Blogs look burly after kicking sand on CBS
Bloggers enjoy a moment of glory after pooling their expertise to uncover the truth about the forged memos on Bush's service record.
Scott Johnson took a bite out of CBS's "60 Minutes II" and came away with 15 minutes of fame.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Johnson, a Minneapolis lawyer with a political website called Power Line, proved to be instrumental in challenging the authenticity of documents CBS used to impugn George W. Bush's record in the National Guard.
On Sept. 9, the morning after CBS aired its report about Mr. Bush, Johnson updated his blog with comments from readers who believed that the documents - allegedly written 32 years ago - were forgeries. Questioning everything from the memos' military jargon to whether a 1970s typewriter could have produced the "proportionally spaced fonts" on the documents, the blog (short for web log) soon drew the attention of other bloggers - and the mainstream media.
Twelve days later, after intense research by print and TV journalists, CBS conceded that it couldn't vouch for the documents' authenticity.
Its Monday admission deals a blow to the credibility of CBS News and anchor Dan Rather, who had defended his "60 Minutes II" report. But the episode has jolted the media establishment in another way: It served notice that there's an aggressive new watchdog in town, in the form of thousands of bloggers willing - even eager - to question, nitpick, or attack reports in the mainstream media.
For the most part, political blogs act as forums for armchair pundits to deliver often-partisan commentary. But because blogs link to one another with comments and feedback, the buzz around one story can attract the attention of hundreds of thousands of blog readers, who in turn can offer "on the spot" knowledge or expertise. In the CBS case, bloggers raised the initial doubts, analyzed each new wrinkle, and occasionally did original reporting, scooping the professionals.
"What this story illustrates is the power of the blogs as a medium for the transmission of information," says Johnson, who can now claim to have made the cover of this week's Time magazine - if only because the back of his head is visible in a photo collage featuring Mr. Rather.
"My efforts were to act as a clearinghouse for the circulation of information," which was then subjected to confirmation, he says.
To some, that's hardly a viable journalistic standard.
"We can't be too quick to equate the bona fides and journalistic chops of a blogger with that of any mainstream media organization," says Christopher Klein, a former executive vice president of CBS News. "The bloggers do not have any system of checks and balances. My issue is simply when we start elevating these journals of opinion to the level of newspapers of record, so to speak."
Other critics have complained that blogs can traffic in rumor, such as a claim in February that Sen. John Kerry had had an affair with a former intern.
Responding to the criticism, Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee behind the Instapundit blog, says the online community acts as its own ombudsman to sift fact from allegation.
"The check on blogs is other blogs," he says. "Because blogs operate in a reputation-based environment, nobody minds a bias. But they expect you to be honest about your facts. And if you get a reputation for not being honest about your facts, people pay lots of attention to you."
Since the CBS furor, the blogging community has been showered with accolades in opinion pages and editorials. Still, it's premature to start awarding Pulitzer prizes to the laptop set. Professional journalists have been the ones consulting experts and following up promising leads.
"I would argue that we were able to do a few things that blogs were not," avers Christopher Isham, chief of investigative projects at ABC News, one of the first news outlets to challenge CBS's documents.
Still, a perception exists among some bloggers - and among many news consumers - that without blogs the media wouldn't have picked up the story.