On Saturday, Vice President Kamala Harris wished her Twitter followers an enjoyable long weekend. That’s when all hell broke loose.
Within hours, Harris, who had just delivered the commencement address during the U.S. Naval Academy’s graduation ceremony a day earlier and shared a video on Twitter of her conversation with history-making Midshipman 1st Class Sydney Barber, was being accused of disrespecting the military. The mistake: Harris didn’t specifically mention Memorial Day in her “weekend” tweet.
Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Lee Zeldin (R-NY), former Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), and former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley were among the right-wing figures who feigned outrage over the tweet. (Haley would later go on to do the same thing she slammed Harris for.) Naturally, Fox News and others in right-wing media quickly latched onto the story.
This wasn’t the first time right-wing media has tried to turn Memorial Day into a scandal for Democrats, and it likely won’t be the last. A few days ahead of the holiday in 2016, then-President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima, Japan, to discuss peace and nuclear disarmament, sparking outrage on the right about taking part in an “apology tour” and dishonoring Memorial Day. Meanwhile, conservative media didn’t seem particularly upset in 2018 when then-President Donald Trump used his now-suspended Twitter account to praise himself on Memorial Day.
The right has a long history of making bad-faith displays of phony outrage, and that makes what happened next so frustrating: Responding to right-wing anger over Harris’ tweet, mainstream journalists began weighing in on a made-up controversy that wouldn’t have been considered at all out of the ordinary or worthy of comment during the Trump administration.
Politico Managing Editor Blake Hounshell called Harris’ tweet “a stunning social media mishap."
During an on-air segment in which she characterized the right as having gone “crazy” over it, CNN anchor Brianna Keilar nonetheless said it was a “bad tweet because it doesn’t talk about why there is this long weekend. It’s for Memorial Day. It’s for service members who have died.” Her guest, CNN political analyst and New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, called it a “strange tweet.”
Newsweek, Mediaite, Forbes, Business Insider, and a handful of local news outlets published stories amplifying or adding to the ideologically-driven criticism being lobbed at Harris. The right claimed to be upset over her tweet, and mainstream media followed suit -- either out of a sense of genuine agreement with the right-wing criticism or out of fear that ignoring yet another baseless conservative grievance would invite accusations of bias.
For years, mainstream media outlets have taken fake right-wing outrage at face value. The end result is more fake outrage.
During the CNN appearance when she criticized Harris’ tweet as “strange,” Haberman offered a clear observation about why people were so worked up over it:
MAGGIE HABERMAN (NEW YORK TIMES WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT): There’s a big difference between raising people’s eyebrows and treating this as if this is the outrage of the moment. And I think that you have seen Fox News and a number of Republicans chasing, essentially, shiny objects because whatever efforts they're doing to try to get at and lower the poll numbers of the Biden White House have not been working. And so something like this just seems like chum in the water for their audiences.
This only makes the media’s decision to validate the right’s rage that much more bizarre. Yes, Fox News and Republicans are just throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, and yes, the outrage over an innocuous tweet (which obviously wasn’t going to be Harris’ only message about Memorial Day) was just “chum in the water for their audiences.” With that in mind, it’s worth wondering why people in mainstream media feel the need to generate their own criticisms about something that simply isn’t worth criticizing.
Remember the “latte salute?” In 2014, as Obama was disembarking from Marine One, he returned a salute to two Marines while holding a paper coffee cup. The right lost its mind and called it disrespectful, which led mainstream outlets to buy into the phony controversy.
NBC’s Brian Williams called it a “self-inflicted wound.” The Washington Post published an opinion piece from Republican lobbyist Ed Rogers arguing “why the ‘latte salute’ is a big deal” and adding, “Perhaps the president meant it as an insult; perhaps not. But we know the president is vain – after all, he has already written two books about himself –- and he’s also very stage-aware. He knew what he was doing.”
There were other silly Obama-era outrages that garnered mainstream media attention, as well. Remember the time Obama put his feet on the Resolute desk? Or maybe the bizarre reaction to Obama’s decision to wear a tan suit? Or the anger over Obama’s comment that police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “acted stupidly” by arresting Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. for supposedly breaking into his own home? Or how about the time journalists hyperventilated over the Obama administration’s removal of a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office?
Looking back on these faux controversies of the Obama era after four years of Trump coverage, it’s hard to avoid seeing similarities with the current right-wing outrage cycle over Harris’ tweet. When a Democrat is in office, the relative lack of White House scandals seems to make the press desperate for any story it can find. When Republicans hold power, the actual scandals are so numerous that some don’t get covered at all. Presenting this coverage as balance is a dishonest representation of reality. As the political landscape gets increasingly one-sided -- with one party pushing for the end of democracy and permanent minority rule -- it’s more important than ever that journalists be able to separate outrage-worthy scandals from harmless nonsense. If there’s one thing demonstrated by the accommodating response within the press to right-wing rage over a tweet wishing people an enjoyable weekend, it’s that too much of the mainstream media simply isn’t up to the task of defending the truth.