Political Twitter thrives on viral videos. Reporters craft entire narratives around short clips that are funny or controversial. The video’s context or subject matter mean far less than its potential to go viral. And sometimes journalists make that priority a little too obvious.
During Elizabeth Warren’s Friday appearance on “The Breakfast Club,” host Charlamagne Tha God asked Warren if she regretted taking (and publicizing) a DNA test to prove her Native American heritage. Warren reiterated it as a mistake but was clearly flustered by the questioning. Charlamagne said Warren was “like the original Rachel Dolezal,” the white NAACP chapter leader who pretended to be black most of her life.
CNN political reporter Rebecca Buck tweeted the clip shortly after it aired.
Her “oh wow” underscores the moment’s weirdness. A radio host essentially (and somewhat accurately) called a presidential candidate a racial impostor. Campaigns have been derailed by less. But as if to modify her first tweet, Buck added a link to the full interview to the thread more than an hour later. She described Warren’s appearance on the show as “overwhelmingly positive,” but seemed disappointed that “the Native American exchange will be what folks clip and share.”
But Buck was one of the most prominent people who clipped and shared the video in the first place. In two successive tweets, she created a narrative and lamented its existence. Buck could’ve linked to the full interview or mentioned it positively in the first tweet. But she chose to let the clip stand alone, understanding its potential to go viral. There’s a decent chance the clip would’ve gone viral anyway. But there’s an equal chance that a CNN reporter with more than 68,000 followers tweeting it out amplified it tremendously.
Buck’s disingenuous complaint is a problem with political media writ large. Many journalists gripe about the state of political discourse without acknowledging their role in setting it. But media members and organizations decide what news is important and what isn’t. Networks and newspapers are incentivized by clicks and views, and it’s far easier and more profitable to focus on a two-minute clip rather than a full 48-minute interview. But reporters like Buck aren’t paid more if a single tweet goes viral. For them, clips like this are social media currency to trade for retweets and new followers. Warren’s “Breakfast Club” exchange the kind of moment that gets people talking, regardless of whether they think Warren blew it or not. As long as people are clicking and retweeting, greater context or interview quality don’t matter.
Maybe Buck and other media members genuinely believe voters want to see and/or hear about pseudo-controversies. Or maybe they know exactly what helps keep their audiences engaged, just as they know griping about the discourse will make them seem more genuine. Admitting either of those things would be easier and better for everyone. But there’s no chance it’d go viral.