By Tim Hayes

These guys really ought to know better.  When you reach the pinnacle of American presidential politics, you think you’d realize that nothing – NOTHING – that comes out of your mouth is secret or sacred.

Mitt Romney discovered this the hard way a few days ago when a video of him referencing the “47 percent” of Americans who pay no federal income tax was released.  Four years ago, a tape of Barack Obama referencing rural Americans “bitterly clinging to their guns and religion” made similar headlines.

What are the common denominators shared by these two politically embarrassing gaffes?  Neither candidate realized they were being recorded.  And both candidates made their statements while attending “private” events filled with their financial supporters.

Anyone with a smart phone today is a potential journalist.  And you have no idea when a digital recording of you is being made, because of the discreet hand-held technology that has blanketed society.  Watching the news today, we see people who have been waiting in line at Apple stores for four weeks to get the latest version of the iPhone.

Four weeks.  Good grief.

So obviously the technology that transforms a sliver of metal and electronics in your palm into a video camera and immediate global distributor of content is not going away.  The ramifications can be both thrilling and chilling.

Earlier today in my hometown of Pittsburgh, according to news reports, an armed man entered a Downtown office building, rode to the 16th floor, entered a random office, took the manager hostage…and started updating his Facebook page to let the world know what he was up to.  

I guess the old tactics of shutting off power to isolate alleged perpetrators in situations like this aren’t as airtight as they used to be.  With a smart phone, you’re still connected, still posting updates, still getting feedback from other people.  Amazing.  Disturbing.  Sobering.

For someone who attended college and earned a degree in journalism, this reality of anyone being capable of recording and issuing “news” gives me pause.  We’re never going back to the old days of established journalistic channels controlling the flow of information, and that’s all well and good.  But the “wild west” feel of free-flowing data dumping has its drawbacks, and they can be serious.

Some will say that more information, released in ever-widening and ever-speedy waves, gives people more opportunity to gain context regarding major issues.  It respects people enough to let them make up their own mind, after sifting through the available information.  Okay, I can see that point of view.

I would counter that, when everyone has a megaphone, it can make careful thought and analysis more difficult.  There’s not more clarity, necessarily.  It’s just that everyone’s making more noise, shouting louder at and past each other.

There used to be rules.  Objectivity and fairness ruled the news.  You carefully gathered information from both sides of a story and reported down the middle.  There was an honor to the craft of journalism, as practiced by trained professionals.  

But when everybody with a smart phone is a journalist, those rules have changed.  And not always for the better.

Copyright 2012 Tim Hayes Consulting