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Bloggers' 'Moment' Doesn't Make for a Revolution

It's an Internet win, but far from traditional journalism's death knell.

September 19, 2004|Ben Wasserstein | Ben Wasserstein is a writer in New York.

NEW YORK — Early morning Sept. 11, a poster on the conservative Free Republic website exulted, "[A]ll of us can say we were there when a few people from Free Republic kicked CBS and Kerry ass."

The John Kerry part may or may not come to pass, but there is little doubt that a few people using their computers certainly gave CBS News and anchor Dan Rather a beating. Right-wing blogs -- "blog" is short for web log -- and forums such as Power Line, Little Green Footballs and Free Republic were the first to question the authenticity of four memos released by CBS News, purportedly written by Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, who supervised George W. Bush's Texas Air National Guard unit in the early 1970s. The memos were part of a "60 Minutes" story reported by Rather, questioning President Bush's fulfillment of his Guard service. The buzz created by the blogs became deafening and the story moved like lightning onto the Drudge Report, and from there to talk radio, cable news and newspapers' front pages -- and it's not over yet.

Bloggers cheered that the new-media David had slain the old-media Goliath.

Michelle Malkin wrote a column, titled "The Death Cry of Snob Journalism," that she described (on her own blog, natch) as an "Old Media eulogy." Rather may become the second kill for bloggers; two years ago, bloggers' steadfast attention on Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's comments expressing nostalgia for segregation led to old-media coverage and, ultimately, Lott's resignation from his leadership post.

Now right-wing bloggers have tasted blood -- and they like it. Best of all, it was CBS News, Rather and "60 Minutes," three bastions of establishment journalism, reaping the whirlwind.

But Malkin and other bloggers are getting ahead of themselves by asserting that the CBS disputed memos represent the death knell for traditional journalism.

First, it's worth remembering how many other news stories -- basically, er, all of them -- have not been broken by the blogosphere. The obvious analogue to the suspicious memos about Bush's National Guard service was last month's spurious attacks on Kerry's military service in Vietnam. Though decried by leftie bloggers, the charges were not adequately debunked until newspapers like the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune reaped the reward from Freedom of Information Act searches of decades-old military records and published eyewitness testimonials. Old-fashioned reporting won that round.

For journalists, blogs have been most valuable as instant and frequently excellent sources of commentary and as repositories of fresh perspectives, such as that of celebrated Baghdad-based Iraq war blogger "Salam Pax," who has gone on to write a column for England's Guardian newspaper. Blogs have not been a place to go for original reporting or breaking news. And "Rathergate," as some have taken to calling this contretemps, does not change that.

For a number of reasons, the CBS memos were the blogosphere's perfect target: If any news story was going to be broken by bloggers, it was this. As with the Lott affair, "breaking" this story meant pointing attention to something that aired on television. (Lott's comments were broadcast on C-SPAN.) It was commentary on a news story, not a news story of its own. Leaving the house or making phone calls was not part of getting the scoop.

Furthermore, conservatives, especially the blogging kind, had fulminated all day about the latest slew of old-media stories about Bush's Guard service even as "60 Minutes" hyped its story. A skeptical right-wing audience was ready to pounce on whatever Rather threw at them. Even before the piece aired, for example, the Republican National Committee's website posted a heavily linked-to "Research Briefing" about the segment's interview subject: "Who is Ben Barnes? A Deep-Pocketed Kerry Partisan Who Can't Keep His Stories Straight."

Also, CBS posted images of the memos on its website, as did many other news organizations. The story's primary sources were right there on the Internet. Although font experts weighed in with sometimes helpful, sometimes contradictory assertions about the documents' credibility, no one could dispute one of the bloggers' greatest pieces of circumstantial evidence against the memos: the discovery that retyping the memos using Times New Roman font and default formatting in Microsoft Word produced a nearly identical document. Pretty suspicious for something supposedly typed 30 years ago.

In short, the CBS story was broadcast into bloggers' living rooms at a time when a subset of the blogosphere was waiting for it, and was primed to rip holes in it. The primary evidence was posted on the Internet. And the most persuasive investigative technique was a word processing program.

In the days that followed, newspapers and television programs moved the story along by cross-checking the memos against contemporaneous National Guard records, interviewing witnesses and family members, and again questioning the network's experts. The blogs picked up the story, but they couldn't carry it to the finish line alone. They were complemented by traditional media but never came close to supplanting it.

The bloggers who first cast doubt on the CBS memos deserve congratulations, gratitude and, of course, their time in the sun. This has been another moment of triumph for this dynamic and emerging field, and it will surely not be the last. But it has been a moment, not a revolution.

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