The fiasco this week involving Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test says two things about the national press.
First, it reaffirms that a disturbing number of reporters neither read nor understand the scientific studies they cover. But you already knew that.
The second thing that this weeks' whiplash news coverage of the Massachusetts Democrat’s self-own says about the press is that some newsrooms seem more than willing to parrot certain lawmakers’ talking points uncritically — so willing that they will drop all standards of scrutiny in service of aiding said lawmakers. This extreme eagerness to serve is one possible explanation for the absurd, schizophrenic coverage from certain newsrooms this week, many of which suggested at first that the DNA test vindicated Warren, then claimed it was actually a huge mess for the senator.
CNN, for example, ran a headline Monday morning, titled, “Elizabeth Warren releases DNA test with 'strong evidence' of Native American ancestry.”
The Huffington Post published two videos. The first is titled “After Years Of Ridicule From Trump, Warren Proves Native American Ancestry.” The second is titled, “Warren’s Native Ancestry Proof.”
“Elizabeth Warren Fights Trump’s ‘Pocahontas’ Taunt With DNA Test Proving Native American Roots,” reads a Daily Beast headline.
The Intercept published a headline, “Elizabeth Warren Reveals DNA Evidence of Native American Ancestry, Replying to Trump’s Taunts.”
“Elizabeth Warren hits back at Trump, releases DNA test 'strongly' supporting Native American ancestry,” reported Politico.
Even the Washington Examiner published a story titled, “Elizabeth Warren's DNA test shows 'strong evidence' of Native American blood.”
These headlines were published shortly after Warren’s team released the supposedly vindicating DNA report Sunday evening. The senator’s office even released a video made especially for the occasion. Certain newsrooms just couldn’t wait to repeat the report’s supposed findings. Many even used the DNA test as an opportunity to criticize President Trump, who claims the senator tried to benefit undeservedly from claiming minority status when she taught at Harvard Law School.
[More: Associated Press calls Elizabeth Warren's DNA results 'proof' of her heritage]
But had these newsrooms slowed down for just a moment and inspected the DNA test, they would have found it raises more questions than it answers. They would have found the DNA report shows Warren is maybe six or 10 generations removed from having any ties to Native American ancestry, if she has any at all. They would have found that the senator is either 1/64th or 1/1,024th Native American. Who knows? It all depends on whether Warren’s great-great-great-great-grandmother was indeed a Native American, which neither the test nor Warren can say. The newsrooms that heralded the report as “vindication” for Warren would have seen that the study wasn’t based on Native American DNA from within the actual United States, but on Mexican, Peruvian, and Colombian DNA, had they taken all of 10 minutes to read the damn thing. Had they paused to study the report briefly, rather than repeat whatever line was fed to them by political flacks, they could have avoided revealing they didn’t actually read the thing.
After it became clear Warren’s DNA test was anything but vindication for her claiming Cherokee heritage when she taught at both Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, CNN published a headline that reads, “Elizabeth Warren might have actually made things worse with her DNA gambit.”
The Huffington Post also published a report titled, “Senator Elizabeth Warren’s DNA Test Prompts Thorny Questions About How We Define Ethnicity.”
“Elizabeth Warren's DNA Stunt Alienates Native Americans,” says a Daily Beast headline.
The Intercept’s senior politics editor published a story titled, “What Elizabeth Warren Still Doesn’t Get.”
And then there is Politico, which published a report titled, “Warren stumbles with ‘Native American’ rollout.”
The Boston Globe, which had to correct its original report on Warren’s test twice due to the author’s struggle with basic fractions, has the saddest headline tick-tock of all.
The paper first reported, “Warren reveals test confirming ancestry; DNA analysis provides evidence of Native American heritage for senator who has faced Trump's ridicule.” It then followed up with a headline that read, “Elizabeth Warren defends decision to release DNA test.” After that, a headline that said, “Elizabeth Warren is attacked from both left and right on test.” Eventually, the Globe published an op-ed titled simply, “Elizabeth Warren, typical white person.”
Ordinarily, it shouldn’t take newsrooms two or three tries to get to the actual takeaway of a study. But I guess that’s what happens when you’re interested more in supporting a person in power than holding them accountable.