In the 1930s, the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger put forth a thought experiment to illustrate the principle of quantum entanglement, whereby the behavior of separated particles is contingent upon whether one of the particles is being measured or not. He posited a cat trapped inside a box with a vial of radiation, which, if registered by a Geiger counter, would shatter and kill the cat. If the Geiger counter did not detect the radiation, the vile would not break and the cat would remain alive. With the cat hidden in a box, outside observers would not know the status of the cat until they opened the box. But until that moment, Schrödinger’s Cat, as it came to be called, would exist in both states—dead and alive.
Which brings us first to the media’s reporting on former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Various media outlets had reported that Mubarak was in fact as dead as a dodo bird, only to retract the story to say that, no, the sickly octogenarian hadn’t been unplugged, but was actually still plugging along. The fate of this once important and brutal world leader has, for all intents and purposes, become a running joke, and the subject of pools in offices staffed by people with appetites for morbid entertainment.
On the same day the reports of Mubarak’s death were being greatly exaggerated, ABC News broke a story that Mitt Romney’s campaign was not in fact vetting Florida senator Marco Rubio for his possible selection as Romney’s vice presidential running mate, despite widespread reports to the contrary. The story sounded absurd on its face. It would be one thing if Rubio had been vetted and ruled out, but the idea this very viable candidate would not be vetted at all strained credulity. Sure enough, less than 24 hours later Mitt Romney himself told reporters, “Marco Rubio is being thoroughly vetted as part of our process.”
That is a remarkable statement at a time when presidential candidates typically keep all things related to their VP search hidden from public view. The fact that Romney would go out of his way not just to correct the report, but to insist that Rubio is being “seriously vetted” says something about the plausibility of Rubio’s VP candidacy mere hours after it was reported to be as dead as Hosni Mubarak.
What can explain this rampant misreporting on the very straightforward question of whether a person is dead or alive, or whether a person is being vetted for a spot on the national ticket? In this and similar cases the culprit is typically is one of two species of the same genus: either it is the desire of media outlets to be the first or one of the first to report the fate of the cat, so to speak; or, the desire of media outlets not to be one of the last to report it. When information is not readily obtainable, it will occasionally be generated using the most reliable scuttlebutt available, which often has all the credibility of a game of playground telephone. And in this age of Facebook and Twitter, big scoops—both legitimate and bunk—become instantaneously amplified 100-fold thanks to the ubiquity of social media and the inherent rumor-mongering that accompanies it.
Is Schrödinger’s Cat dead or alive? One can only speculate. But it’s not too much to ask that the media responsible for checking and reporting its status actually open the box before declaring him dead, either as a living thing or as a running mate.