In a town so tough that most murders get just a few paragraphs in the paper, somebody called The Sun about 8 a.m. yesterday with a tip about a vandalized billboard.
By noon, the story was all over the Internet, Rush Limbaugh was kicking off his national radio show with it, and City Hall was fielding calls from as far away as California. By 5 p.m., the story had become one of the three most popular individual articles in the history of the paper's Web site, with nearly 200,000 page views.There's a reason the story had legs. The paint-splattered billboard featured Limbaugh's mug. And the tipster was a spokesman for a city agency - the one responsible for cleaning up graffiti - who let it be known that he was no "dittohead."
"It looks like they took globs of paint and threw it on his face," Robert Murrow of the Department of Public Works told The Sun. "It looks great. It did my heart good."
But there are legs and then there's rocket fuel. A confluence of new media - including the paper's Web site and bloggers big and small - almost instantly made a municipal worker's gaffe national news.
"Something can go from zero to a million miles an hour in a couple of clicks," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. "That makes us sort of a hair-trigger world."
Murrow, a soft-spoken man who is usually in the limelight only when a water main breaks, called the paper after spotting the defaced Limbaugh sign on the Jones Falls Expressway near the Guilford Avenue exit. He gave the reporter his quip and hung up.
Sometimes public officials have second thoughts after they say something on the record and try to take it back. And sometimes, especially if the officials aren't very high-ranking and the news value isn't that great, reporters will let them off the hook.
At least that's how it worked before newspapers put stories online as soon as they got them.
There's no telling whether Murrow would have had second thoughts after he hung up about 8 a.m. - he did not respond to a message seeking comment - but those thoughts would have had to come quickly. The story was posted at 8:28 a.m.
It wasn't long before the Drudge Report had picked it up, then legions of other bloggers, some of whom posted phone numbers to Public Works and the mayor's office.
"It's certainly emblematic of the new information age in a couple of ways," Rainie said. "The first is, the sort of instantaneous and viral nature of the original dissemination. The general speed and velocity of information generation is one element of this."
Limbaugh began yesterday's nationally syndicated show with the Baltimore billboard flap.
"I think I'm the one that needs Secret Service protection," Limbaugh said. "All this talk about Obama and these presidential candidates. For crying out loud, I'm the one who needs it."
Limbaugh laughed about the whole thing and - even as he made hay - poked fun at the media's overblown ways.
"I'm just waiting for all of the cable news networks," Limbaugh told listeners. "They're probably at this moment sending video crews to Baltimore. And there are going to be roundtable discussions later on. ... `What's happening to the civility of our society?'"
Murrow's bosses were not amused. Kurt L. Kocher, chief spokesman for the city's Department of Public Works and Murrow's supervisor, called the comments "outrageous."
"I am very upset about that comment, and I've let him know I'm very upset about that comment," Kocher said. "It's his personal comment, and it's wrong. It does not belong out there in any kind of official capacity. As far as I'm concerned, he was not speaking for the department.
"I don't care if it's Rush Limbaugh, Michael Moore or Britney Spears. You don't deface anything - period. And you don't endorse defacing anything - period."
Kocher said Murrow had "deeply apologized."
Mayor Sheila Dixon issued a written statement.
"While this employee identified himself as a spokesperson for the Department of Public Works ... his statement does not represent the position of the City Government or my feelings as Mayor," Dixon is quoted saying. "Whether they occur on public or private property, I take all acts of vandalism seriously."
Dixon spokesman Anthony McCarthy declined to say whether Murrow would be disciplined, noting that personnel matters are confidential. He said the mayor's office had received more than 200 calls.
"I just answered a call from some woman in California," McCarthy said. "We're just listening and taking the calls."
WCBM 680 AM, the station that carries Limbaugh's show locally and paid for the billboard, had it taken down yesterday. But Robert L. Pettit, the general manager for the station, was surprisingly upbeat about a day that started with news of a damaged $10,000 outdoor ad.
"It was fun," he said. "I wasn't too excited when I saw [the sign]. But the on-air people thought it was great. It basically says what it's all about. There's a lot of emotion associated with Rush Limbaugh, and people are very passionate about him on both sides of the fence."
Even the vandalized sign might not be a loss.
At Limbaugh's suggestion, Pettit is thinking of putting it up again, with a note added atop the paint splatters: "What the liberal left doesn't want you to hear."
"We're keeping the billboard," he said. "It may reappear."