I was glad to see those greatly exaggerated reports of Joe Paterno’s death. Not because I had any ill will toward Paterno, but because I like seeing this gilded sparrow we call Twitter sometimes crash into a brick wall. And I like the fleeting embarrassment of the Twitterati while the little feathers fall gently to earth.
Paterno, it is now clear, wasn’t dead. Not then, anyway. For a period of about 45 minutes, a lot of people thought he was. The story itself wasn’t all that stunning — the man was 85 and in serious condition — but there’s quite a lot of difference between being ill and being no longer with us. For so many people to report it and repeat it without firsthand knowledge seems kind of … I don’t know, childish. It’s the act of a child to choose the thrill of being nearly first over the risk of being totally wrong.
I won’t bore you with anecdotes of how often those choices used to crop up in the newspaper business. It was a fact of being always on deadline and at the mercy of the presses. But cooler heads usually prevailed. Make a mistake in print, and the print tends to linger. People collect that kind of stuff, gloat over it. Ask Harry Truman.
With Twitter, there isn’t much penalty for error. The only important Tweet is the one on your phone right now. If it’s wrong, so what? It will soon be corrected by the crowd. And there’s always a 50-50 chance it’ll be God’s own truth.
Even a blind squirrel occasionally finds an acorn. Where’s there’s smoke there’s fire. And when you hear a rumor that somebody’s dead, you might as well run with it. Let the adults fret about accuracy.