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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Scott Johnson took a bite out of CBS's "60 Minutes II" and came away with 15 minutes of fame.

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.

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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.

Not so, says Dan Gillmor, author of "We the Media" and columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. "People upset about the documents and raising questions would have been on the phone to every reporter they could get on the phone to."

One advantage the bloggers did have was speed.

The "60 Minutes II" report produced photocopies of documents allegedly written by the late Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, Bush's commander in the Air Texas National Guard, claiming that he was being pressured to "sugar coat" Bush's record.

Within hours of Rather's report, hundreds of laptop users were scrutinizing the memos posted on CBS's website.

Charles Johnson, a blogger in Los Angeles with an expertise in typography, suspected forgery: The documents looked too contemporary. He typed one of the memos into a Microsoft Word document - using the program's default settings - and found that the CBS documents were an exact match. He sent Power Line a link to his findings at LittleGreenFootballs.com.

By noon, Bill Ardolino of the INDC Journal blog had seen the Power Line stories and interviewed a typeface expert. The expert's doubts about the memos appeared that day on Mr. Ardolino's blog.

And, like a champion Bingo player, Power Line was also first to shout out that Col. Walter B. "Buck" Staudt, the man who supposedly pressured Colonel Killian in a memo dated 1973, had retired a year and a half earlier.

The information bloggers brought to bear on the issue was impressive, says ABC's Mr. Isham, who reads several blogs a day. "In fairness to the blogs, I think [they were] the first thing that tipped us off that there might have been a problem - because they were on it right away," he says.

Blogs' influence on news coverage has been rising since 2002. US Sen. Trent Lott resigned as US Senate majority leader that year after online pundits pounced on remarks in which he endorsed Sen. Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist presidential bid.

In a smaller but more recent example, bloggers attending a Sept. 3 Bush campaign stop challenged Associated Press claims that a Wisconsin crowd booed when the president announced that Bill Clinton was to undergo heart surgery. Several blogs posted audio and video of the rally on their sites, and the AP later retracted its story.

"Since time immemorial people have complained that journalists got stories wrong about things they knew about," says Virginia Postrel, a New York Times columnist with a blog at dynamist.com. "What's happened with the blogs, and the reason they have the power to actually change media stories is that it's not just Joe complaining to Pete that this story looks fishy to him. It's Joe posting it for all the world to see."

The CBS episode follows several high-profile media scandals, including revelations that both Jayson Blair at The New York Times and Jack Kelley at USA Today included fabrications in stories.

Some Americans believe journalists are guilty of political bias. That attitude is often reflected in blogosphere, the online blogging community. The left-leaning site Daily Kos regularly complains that coverage on Fox News is slanted. Similarly, conservative sites such as Power Line accuse organizations like CBS of displaying a consistent liberal bias. Not surprisingly, critiquing news coverage is a large component of political blogging.

Blogs' watchdog role will continue to influence newsrooms, says Kelly McBride, a member of the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"We have known that our credibility is eroding," says Ms. McBride. "We have been slow to change our practices, slow to eliminate or minimize the use of anonymous sources, to diversify our staff so that we accurately reflect the population that we serve.... It's possible that with this new uprising of criticism, that the mainstream media will react quicker on those issues."

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