The saga of Representative Joe Wilson and "the shout" provides an instructive primer for how social networking and the Internet have utterly transformed not just the coverage of the news, but the very making of it.
I was watching the president's healthcare speech from home and Tweeting casually about it, along with a number of other local Twits, some in journalism, some not.
When Wilson shouted "You lie," several people tweeted, "Did someone just call the president a liar?" Who was it? Everyone wanted to know. Within seconds, we did know. The culprit had been identified on CNN and his identity tweeted to millions. Within minutes, Wilson's Wikipedia entry had been updated to include the shout in his bio. Wilson's Twitter and email addresses were sent out and thousands of people began sending him messages demanding he apologize. Within 15 minutes, the name, address, website, and phone number of Wilson's opponent in the 2010 Congressional election had been spread around the blogosphere. Within 8 hours, more than $400,000 had been pledged to him.
So many website URLs about Wilson's background were sent out via email and Twitter, that within a half hour I'd learned more about an obscure South Carolina congressman's history and record than I know about my own representative's. And this was a man I'd never heard of a half-hour earlier.
Wilson had to change his Twitter account. He quickly apologized, more or less, for his actions. The next day, he appeared on Fox News, where he received sympathy and understanding as only Sean Hannity can deliver it. Rush Limbaugh, predictably, offered his support. On the opposite side of the spectrum, on MSNBC, Keith Olbermann did a typically histrionic "special comment" on Wilson, elevating the man and his moment of stupidity to even higher planes of outrage.
Let's review: Within 24 hours, South Carolina representative Joe Wilson went from an absolute nonentity on the national radar to a household name. His opponent now has twice as much as money to campaign with as Wilson does. A national campaign to unseat him has been put into motion. Millions of people think he's an ungracious ass.
Fifty years ago, Wilson's outburst might have been reported in the morning paper. A few of his colleagues might have insisted he apologize, which would have been duly reported over the next day or so. Most people would never have heard about it or cared, if they had. Now, we're all connected, like bees in a cyber-hive. Consequences come quick and hard. Public — and even private — stupidity is much more difficult to get away with.
That's a good thing, right?