By PETE GOLIS
It was a few minutes before midnight, Texas time, and 183,000 of us were watching the Texas state Senate fall to pieces. Amid the shouting and the gamesmanship, here was compelling theater streaming live to our computer screens, and people all over the country were watching.
This kind of immediacy would have been impossible a few years ago. No one could imagine watching the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors from the comfort of his or her living room, much less the Texas state legislature.
Back then, a late-night story about an anti-abortion bill in a distant state would have been nothing more than a second-day news story about a filibuster. The Texas state Senate could have finished its business without worrying about what Americans might think. Or remember.
Welcome, dear senators, to the digital age — and all the ways that technology is revolutionizing journalism and politics.
As Twitter spread the word of a drama unfolding in Texas on Tuesday evening, the online audience kept growing — 141,000, 153,000, 169,000 … People were watching in real time and simultaneously monitoring a rush of reporting and commentary via Twitter.
And, of course, the politicians engaged in the debate also were monitoring in real time how the nation was reacting. (Tech journals reported that in the moments before midnight, the Texas filibuster was generating almost 6,000 tweets per minute.)
The so-called 24-hour cable news channels were airing re-runs of earlier news shows — thus sparing viewers from the faux drama of so many cable shows.
What viewers saw in Texas were real people, under pressure, scrambling to score a political victory. This debate was authentic — a word not often used to describe cable news.
Credit goes to the Texas Tribune, the online news organization that sponsored the livestream.
In the beginning, viewers came to see a drama out of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” A Democratic senator from Fort Worth named Wendy Davis was determined to remain on her feet and keep talking until the midnight deadline passed and the anti-abortion bill, SB 5, died. The Republican majority was no less determined to use parliamentary objections, real or imagined, to cut off her filibuster.
As the seconds counted down, Senate leaders scrambled to complete the vote in a din of shouting and chanting from the gallery and the nearby rotunda.
Republicans briefly claimed that the vote was completed before midnight. But viewers could see and hear the roll count proceeding past midnight.
Three hours later, GOP leaders emerged from a closed-door meeting to acknowledge the bill didn’t pass after all. Within hours, Republican Gov. Rick Perry announced a new special session, ostensibly to take up the abortion bill again next week.
Republicans will try again, knowing that their world is different now, knowing that people are watching.
New York Times media writer Brian Stelter later tweeted what Evan Smith, editor of the Texas Tribune, told him: “The modern world visited itself upon the Texas legislature in a way that changed everything.”
It was a tumultuous week of political news, featuring moments that confirmed the dominance of new ways of communicating.
At 7 a.m., California time, on Tuesday, 120,000 were online at SCOTUSblog to get the first report of what the U.S. Supreme Court decided about the Voting Rights Act.
Exactly 24 hours later, 330,000 people were there to learn what the court decided about same-sex marriage.
With an assist from SCOTUSblog, these historic decisions quickly generated torrents of online news, analysis and commentary, reports that built upon themselves throughout the day.
In the reactions, there was elation and pride, anger and indignation — something like a national conversation.
It’s safe to say no one was sitting on the couch waiting for the evening news to find out what the court announced that morning.
In hometown politics and government, we see the first signs of the new politics — online news, livestreaming of public meetings, the availability of documents online, politicians and political groups with Facebook pages and websites and email lists, a few Twitter feeds.
But it’s only the beginning. From a park in Istanbul to the city hall in your hometown, how we conduct and report on the public’s business will never be the same again.
This new world will be more chaotic. It will seem as if there is more information than any one person can consume (because there will be more information than one person can consume). And some of that information will be wrong, unfair or otherwise objectionable.
But more people will have greater access to more information without the filters applied by news editors. Or program directors.
Or politicians. Given the choice, you can bet that the Texas state Senate longs for the days when only a handful of people were watching.
Social media also promises the opportunity for people to come together and communicate in ways we haven’t even imagined yet.
We can and will debate which way is better, the old way or the new. It doesn’t matter. Technology has changed everything, and we might as well get used to it.
Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.