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Gwen’s Take: Beware the clickbait (or why there’s always more to the story)

BY Gwen Ifill  May 2, 2014 at 11:24 AM EST

Washington does not lack for smugness. It takes only one committee vote, or one fancy dinner to send many of us into paroxysms of self-congratulation.

Pass a bill out of committee? Hold a press conference.

Snag a cable TV star as your “date” for the big dinner? Tweet a picture.

But we are not alone in this. A brief survey of the week’s headlines should reassure anyone that overreaching is a common problem.

Headline: Hillary Clinton is leading all other comers by double digits.
Conclusion: Abandon hope all else who enter here. 2016 is a lock.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The air of inevitability surrounding Hillary Clinton is unlike anything we’ve ever seen – since 2008, that is — when she was also considered inevitable. Then a first-term Senator from Illinois came along, and we know how that story ended. It’s true the former Secretary of State’s position may be more solid now than it was six years ago, but it’s also too soon to bet the mortgage on what happens between now and 2016.

Headline: Jeb Bush is less popular than once thought.
Conclusion: Dynasties are dead.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows Bush, the former Florida Governor, with net negatives among the population at large (an 11-point deficit, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 16-point surplus).

He also lags among women, Hispanics and young people.

But can Bush at least win his party’s nomination? Possibly, according to an ABC/Washington Post poll, which shows the race wide open. Once again, too soon to count the chickens.

Headline: Sexual assaults in the military have jumped by 50 percent.
Conclusion: The problem is getting worse.

Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

The Pentagon admits the numbers are up, but says that’s the good news. That’s because more military members are reporting violations; and the Department of Defense is acting on them.

Proponents of tougher response, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, say the numbers only tell so much, because fewer of those reported cases are being prosecuted. Investigations, she argues, should be taken out of the chain of command, replacing military court martial with criminal trials. For the record, the United States Senate disagrees.

Headline: Vladimir Putin’s still got Crimea and Bashar al Assad’s still got Syria.
Conclusion: President Obama has lost to the tyrants.

Photo by Mikhail Metzel/AFP/Getty Images

Photo by Mikhail Metzel/AFP/Getty Images

The Russian president shows no signs of ceding Crimea, and every sign of backing pro-Russian separatists who are behind the continued upheaval in the Eastern regions of Ukraine that border Russia. Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al Assad blithely ignored Western demands that he step down, and has in fact announced he is running for reelection.

President Obama’s critics argue the president should have acted in a more muscular fashion to stop Putin and Assad. But they stop short of saying whether military action in Syria or more rapid and harsher sanctions against Russia would have changed the outcome.

Headline: Donald Sterling is banned for life from the NBA.
Conclusion: A historic blow has been struck against racism.

Screen grab from PBS NewsHour

Screen grab from PBS NewsHour

The sheer outrageousness of the Los Angeles Clippers’ owner’s comments about race and gender made it easy for almost everyone to agree on one thing. It was unacceptable, and he had to go.

But does this mean the discussion should end there? Does racial insult demand action only when it is committed by people so clearly out of the cultural mainstream?

For now, the answer would appear to be yes. TMZ is far more interested in staking out the errant girlfriend than exploring Sterling’s chronicled history of housing discrimination. Sadly, that is largely true for the mainstream media as well.

The headlines add up to a lesson. In politics, foreign policy and domestic drama — there is always more to the story. It always serves everyone well to take a deep breath and keep ourselves from drawing too much meaning from any single headline.

You can tip over when you overreach.