The day CBS News got 'blogged' down
by James P. Pinkerton 14 September 2004
Here is commentary on this article from Free Republic
More on the subject... The death cry of snob journalism by Michelle Malkin
Sept. 9, 2004, will be remembered as a paradigm-shifting day in media history. That was the day the "blogosphere" took down CBS News.
The night before, CBS' "60 Minutes" aired a segment alleging that Friends in High Places had ushered young George W. Bush into the Texas Air National Guard in 1968, as his way of evading a possible trip to Vietnam. This charge, of course, has swirled around Bush for decades. But CBS' "scoop" was its disclosure of four memos, purportedly written by Lt. Col. Jerry Killian in 1972-3, in which Killian expressed frustration that then-subordinate Lt. Bush was shirking his Guard obligations. Killian supposedly complained that he was under pressure to "sugarcoat" Bush's record.
That broadcast was Wednesday night. On Thursday morning, many newspapers followed up on the story. The headline in The New York Times highlighted the hot "news," broken by CBS: "Documents Suggest Special Treatment for Bush in Guard." The piece contained not a whiff of concern that the documents might have been faked.
But as the morning papers thought they were done for the day, the "blogosphere" - the motley and unorganized crew of Internet publishers and activists, numbering in the millions - went to work. Bloggers are scattered all across the political spectrum, but those on the right have long believed that CBS, in particular, is "Rather biased."
That same morning, Powerlineblog.com began posting comments noting that the just-released memos were suspiciously well-spaced and well-proportioned, like documents generated by a computer, not pecked out on a typewriter from more than three decades ago. Others defended the documents, and so a furious debate was launched on the World Wide Web, focusing on such arcane typing terms as "justification" and "kerning."
The key point here is that nobody was getting paid. The whole back-and-forth exercise was citizen-activism at its best. But along the way, as the claims and counter-claims were evaluated by a "jury" of millions of webheads, a consensus emerged: The documents were fakes.
By Friday Rather was forced to give some ground: "Today, on the Internet and elsewhere, some people - including many who are partisan political operatives - concentrated not on the key questions the overall story raised but on the documents that were part of the support of the story." In other words, after taking a swing at bloggers, accusing them of being "operatives," as opposed to just activists and fact-checkers, Rather was moving toward concession on the documents. The basic story was accurate, he was saying, although maybe not the memos. In Monday night's broadcast, Rather was still hanging tough but clearly on the defensive.
The basic storyline - that strings were pulled to get Bush into the Guard - is not really in dispute. But news outfits, such as CBS, aren't supposed to get just the overall story right; they are supposed to get the specifics right, too, or else leave them out. Moreover, Newsweek reported that CBS had used the memos to persuade another source, former Speaker of the Texas House Ben Barnes, to go public.
Which is to say, without the documents and the leverage they provided, CBS might not have had a primetime-worthy story at all. But in addition to being too-hungry for a Bush-bashing story and probably reckless - a story that's "too good to check" is not a good story - CBS never saw the blog-lash coming.
But if the bloggers have power, it's because they form a robust intellectual marketplace, in which assertions must prove themselves before a jury of cyber-peers. In the words of James T. Smith, of critical-thinker.blogspot.com, "The blogosphere is the people." To be sure, the marketplace can make mistakes, but on the whole, like democracy itself, the more folks participating, the better the functioning.
But this democratization of the media is bad news - for those who liked it the old way, the top-down way.
James P. Pinkerton's e-mail ad- dress is email@example.com