbling as she got into her car. Since then, much of the mainstream media discussion has focused on her health - CNN's Wolf Blitzer, for example, ran the video clip of Clinton stumbling 40 times in 10 minutes.
And while the health of our Presidential candidates is naturally a significant concern, this level of repetitive coverage - often with no additional detail - raises questions about the modern news cycle and how such incidents are represented.
Questioning Clinton's health, of course, has been a point of focus since she suffered a concussion while serving as Secretary of State, but theories about her alleged health issues have been thoroughly debunked. But while the evidence of her good health (aside from the current bout with pneumonia) abounds, the push by certain outlets and commentators has continued to fuel the theory that Clinton is suffering more significant medical issues, a theory which is further fuelled by subsequent discussion on social media. And that cycle is both common and a concern when considering how the modern news landscape works.
Normally, when we think about the phrase "wag the dog," we think about the media driving the government to take action it would not otherwise take (as exemplified in the movie of the same name). In the real world, we saw this back at the start of the Spanish-American War, when William Randolph Heart used his newspaper to help drive the US into that war based on an unfounded blaming of the Spanish for sinking the USS Maine. More recently, Judith Miller's New York Times article about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq helped to drive us into that war (although some argue she was duped by her source as much as we all were).
But with the rise of social media, and the corresponding gutting of mainstream media's profitability, not only are the bigger outlets less able to field the depth of investigative journalism as they have been previously, but what trends on social media increasingly drives what the they report, as that's where the the public attention lies. Granted, some of what makes the news from social media is good stuff - we get eyewitness accounts of terrorist attacks, videos of police shooting unarmed black men, etc. But it also generates incomplete and sometimes misleading stories which gain traction via shares and comments.
Social media is a valuable source for identifying potentially breaking news, no doubt, but it remains the job of the press to verify the information they get from social media, not to simply regurgitate it over and over like a cow chewing its cud. But this is not the news we typically get these days from some outlets, at least not often enough. Instead we get unverified speculation about what's happening in the world driven by the desire to get it first, as opposed to getting it right. Thus, it is often the media that's getting wagged by the long-tail of social media hype over unsubstantiated and often false information.
Prioritizing getting a story first, instead of getting it right has led to some pretty egregious reporting by major outlets. For example, when the Supreme Court ruled on the Affordable Care Act, CNN and Fox incorrectly reported that the court overruled the law because it rushed to get the story out before Chief Justice Roberts finished reading the decision. That decision read that the ACA was not under the commerce clause, but it was Constitutional under another provision of the Constitution. David Shuster correctly reported for Take Action News that the court upheld the ACA because he waited for the expert and reliable SCOTUSblog to give him his cue, instead of relying on interns texting the results from inside the courtroom.
As is clear from this column over the past three and a half years, I'm a huge proponent of social media, but I'm also a huge proponent of quality journalism. Social media cannot truly replace journalism, despite what many people may think, because we will always need journalists to dig deep into stories to separate fact from fiction. Unfortunately, we're very deep into a new era where too many journalists - either because they are driven to it by their publishers or because they just don't do the work - drop the ball and misreport stories.
The press is a precious thing. That's why it is protected in the First Amendment, and there are still many excellent journalists out there pounding the pavement with "ink-stained fingers." But the business of reporting, particularly on politics, has been tainted by the breakdown of the business model that supports quality investigative journalism. As a result, as Paul Singer of USA Today predicted at the end of the latest episode of The Dr. DigiPol Show, many political journalists may just up and quit after the 2016 elections are over.
After a long, spotted history of the press wagging the dog, it seems that getting wagged by the long-tail of social media may take its toll on our precious Fourth Estate.