Mr. Wilson Goes to Washington

Dear news networks: ignore Joe Wilson. Please.

The most memorable aspect of President Obama’s health care address to Congress tonight was not its rhetoric, or its resonance, or its re-tabling of the public option, or its tribute to Ted Kennedy’s health care legacy, or its sober statement of the provisions laid out in the current reform bill, or its passive-aggressive slam of Sarah Palin, or its even-more-passive-aggressive slam of the national media, or, via the roving eye of the TV camera, its revelation of the increasingly ridiculous depths of John Boehner’s man-tan. (Seriously, Congressman: go ahead and wear white after Labor Day.)

No: the most memorable moment of the president’s much-anticipated speech came when Joe Wilson, Republican representative of the 2nd District of South Carolina, heckled—heckled—Obama while the president clarified the fact (and, yes, it’s a fact) that, per the current bill, illegal immigrants won’t benefit from proposed insurance coverage. From the floor of the House of the United States Congress, during a live national broadcast, while the president was in the middle of a sentence, Rep. Wilson screamed, “You lie!”

Yes. As ABC’s Rick Klein had it, “I went to a joint session of Congress and a town hall meeting broke out…”

And what happened after that—in the hour or so post-stunt—has been…well, not so much memorable as utterly predictable. The liberal Twitterverse exploded with expressions of umbrage and outrage. @CongJoeWilson’s Twitter following lept by several hundred. His page crashed. Daily Kos began urging readers to donate to the campaign of Wilson’s 2010 Democratic challenger, Rob Miller. ActBlue’s fundraising page quickly updated its Miller blurb to read, simply: “Running against Joe Wilson who yelled at President Obama during the Health Care Reform Speech.” Wilson’s Wikipedia entry was changed to include the line, “He is a douchebag that called the President of the United States a liar on national television and has no respect for the office he holds.” (The page has since been restored, its edit capabilities locked, but with a new section added: “Controversies: September 9, 2009 Presidential Address.”) John McCain joined with Democratic leaders in a strange demonstration of bipartisanship to demand an apology from the Congressman. And then, finally, Wilson did apologize—“let my emotions get the best of me,” “inappropriate and regrettable,” etc.—thus invoking the traditional ceremonial conclusion of the political teapot-tempest. End of story.

Or: we hope it’s the end. Indeed, whether Joe Wilson and tonight’s little stunt fade into the annals of political tastelessness—or whether, instead, they become 2009’s answer to 2008’s regrettable campaign-trail distractions (LipstickOnAPigGate, CleavageGate, TurbanGate, SnubGate, etc., etc.)—is, alas, a matter that is currently in the hands of…the national media.

Which doesn’t bode too well. It’s a tired old truism that journalists love nothing more than a tasty, juicy conflict. And, as such, we can also stipulate that: since calling someone a liar is conflict-y, and since heckling a sitting president is conflict-y, and since doing anything subversive on live national television is conflict-y…then heckling the president on live national TV by calling him a liar seems a scheme so simple, so scintillating, that the political press would have little choice in the matter but to follow its scent. They can’t help it. It’s Pavlovian, at this point.

But, guys: please, please—please—resist your instincts when it comes to Joe Wilson. Pundits, don’t talk about him. Bloggers, don’t blog about him—or, at least, stop blogging about him. Most importantly: cable bookers, don’t book him. Don’t give the guy any more airtime than he’s already gotten. The shenanigans of old “You Lie” Wilson are a bright, shiny thing. And not, you know, in a good way. His antics, for all their indelicacy, may have been entertaining for a moment, sure—a brief respite from the calculated pageantry of presidential politics—but left out for longer than the fifteen minutes they deserve, they begin to fester. Left too long, they become nothing more than a needless distraction from a crucial discussion the nation needs to have with itself—the one most urgently about health care, but rooted more deeply in questions about who we are and where we’re going as a country.

Let’s not forget that, all too recently, the varying inanities of Sarah Palin’s “death panels” threatened to derail the current attempts at health care reform—and that is in large measure the fault of the media. Indeed, tonight’s speech was delivered in the first place largely to undo the damage done by a credulous, covetous press corps.

So, guys, it’s up to you. You can ignore Joe Wilson tomorrow, covering instead the substance of the health care discussion by illuminating and explaining its nuances for your audiences…or you can give the guy more air. But: it will be hot air. Allowing Joe Wilson’s two silly syllables more decibels than they deserve would do more than beg for similar publicity ploys in the future; it would also signal, simply, another failure for journalism. It would prove that the press are unable to learn from their mistakes. And it would suggest the broader anxiety coursing through the coverage of the health care debates—one bigger than death panels, bigger than town hall meetings, and bigger, certainly, than Joe Wilson: the fear that the media—victims so often of their own instincts—can’t, in the end, be saved. Even, and especially, from themselves.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.