I feel bad for our presidential candidates. It’s not easy to stump for office in an era when any word or gesture can wind up going viral.
I realize, of course, that candidates need to be held accountable for their public behavior, but there’s something weirdly Orwellian about the ubiquitous surveillance that’s now standard practice in our smartphone culture. Anyone can video anything and rip it completely out of context. All too often, the rush to post outpaces the need to think. And all too often, partisans will take full advantage, without first pausing to ferret out the facts.
We’ve just witnessed a classic case. It culminated yesterday when Ted Cruz fired his chief spokesman.
It all started on Saturday when Marco Rubio walked into a hotel lobby in South Carolina. He saw a guy sitting there with a book. Without breaking stride, he tossed off a casual comment about the book. The comment was captured on video by a student journalist from the University of Pennsylvania. The Daily Pennsylvanian had sent students to cover the South Carolina primary; this particular student happened to be in the lobby. The raw video was quickly posted to Facebook and Twitter. (There was no context or news value, but in our era, you don’t pause. You just post.)
After posting, the DP staffers learned, via readers on Twitter, that one of the people in the video was Ted Cruz’s father; they went back to the lobby, and quickly learned that the guy with the book was a Cruz staffer. But they didn’t ask about the book.
A few hours later, the DP staffers listened closely to the fuzzy audio on the video, and thought they heard Rubio saying “Good book you got there. Not many answers in it. Especially in that one.” This time they posted the video with subtitles, even though — as they now acknowledge — “we still did not know what book the [Cruz] staffer in the video is reading.”
More than 12 hours after the subtitled post went up, they learned that the book was the Bible. Which changed everything, because now it appeared that Rubio, a top Republican contender, had dissed the Bible — an insane act during GOP primary season.
Early Sunday morning, the DP staffers ran into the Cruz guy who had toted the Bible. They showed him the subtitled video. He said nothing about the subtitles. (At that point, why would he? The subtitles made Cruz’s rival look bad.) The Cruz guy asked the DP staffers to send him a link to the video. They did.
A couple hours later, Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler put the link on Twitter and Facebook, and wrote: “Watch Marco Rubio’s awkward remark …” It was a splendid opportunity for Team Cruz to gain support from Christian conservatives at Rubio’s expense, by spreading the (apparent) word that Rubio had dissed the holiest book of all.
On Sunday afternoon, the subtitled video was called into question. On social media and on the DP website, a lot of people insisted that the subtitles were wrong, that in truth Rubio had said that the Bible had “all the answers.” Or “got all the answers.” Or something like that.
That was enough for Tyler, the Cruz flak. Early yesterday morning, he apologized on Facebook for sharing the DP post; he basically said that he had been duped (“I would not knowingly post a false story”). And yesterday afternoon, the DP removed the subtitled video and wrote: “Though our original transcription reflects what we originally heard, after reviewing the audio, we feel it is too unclear to say for sure.” And shortly thereafter, Cruz announced that Tyler was out of a job.
OK. Let’s unpack this episode.
This flap became a big deal mainly because Tyler’s use of the video fed the perception of Cruz as a dirty fighter. Cruz aides had spread lies in Iowa that Ben Carson was dropping out, they had doctored a photo to make it appear that rival Rubio was shaking hands with (gasp) President Obama … and now here was Tyler, trying to claim that Rubio had dissed the Bible. Cruz had to fire Tyler in order to stop the bleeding — even as Team Rubio twisted the knife: “There is a culture in the Cruz campaign, from top to bottom, that no lie is too big and no trick too dirty.”
And what about the DP, the college paper that put the trick in play? In fairness, the impulse to post first and report later is endemic these days, even among professionals. And the partisan impulse to exploit viral falsehoods is just as endemic. But still.
Shouldn’t the DP staffers have tried to find out, right away in the lobby, what book Rubio was remarking about? If they had realized early on that it was a Bible, before posting subtitles, they could’ve asked themselves the key question, the kind of question that skeptical journalists in that situation would hopefully ask:
Would Marco Rubio, a devout Christian competing for conservative voters, really make a drive-by remark that dissed the Bible?
And if the DP staffers had known right away — prior to posting anything — that the book was the Bible, they could’ve asked the Cruz people what they thought Rubio had said. Reporting 101: Gather your facts up front. Strike when the iron is hot.
As Stephen Fried — a journalist and author, who, like me, is a DP friend — wrote this morning on Facebook: “What this sounds like is an honest mistake for the ‘post first ask questions later’ era, but also seems like a lot of these details were gettable before posting anything.”
One can argue that this episode is a teachable moment for journalists in training. But let’s not single out young people. The frontrunning Republican vulgarian routinely retweets lies and rumors to his credulous multitudes. A few years ago, Karl Rove’s people repeatedly tweeted rumors that an Obama official was drunk when he crashed several cars; after it turned out that the guy had suffered a seizure at the wheel, the Rovians tweeted that they had “attempted levity before facts known.”
Before facts known .. .Our rush-to-judgment culture needs a slew of teachable moments.
Speaking of before facts known:
Five emailers have urged me to correct a classic case of ignorance on yesterday’s common board. Apparently, some troll insisted – twice – that only 12,000 people voted in Saturday’s Nevada Democratic caucuses.
There’s no point in trying to police trolls – that’s like writing speeding tickets at the Indy 500 – but since these readers asked me, I’ll make an exception this time:
The Democratic vote tally was not 12,000. It was 84,000.
In Nevada, there were 12,359 county delegates. This was widely reported. Yet somehow, the troll thought that was the number of voters. He or she posted anyway, before facts known.