I first realized that our democracy had kicked into another gear last September, when in the middle of President Barack Obama’s speech rallying Congress to pass a health care bill, someone in the U.S. Capitol chamber screamed, “YOU LIE!”
Even Obama looked a bit shaken, as I was, sitting in my living room, one eye on CNN, and the other eye on my Twitter feed.
On Twitter, within seconds, someone had produced a name of the heckler. Just as quickly, someone else listed his office phone number and Web site, which quickly crashed. Minutes later, a link was produced to a site raising money for the alleged heckler’s political opponent. Then came the links to old articles of the alleged heckler dissing the black daughter of Sen. Strom Thurmond. By the end of the night, thousands of dollars were raised in a South Carolina congressional race.
At the end of the speech, a CNN anchor announced she believed they could identify the heckler, but they were double-checking to make sure before airing his name.
Watching it all unfold, I felt both hopelessly uninformed and over-informed at the same time. What if it wasn’t actually Rep. Joe Wilson, but someone else, who made the rude break in decorum? And what if Joe Wilson’s Congressional opponent turned out to be a moron of the Blago ilk? What do any of those people donating money on the Net know about the politics of Aiken County, S.C., anyways?
This is a picture of our democracy at work at Twitter speed. Max Fisher at The Atlantic Wire recently did a great roundup of the recent debate over what is the best medium to convey information; a pair of The New Yorker essays scoffing at Twitter had launched the debate. No, Steve Coll, there is no moral judgment to be made about Twitter’s characteristics. And no, George Packer, I am not “uncritically cheerleading Twitter,” leading to my own destruction as a journalist.
In our clumsy forays into Twitter, many of us are desperately trying to find out: Who are the true gatekeepers of information these days? As a friend observed recently, the debate typically boils down to: Old Guy insisting that journalism has gone to hell versus Young Guy insisting that New Media is going to save us.
I think part of the crisis of confidence in the field of journalism is that neither one gets to decide. Both are just going to have to evolve.
Even more than CNN, The New Yorker is the perfect embodiment of old-school, get-it-right-first journalism. This is a weekly magazine that takes its time. It refuses to be rushed by such ephemera as “breaking news.” It dispatches writers to become immersed in a subject over a period of months, and emerge with 10,000 words that combine to say the absolute last word on that particular subject.
It is a real treat to see The New Yorker go in, especially on black topics; because just the sheer volume of time spent on a subject means you will almost never find a drive-by hack job. The writers and editors make a time investment, and so do readers, one that yields a delightful orgy of context and perspective.
I never have time to read all of the articles, but there is the fantasy, that like the people lounging about in their Cartier ads, I will one day have that luxury. Since college, I faithfully have subscribed for those three or four articles per year that I do read from beginning to end, the ones that take me on journeys to distant lands and ideologies, and make me see old topics in new ways.
Of course, all that blue-chip journalism is underwritten by those Cartier watch ads—and an overeducated audience that has the privilege of knowing what they don’t know. These are the top earners who know that the value of information does not change in any measurable way if they are the first to Tweet about it.
It is the ultimate sign of that privilege that Packer and Coll (usually a new media acolyte) only recently felt compelled to venture into the land of Twitter to see what the unwashed masses have been crowing about. I remember taking a workshop with Coll years ago, when we were both at the Washington Post. He made the observation that we often forget that “journal” is the root word of “journalism.” Twitter is a journal on steroids, each 140-character entry connecting your ideas, reactions and experiences with millions of others on a global timeline.
This is the place where, as the journalist Farai Chideya noted, “random intellectual hookups” are happening every minute. And as the Joe Wilson affair showed, it is also a grand experiment in DIY journalism. You don’t wait for someone else to tell you what context is relevant, how you should vote and what candidates deserve your money and attention. (That’s what Google and wikipedia are for.) It’s where you go ask Haitians directly whether they survived the earthquake, and you can tell @JohnCMayer directly what he can do with his white supremacist penis.
Change happens. All media cycles are accelerated. Twitter could be out of style tomorrow. (Remember Friendster?) A massive company you thought would be around forever might evaporate. (Remember Bear Stearns?) But a social media upstart could be around long enough to make a real change. For good or evil, it is our job as journalists to be there as witnesses.
Natalie Hopkinson is The Root’s media and culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.