Was it the blogosphere that exposed the 60 Minutes memo forgeries?

What role did the bloggers play in taking down CBS’s 60 Minutes, Dan Rather, and the “liberal media?”. The conventional wisdom is that the blogosphere played a central role and that the mainstream media missed the boat. Too bad that the defenders of the mainstream media are still missing the facts to make a solid analysis.

Corey Pein tried offering an answer in a 3300-word article in the Columbia Journalism Review. He started boldly: “Bloggers have claimed the attack on CBS News as their Boston Tea Party, a triumph of the democratic rabble over the lazy elites of the MSM (that’s mainstream media to you).” And then immediately took a “But on close examination, the scene looks less like a victory for democracy than a case of mob rule.” Pein had taken off the gloves and wanted to put up a fight with the bloggers, and they came out swinging in return. “Liberal media apologists” cried the RatherGate blog.

Now it was Pein’s zealotry that blinded him to any careful analysis. Obviously the memos were forged. Who did it may still be an interesting question? Whether it was the blogosphere which did it is the topic for us to discuss.

BACKGROUND

First, a little background. On Thursday, September 2nd, the Republican National Convention wrapped up President Bush had wiped out the virtual “electoral college” lead that Senator Kerry had held over the summer. Not surprisingly, the liberal opposition was ready. Salon magazine wrote carried an exclusive interview with the widow of Jimmy Allison, who in 1972 was Midland, Texas, political consultant, who brought the 25-year old George W. Bush over Alabama to work on a Senate campaign. The previous week, Salon had written about Ben Barnes, Texas House speaker at the time, who had recently admitted to feeling “ashamed” at having pulled strings to get George W. Bush. The new Salon article promised that the upcoming Wednesday Barns would speak to Dan Rather on 60 Minutes

Of course, Barnes’s comments were forgotten. The big revelation of the night was the display of memos disparaging Bush, purported to have written by his commanding officer, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian. By the end of the next day, serious doubts spread through the media about the authenticity of the memos. “The story quickly turned from Bush’s war record to Dan Rather’s carelessness and overzealousness–and even to the question of whether CBS had been secretly working with the Democrats to smear Bush,” Newsweek reported in its 50,000-word post-election analysis. CBS stonewalled for over week, until Sunday, September 19th, when the Washington Post ran a front-page analysis documenting the network’s failures in being able to authenticate the documents.

And that was it. Kitty Kelley’s media appearances for her new “tell-all” book on the Bushes had her playing defense on her sources, some of whom were now recanting their stories. The Strategic Vision state-by-state polls showed Kerry’s support in Democratic-leaning swing states Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and even New Jersey under serious threat (though other polls do not show as clear a trend). Kerry would recover by the debates and win those states, but obviously came up short. In a column quoted ’round the blogosphere, the Wall Street Journal‘s Peggy Noonan essentially couldn’t care less about not needing to kick John Kerry around again, but did crow about the effects on the rest of the media:

I do think the biggest loser was the mainstream media, the famous MSM, the initials that became popular in this election cycle. Every time the big networks and big broadsheet national newspapers tried to pull off a bit of pro-liberal mischief– CBS and the fabricated Bush National Guard documents [and “bombgate” in her words]–the yeomen of the blogosphere and AM radio and the Internet took them down.

DISSENTERS

As the scandal was brewing, Matthew Yglesias, a contributor TAPPED the blog of The American Prospect‘s, dissented from the popular wisdom:

After CBS ran the story, the conservative side of the ‘sphere came up with dozens of purported debunkings of their authenticity, almost all of which turned out to be more purported than debunking. Then after a few days of back-and-forth, traditional reporters at The Washington Post came out with a more careful, more accurate, more actually-debunking story. The folks at Powerline and LGF … didn’t do any of the actual debunkings. Instead, it was done by reporters working for major papers. And good for them. And shame on CBS. But I don’t really see what the blogs had to do with it.

The watchdog website RatherBiased, which had covered the stories yet had not played as much of an active role in it, reached much the same conclusion, additionally crediting ABC News for “uncovering the larger story of how and why documents which no certified expert is willing to endorse as authentic ended up on a national television broadcast.”

THE LINK TRAIL

The key failure of Pein, and Yglesias, too, is in referencing the sources to the story (which, according to definition, a proper blogger as well as journalist, ought to do.) which, the ABC’s “The Note” had done on Friday morning, and USA Today did on the 21st. Wednesday night after the broadcast, the first doubts appeared on the Free Republic online forums. Overnight, two readers sent a note to Powerline, one of the most popular conservative blogs. Powerline’s Scott Johnson posted a link at 7:51 am and went to work on the story all day. The Washington Post’s front-page story that morning referenced the content of the memos but also noted that CBS “declined to say exactly how the new documents were obtained.” In the following day’s article, Post reported that they began contact typography experts “after doubts about the documents began circulating on the Internet yesterday morning.”

The bulk of subsequent public research into this forgery hypothesis was done not on a blog but on a simple web page. Joseph M. Newcomer, an electronic typesetting expert in Pittsburgh, was tipped off to the speculation blogosphere and began writing up his analysis on Sunday the 12th [or actually before– the first update to his work he had posted on the 12th]. He ultimately typed up 11,000 words and provided 37 graphical illustrations over the course of the week. Charles Johnson cited the work repeatedly on his Little Green football site, even making a copy of the page to handle the increased traffic. The Washington Post presented its full case on Sunday, September 19th, not only bringing Newcomer’s analysis but some background information about the failures of various CBS personnel in getting the complete authentication. The indictment was not the forgery, but the failure to verify. And that was it: the next day, CBS caved.

By the way, how did the Post get a hint of what was circulating on the Internet? It’s not necessary that they or their tipsters have Powerline or Little Green Footballs in their bookmarks or RSS feeds. More likely, it gets to a blog which they track. I checked out the top six blogs on Henry Farrell and Daniel Drezner’s surveyed top blogs read by the media; three of them found the tip to Powerline, and three missed it for most of the day. Jonah Goldberg, National Review Online, found it at 12:04 pm; Andrew Sullivan, 12:34 pm; Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo, at 1:15 pm. InstaPundit didn’t get it till 6:35 pm. Kausfiles didn’t amplify it till Friday. Romenesko didn’t get to it on at all till the next week. Then there’s that non-blogger whose link to the story at 2:46 pm finally sent enough traffic to the Powerline server to cause it to crash– Matt Drudge (according to Jonathan V. Last’s detailed account in the Weekly Standard). How did Matt Drudge come about the Powerline tip? Seth Finkelstein’s analysis shows that Drudge got a press release from the conservative Cybercast News Service at that time, and included a link to them– but four minutes later he changed it to point only to Powerline. “The story would not have been undiscovered if the blog writers hadn’t been working on it *too* – it would merely have been a more PR-firm driven story.”

READING BETWEEN THE LINKS

There is one pitfall to the above methodology– it’s very easy to rely on the hyperlinks to tell the whole story about who knew what when. But they don’t. I exchanged several emails with Matthew Sheffield to probe exactly what RatherBiased‘s role was. For one, they’ve been sending out updates to “hundreds of big media writers” for years, and have earned their trust. He called up the Washington Post to find out who was covering the story– and they told him to look at RatherBiased.

So it could have been the blogosphere which brought down 60 Minutes. Or it could have been one bulletin board, one conservative blog, three pundit blogs, a “contra-site,” and one typography expert with a website… and, also, the journalistic resources of the Washington Post and ABC News. A victory for the process of journalism, though at the expense of one group of journalists; and a victory for some bloggers; though not necessarily the whole blogosphere. Leading me to part II of this investigation, What if there were no blogosphere?

Update, May 31st: The conclusion reached here is the same one reached by the report Buzz, Blogs, and Beyond: The Internet and the National Discourse in the Fall of 2004 by Michael Cornfield of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, with assistance from BuzzMetrics. “The key contribution by the bloggers in the ‘Rathergate’ scandal consisted of providing forums accessible to all internet users in which facsimiles of the memos could be examined and discussed.” The report provides much more exhaustive detail about this particular story, and ought to be read in full by anybody interested in media and politics. Nonetheless, the syndicated columnist George Will wrote recently in a column titled Approaching the end of journalism? that “bloggers” had “shredded” the “charges pertaining to a Vietnam-era story about George W. Bush’s alleged dereliction of National Guard duties.” Not exactly.

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