'Before facts known'
June 12, 2012By Dick Polman
This is a cautionary tale about the dark side of social media. This is a classic case of what can happen when the jackals on Twitter pounce too quickly.
In the wee hours of yesterday morning, The Los Angeles Times reported that the heretofore obscure John Bryson, the U. S. Secretary of Commerce, had been involved in two traffic mishaps on Saturday. According to the cops, he rear-ended a car in San Gabriel, paused long enough to speak with the men in the rear-ended car, then drove off - after hitting the car again. Within minutes, Bryson allegedly collided with another car. Soon thereafter, he was found unconscious behind the wheel of his own car. He was then transported to a local hospital.
That's the sum total of what was known when the sun rose in the east yesterday. Yet within minutes, the Twitter sewage began to flow. Twitching fingers cannot remain idle, lest someone else be first with the snark. So a theme quickly developed: Bryson's driving was a stain on President Obama (of course!).
Here's a small sampling. Jim Gerharty of the conservative National Review gleefully tweeted: "The U. S. Department of Commerce is FAST AND FURIOUS." Some guy in Philadelphia tweeted: "Every second Commerce Secy John Brysonn remains employed, I'll think less of Prez Obama." One of Karl Rove's Republican groups, American Crossroads, tweeted: "John Bryson cited for reckless endangerment of the economy & failure to yield to common sense, but he's #DoingFine."
How predictable that Karl Rove's shop would be banging the keyboard over this incident. Another tweet, supposedly channeling the voice of Obama: "Wait, John Bryson is my Commerce Secy? Who knew, sure he's #DoingFine." And then, just in case those tweets didn't sufficiently titillate, the Rove team doubled-down: "How does CommerceSec have 3 car crashes in 5 minutes and alcohol NOT be involved??"
Did Rove's outfit have any evidence that Bryson had been drunk? Of course not. But the beauty of social media is that no evidence is necessary. There's no need to know anything. Typing trumps thinking. The urge to spew is stronger than the weighing of facts.
We all know that the concept of gatekeepers is so last century. But the gatekeepers - known as editors - performed a valuable role back when newspapers were strong. At their best, they ensured that stories didn't surface publicly until the reporting was complete. There's a great scene in the movie All The President's Men, when Woodward and Bernstein show one of their early Watergate stories to editor Ben Bradlee - and Bradlee shoots them down. "You haven't got it," growls the editor, as he kills the story. "Get some harder information next time." I hoot whenever I watch that. Today, the partial info would be sliced and diced within minutes on the phone in your pocket.
It's great that social media gives everyone the chance to weigh in on politics; at its best, it's a democratizing tool. But at its worst, and all too frequently, it aids and abets the headlong rush to judgment. The Bryson case is exhibit A - because, by mid-morning in the east, some fresh reporting surfaced in the mainstream media. It turned out that Bryson had apparently crashed those cars because he had suffered a seizure. (He's now on medical leave.)
Oops! The Rove shop, in particular, had rushed to judgment so egregiously that, after hearing the news about the seizure, it felt compelled to issue an apology, of sorts. First, it expunged the aforementioned tweets. Then it tweeted anew: "Earlier Bryson tweet...attempted levity (before facts known) and failed miserably. We took it down and regret the tweet."
"Before facts known." That says it all. That's the dark side of social media.
Granted, it's amazing, and thus somewhat heartening, that any group affiliated with Karl Rove would issue an apology - but still, I have to ask: Even if Bryson had been drunk, where is the "levity" in that?
Anyway. After the tweeters blessedly fell silent on Bryson, after all the smoke had cleared, the veteran commentator Jeff Greenfield posted this remark at 12:30 p.m.: "Most underused line in Twitter-era Journalism: 'We really don't know what happened yet.'"
That was the smartest tweet of all.
Today's post was featured this afternoon on Fishbowl LA. Thanks, gang.
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1