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What Blogs Have Wrought

From the September 27, 2004 issue: How the guys sitting at their computers in pajamas humiliated the suits at CBS News

Sep 27, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 03 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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IF YOU TRAWL the posting boards at FreeRepublic.com long enough, you'll go mad. Hundreds of voices are shouting, spitting, and clamoring for attention at any given moment. The night of Wednesday September 8 was no different. Following the 8 P.M. airing of CBS's 60 Minutes hit on President Bush's record in the Texas Air National Guard, Freepers were rattling their cages and pinging around the web in anger and disconsolation. On a thread begun in response to a New York Times article about the 60 Minutes story, "tomahawk" wrote, "The MSM [mainstream media] are whores for Kerry, whores for Democrats, and whores for Jihadists. Through their lies and distortions, our country's continued existence is now in doubt."

Amidst this clamor, the post by "Buckhead" could easily have gotten lost. At 11:59 P.M. (all times in this article are Eastern Daylight Time), Buckhead wondered about the fonts and spacing of the memos supposedly typed by Bush's National Guard commander and "newly obtained" by 60 Minutes. Buckhead speculated that they couldn't have been produced in the early 1970s, when they were dated. "I am saying these documents are forgeries," Buckhead wrote, "run through a copier for 15 generations to make them look old." In an email to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, Buckhead was loath to claim credit for his insight: "The internet is a big place, and I can't believe that other people didn't notice the same thing around the same time." Nor did he want acclaim: "I don't care to be outed as my alter ego. Day job and all that."

Buckhead's doubts were No. 47 in a list of 217 comments, on one of dozens of such discussion threads. But they were noticed by Tom Mortensen and Liz MacDougald who, the next morning, emailed the link to Scott Johnson, a lawyer in St. Paul. Sitting at home, Johnson reprinted Buckhead on the blog he runs with two fellow lawyers, Power Line (powerlineblog.com), at 8:51 A.M., and then went to work. When he arrived at the office, he had nearly 50 reader emails waiting for him from people like John Risko, a former Navy clerk and typist, who explained why he, too, thought the memos might be forged.

This small snowball of doubt was about to become an avalanche as something Los Angeles radio host and blogger Hugh Hewitt calls the blogosphere's "multiplier effect" took over. In California, Charles Johnson, who runs the blog Little Green Footballs, had seen both Buckhead and Power Line and decided to run a test. A desktop publishing pioneer and webpage designer in his day job, Johnson opened Microsoft Word and without changing any of the default settings--tabs, margins, font--created an eerily similar replica of one of the memos in just a few minutes, and posted it at 1:24 P.M. By lunchtime Thursday, the small, incestuous blog world was humming with the notion that CBS had presented forgeries. The story went nationwide at 2:50 P.M., when the Drudge Report linked to Power Line with the headline: "'60 Minutes' Documents on Bush Might Be Fake /// 32-year-old documents produced Wednesday by CBSNEWS 60 MINS on Bush's Guard service may have been forged using a current word processing program // typed using a proportional font, not common at that time, and they used a superscript font feature found in today's Microsoft Word program, Internet reports claim . . . Developing . . ."

The server hosting Power Line crashed as hundreds of thousands of Drudge readers tried to learn about the 60 Minutes scandal. By 5:00 P.M., CBS was spooked enough to release a statement saying the memos were "thoroughly investigated by independent experts, and we are convinced of their authenticity." At 7:20 P.M., Stephen F. Hayes published a piece on weeklystandard.com citing interviews with several forensic document experts, none of whom thought the documents were authentic. Before the night was done, ABC News got in on the action, posting a story on its website calling the memos possible forgeries. In just 24 hours, the CBS story had been almost completely undermined.