We can pretty much guarantee that, as far as the saga of Erica Thomas goes, the coverage has officially ended.
Yesterday, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported that a witness had come forward saying it was Thomas who verbally attacked Eric Sparkes and that she is the one who said “Go back where you came from.” It could very well be that, for lying to the police, Thomas could become the next Jussie Smollett, but it is more likely that this quietly goes away.
Thomas’s story, however, is a story that has become all-too-familiar in the last three years. The media, which has experienced a sudden revival in its urge to question authority and hold it accountable, has lept on every narrative that has proven just how bad Donald Trump is for our country and how toxic his presence has been.
CNN had to retract an entire story filled with made-up accusations about Trump associates. BuzzFeed has not retracted a story saying Michael Cohen told the special counsel Trump ordered him to lie to Congress, but Mueller’s office flat-out denied it and the claim appeared nowhere in Mueller’s report. Those two stories are no longer referred to by anyone, instead having been completely wiped from the memory of most in our media.
As soon as it was revealed that the kids from Covington Catholic did not stop a Native American man and verbally assault him, the story disappeared. People remember the division that came with Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, but few recall the number of frankly laughable accusations made by activists and pushed by attention-seeking media figures like Michael Avenatti. We conveniently that certain outlets reported on intelligence dossiers that were outright salacious tabloid fodder at best.
All of this has been put out since Trump took office, all with the underlying narrative of “Trump Is Toxic, Part One Thousand” and all had one trait in common: They were too good to be true.
It would have been absolutely perfect to the narrative had a bunch of Catholic school white boys wearing MAGA hats berated a person of color. It would have been outstandingly convenient if the pee tape were real. It would have just beautifully fit if Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted a number of women and the accusations came out right as he was up for nomination to the Supreme Court.
Too perfect. Every last story.
Our media operates under the theory of Agenda Setting. In the communications world, the theory is that mass media’s job is to set the agenda, the discussion points for the day, and that the rest of the media world would follow, trickling down until it was in the homes of every American who consumed the news. This theory, as it is practiced, assumes that CNN and the Washington Post and New York Times will start the day with what they feel is the most important topic of the day and everyone would follow.
To an extent, this theory does hold true. People on the left see the headlines and, usually, nod in agreement that this is truly the important thing to focus on. What they are really agreeing on is the angle with which the story is written – most aggressive is the angle that every story somehow, some way ties to Trump – and they will share the links approvingly.
People on the right, then, see the angle and they say “Why are you looking at it like this?” and they point out the obvious bias inherent in these angles (maybe, just maybe, Trump really has nothing to do with some of these issues, and maybe there isn’t always tumult in the White House whenever someone leaks something). So, writers and journalists on the right will then shift the focus of their audience to what they feel the priorities should be.
As you can guess, the result is the natural polarization of what the top stories should be and how they should be covered.
Erica Thomas’s story should not go away. It should be followed through until the end. She is a Democratic politician, a person in power, making her (theoretically) a person journalists should cover with scrutiny. That scrutiny, however, is far more likely to be saved for a time when a Republican does something similarly stupid. Thomas should be out of a legislative job, and she should be encouraged by her party to just go ahead and sit it out for a long, long time. She won’t be, much like Virginia Governor Ralph Northam won’t be held accountable for wearing blackface and Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax won’t be for sexual assault allegations (those are two more stories that got nowhere near the coverage a Republican in similar situations would have gotten).
But, by all means, let us continue to run with stories that fit ever so neatly into preconceived notions, almost all of which have been debunked by this point because the reporting was sloppy. Journalists went into a story knowing how they wanted it to go and ignored key facts along the way that didn’t fit their ideas. It is journalistic malpractice, but it will keep happening with no real repercussions against anyone who commits these sins again (and again and again).
So, when you see journalists online getting mad over the term “fake news” being thrown around in a joking manner, remember that they themselves coined the term and then proceeded to literally write and promote stories that were actually fake news ever since. Until they learn their lessons from these stories, they will continue to earn the moniker for the remainder of Trump’s two terms.