Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Blogs Take Lead Role In CBS Memo Furor



Journalism has a new dress code. Pajamas.

The people who write blogs, short for Web logs, don't get much respect from the mainstream media. Jonathan Klein, a former senior executive at "60 Minutes," said on Fox News last week that "Bloggers have no checks and balances. . . . (It's) a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas."

But it took only a day for bloggers to show the emperor has no clothes, exposing CBS for airing a report based on possibly forged documents about President Bush's National Guard service.

Bloggers are hard to define. People's sites cover every subject imaginable; some even post what they ate for breakfast.

But when discussing the blog community, or blogosphere, those are the serious Web political commentators that offer bite-sized analysis of news events and coverage. Many have a clear ideological bent or specific focus, but they provide links to original articles to let readers see for themselves.

Readers offer instant feedback, and other bloggers comment and link to one another's work, thus spreading ideas at a rapid pace.

"When you're able to organize facts and thoughts of people in a hurry, that's providing real value," said Glenn Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor and the man behind InstaPundit, a libertarian-leaning blog and one of the most visited every day. "That's what the Internet is good for."

CBS found out the hard way.

Last Wednesday, CBS anchor Dan Rather on "60 Minutes II" revealed copies of four memos allegedly written in the early 1970s by Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, Bush's commander in the Air Texas National Guard. Rather cited them as proof Bush never met his guard duties.

Even while the CBS report was still on, someone posted on the conservative Web site that the documents were "not in the style that we used when I came into the USAF."

A few hours later, another Free Republic poster, Buckhead, noted "proportionally spaced fonts" that seemed out of place in an early '70s Guard document.

"I am saying these documents are forgeries. . . . This should be pursued aggressively."

It was. Before going into work the next morning, Minneapolis lawyer Scott Johnson, one of three attorneys behind the conservative blog Power Line, posted a reader's e-mail that questioned the documents. By the time he got to work, he had 50 e-mails, one of which cited Buckhead's Free Republic post. Johnson linked to that.

Soon a flood of Power Line readers responded. Those familiar with typewriters said the documents probably couldn't have been created with machines of that era. Veterans said the memos didn't read right.

The links were growing exponentially. It was still Thursday morning.

Charles Johnson of the popular learned of the story via Power Line. Within minutes the L.A.-based conservative blogger, who has a long background in computer typography, retyped one of the memos using MS Word default settings, and posted the "exact match" on his site.

By this time, a few in the mainstream media had caught wind of the story. An ABC reporter called Power Line's Johnson by noon.

In the early afternoon, the Drudge Report began carrying the story, adding millions of readers.

By Thursday night - 24 hours after the CBS report - ABC News broadcast a report casting doubt on the documents, citing family members and typographical experts.

Other broadcasters and newspapers piled on. Many experts said the memos were hoaxes, though some said they might have been technically possible. And the memo itself seemed to contain many factual and stylistic inconsistencies.

Former Guardsmen that "60 Minutes" cited as sources came out saying the documents were likely false.

By Monday, CBS' lead expert, Marcel Matley, told The Washington Post that he examined only one signature, not the actual memos.

"There's no way that I, as a document expert, can authenticate them," he said.

Rather hasn't relented, but a CBS spokeswoman told the Post, "The gist is that it's inconclusive."

Why were bloggers able to recognize what the Tiffany network and its crown jewel, "60 Minutes," completely missed?

A World Of Editors

"Blog detractors like to point out that bloggers don't have editors and, hence, there are no checks on what we post. True enough," wrote Virginia Postrel, former editor of the libertarian Reason magazine, on her blog Monday. She added, "Even a great editorial team has only a few people assigned to any given story, and those few people necessarily have limited knowledge.

"What CBS has learned over the past few days is that its editors aren't good enough. Nowadays when stories go public, they get checked by after-the-fact editors with expertise in every field imaginable, and that checking gets published to the entire world via the blogosphere. Bloggers may not have editors, but they serve as editors themselves."

The Internet makes it easy to cut and paste from other articles and provide links to those stories so readers can make up their own minds.

"The mainstream media seems so lumbering and hobbled by the conventions of 'on the one hand or on the other hand' that they're not providing readers the information they need to come to their own conclusion," said Power Line's Johnson. "They become a filter that obscures rather than illuminates the truth."

Bloggers like Little Green Footballs' Charles Johnson say their readers are invaluable resources.

"We're able to call on the highly specialized expertise of readers across the country on such short notice that we're able to put a magnifying glass on something CBS purported to be working on for years," he said.

Detractors say blogs are unedited and exist in a self-created universe of like-minded bloggers and readers where disagreeable facts and opinions don't enter. Rumors can spread and gain credibility with each link.

That can happen. But immediate critiques by readers and other blogs - and critiques of those critiques - serve as sort of a peer review.

"If I post something that's incorrect, I don't have one editor, I have thousands," said LGF's Johnson.

Blogs that break news, offer the best links and provide keen analysis win more readers and higher status.

In the same way the market sifts and analyzes information stocks far better than any individual investor or institution ever could, the blogosphere weeds out the chaff and develops and hones analysis and facts at, well, Internet speed.

"It's sort of an open-source intelligence gathering network that draws on the expertise from around the world," said LGF's Johnson.

And blogs have far more influence than most alternative media because they reach mainstream journalists so fast. Most reporters and editors don't spend all day listening to talk radio, but many do heavily surf the Web. Some have their own blogs.

Once a journalist spots an intriguing blog post, she can send it to colleagues across the room or around the world with a couple of clicks. So postings can rapidly spread throughout the mass media and influence or even direct their coverage.

"The blogosphere is agile, quick, and zooms the news cycle along quite quickly," said Marc Ambinder of ABC News' The Note, in response to comments by Mickey Kaus, who runs the KausFiles blog for Slate magazine. The Note is a Web-based daily political roundup that shares some blog features.

Still, many in the big media see blogs more as parasites than partners.

"I don't see any reason to carry on a conversation with the professional rumor mill," Rather said last week in defending the Killian memos.

That lack of respect may actually make blogs more accurate. They try harder because they have to.

"Bloggers operate in a low-trust environment," said Instapundit's Reynolds, the University of Tennessee law professor. "You have to back up everything you say or no one will believe you."

Reynolds added: "Big Media used to operate in a high-trust environment; now it's in a low-trust environment. But as Dan Rather showed in his sputtering defense (of the documents' authenticity) last week, they haven't figured that out yet."

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Edited 9/16/2004
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