A blogger shines when news media get it wrong
SAN DIEGO — When he's not playing guitar, a ponytailed musician named Charles Johnson likes to sit in his Los Angeles home office, listen to jazz, and make mincemeat of the mainstream media.
He's tangled with CBS over the authenticity of documents about President Bush's National Guard service. This time around, he's uncovered doctored war photos distributed by Reuters, forcing the news service to retract them.
Mr. Johnson, one of the most influential, popular, and disliked political bloggers in the United States, says his site offers an "alternative filter": The news comes in and something approaching the truth comes out. Critics, however, say he has an agenda of his own – one that's anti-Muslim, pro-Israel, and full of hate.
How did this 50-something computer programmer and Web designer turn into an Internet celebrity, sought out by CNN and regularly roasted by liberal critics? The answer lies in expertise, diligence, and imagination.
This week, his website – littlegreenfootballs.com – is attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors, thanks to his Reuters exclusive. (The origin of the site's unusual name is a secret.)
Armed with a tip from a reader, Johnson was apparently the first person to prove that an Aug. 5 Reuters photo of Beirut after an air attack had been faked.
Johnson revealed how images of buildings and smoke had been copied to other parts of the photo, apparently with the help of software. The changes enhanced the smoke above the city, making the photo more vivid.
Reuters retracted the photo and 919 others by freelance Lebanese photographer Adnan Hajj, including a second doctored one.
To Johnson, Reuters was not an unwitting victim. Instead, he sees media bias at work. "Sometimes there are agendas at work, and it's my job to counter those agendas," he says in a phone interview.
A supporter of Israel and a fierce foe of militant Islam, Johnson has been making comments on the site and posting links to news articles since 9/11, often slamming the media in the process.
Readers leave comments of their own – the site is now home to nearly 3 million of them – and online squabbles known as "flame wars" often develop.
Meanwhile, Johnson and his fans have created a special language. His readers are known as "lizardoids" and he invented the word "idiotarian" to describe his opponents. (A Google search turns up almost 3 million references to the word.)
Johnson's detractors keep up a steady stream of dissent; some even devote entire websites to dissecting his blog's faults.
"The readers on that blog are treated to stories selected by [Johnson] that are designed to depict Muslims as extremist or violent, and the comments that flow from that are the ones that you would expect," complains blogger Glenn Greenwald, who accuses Johnson of stifling opposing points of view and jumping to conclusions.
In true blogosphere fashion, critics of Johnson's littlegreenfootballs created lgfwatch, which spawned a counterstrike by supporters (the lgfwatchwatch website), which spurred critics to respond with (you guessed it) lgfwatchwatchwatch.
It's OK if bloggers make errors, says Richard North, a blogger in the United Kingdom who follows Johnson's work. As he wrote last weekend, "if being wrong gets one closer to the truth – as it does – then it is worth putting up half-formed speculation and letting the debate rage."
Other fans have found Johnson to be a kindred spirit and sharp-minded intellectual who's hardly just an Average Joe who went big. "He's far from ordinary," says blogger Dean Barnett, who applauds his intelligence and technical skills.
Indeed, Johnson used his web design skills to show which parts were copied in the doctored Reuters photo.
It also gave him the tools to debunk a letter that CBS used in 2004 to cast doubt on Mr. Bush's National Guard service. Johnson copied the text from the letter in the modern computer program Microsoft Word and compared the two documents in an animated image: they appeared identical, even though the letter supposedly was written in the 1970s.
Johnson is now paid by the Pajamas Media blog network, named in honor of a former CBS executive who complained about blogger credibility by deriding "a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing." For the record, Johnson says he wears clothes while working.
Some critics are disconcerted by bloggers who heap on doses of mockery when they expose media failings. It's true that "some are playing a gotcha game with media outlets, and want to make their point that the editing and fact-finding in a lot of newspapers are flawed and incompetent," says Kenny Irby, a former newspaper photographer and editor.
"But I've had more conversations with bloggers who just say they want to make sure [the media] projects accurate information," says Mr. Irby, who works at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank. "That's a good thing. Media organizations have to be aware that we're not the absolute authority."
• Matt Bradley contributed to this story.