But when I got to work that morning there were thirty-seven emails in my inbox; twenty-two of them were about Joe Wurzelbacher, the misinformed assistant plumber from Ohio who gurgled up into the American news cycle and became the star of the third presidential debates. I decided to follow “Joe the Plumber” for a day.
The first thing I read, which I got from a link in the first e-mail I checked, was MSNBC’s “Palin’s shout-out to Joe (and Jane) the plumber.” The governor of Alaska apparently made some reference to “Jane the Plumber,” attempting either to discuss the glass ceiling (women can be plumbers and, um, vice presidents) or pick up some of the female plumber vote.
The only links in that article returned to the original MSNBC Joe the Plumber article, so I went to the tabs on the side, including one to Daily Kos called “Is ‘Joe the plumber’ related to Charles Keating?” I investigated that question for awhile, but it was sort of distracting and I ended up reading about Olympic swimmer Gary Hall Jr. (who actually is Charles Keating’s grandson). There wasn’t much to be learned here about Joe the Plumber.
About an hour in, I realized that all of these links make it sort of hard to actually finish an article. By noon, after following innumerable links to analyses and subsidiary points, I had still not completed a single “Joe the Plumber” article. I was on top of every new development, but whether or not I understood what was going on was harder to answer. I didn’t feel any smarter. I just felt sort of… tired. It was stressful following everything in an article, in part because I couldn’t devote much time to reading anything. This was the journalistic equivalent of running the 200-meter race, all day long. This was maddening.
Something odd about the Wurzelbacher story was that the hyperlinks didn’t go in new directions. No one linked to articles about the way the plumbing profession works, or the struggles small businessmen face. Indeed, with surprising regularity, the hyperlinks were circuitous, returning again to the big articles in the Washington Post, CNN, etc.
That’s just because these articles were the most easily accessible. Everyone knows how to navigate the New York Times Web site; why mess around trying to find out what the Cincinnati Enquirer has to say? The problem was that the articles by major news sources still weren’t that great. Joe the Plumber and the corporate media hyperlink strategy demonstrated that if journalists don’t really know anything, they can’t link their way around the problem. If a writer doesn’t understand an issue he’s writing about, linking to other articles about that issue won’t fix the article.
After lunch, I visited The New York Times, where the headline in the middle of that day (at the same time that oil had fallen below seventy dollars a barrel for the first time in sixteen months) was “Joe the plumber is under scrutiny.” (The news priority here was kind of embarrassing. But whatever, when in Rome.) I decided to follow every link in the article.
The article linked to another Times piece about the specific exchange between Wurzelbacher and Obama (basically the transcript of the YouTube video). Another link sent me to the Toledo Blade and the original story of Joe the Plumber, called “Obama supports U.S. aid for banks; he says relief plan needs regulations.” Another hyperlink led to a story from October 12 about Obama’s Ohio campaign; another led to a Fox News article, which wondered if “maybe the plumbers union will reconsider their [sic] endorsement of Obama.” This article linked to the Web site of United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada, one of the few sites I saw that day with no reference to Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher of Holland, Ohio.