All it takes is one little twit. Or a tweet, as the case may be -- not that the two are mutually exclusive.
In fact, very likely the person who recently started a rumor about South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was trying to create that idiot's delight -- "buzz" -- for his blog.
The rumor -- that Haley was about to be indicted for tax fraud -- was so delicious that other bloggers, tweeters and even some mainstream media outlets felt compelled to repeat it.
Except that it wasn't true. Not even a little bit. Some twit apparently thought it would be fun to start a rumor and see what happened next. We all know what happens: Indictments spread like wildfire; corrections couldn't roast a marshmallow.
The damage took only a couple of hours. And Haley, a rising star in the Republican Party and a possible vice presidential pick for Mitt Romney, is all too aware of the potential cost to her reputation. She's been through this before. While she was running in the Republican primary for governor, two men stepped forward to claim sexual dalliances with the married mother of two. Obviously, South Carolinians either didn't buy it or didn't care.
Meanwhile, what Haley experienced as a target of the rumor mill should be of more general concern to everyone. The New York Times tracked the path of the Haley/tax rumor to show how quickly it traveled from a small spark in the fevered brain of a political enemy into a bonfire of inanity. It began with a blog item, then was tweeted by The Hill, a Washington political newspaper, and reported in a short article by The Daily Beast.
All of this happened between 12:52 p.m., when the blog post went online, and 1:12 p.m., when a reporter for USA Today actually decided to call Haley's office and find out if the story was true. Give that reporter a raise! But the rumor was retweeted at 1:14 by a Washington Post reporter and later picked up by online outlets Daily Kos and the Daily Caller. By 3:29, the Drudge Report linked to the Daily Caller article featuring the headline: "Report: DOJ may indict SC Gov. Nikki Haley for tax fraud."
The next morning, The State newspaper, South Carolina's largest, had a front-page story. All in a day's whisper.
Haley extinguished this fire by releasing a letter from the Internal Revenue Service stating that there was no investigation. But what if, instead, the rumor were that a candidate was once suspected of child abuse?
We used to recognize rumors for what they are, but in the era of insta-everything, rumors get to enjoy enough time in the sunlight to make an imprint on the community psyche. Most disappointing during this particular cycle was the failure of legitimate news organizations to turn the rumor over and examine its underbelly before repeating it.
What happened to a minimum of two corroborating sources before a story is posted? Even laymen unfamiliar with journalism's standards and procedures learned that rule from "All the President's Men."
That was then. Now editors faced with dwindling subscriptions and advertising must compete with the twits who make it up as they go. But the danger of trying to keep up with twits and tweeters is that eventually you may get good at it -- and no better.
Integrity of information is the one thing newspapers can promise readers that other new media can't deliver with the same consistency.
It isn't only a matter of pride or even of survival of newspapers. Ultimately, it is a matter of helping protect freedoms that will become diminished as a less-informed citizenry surrenders responsibility to titillation -- and slouches inevitably toward idiocracy.