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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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ON FRIDAY, September 10, the left struck back. At a press conference Democratic party chairman Terry McAuliffe denied that Democrats had "anything at all to do with any of those documents." "If I were an aspiring young journalist," McAuliffe noted, "I think I would ask Karl Rove" where the CBS memos came from.

McAuliffe was tacitly admitting that the memos were fake, but the liberal side of the blog world wasn't ready to go that far. On his blog Talking Points Memo, Joshua Micah Marshall went further than most, admitting, "The ball is in the court of the publishers of these documents to authenticate them. And so far I'm not hearing any adequate defense." The American Prospect's Matthew Yglesias (on his personal blog) wrote that the CBS memos had "a presumptive validity." He granted that the "would-be debunkers" had "presented a good deal of evidence demonstrating that the documents might be forgeries in the sense that it is technologically feasible today to produce things that look just like the memos. This, however, doesn't really get you anywhere unless you can produce some actual evidence of forging."

On the far-left Daily Kos, "Hunter" posted a lengthy defense of the memos, arguing that, however improbable it might seem, the memos could theoretically have been produced in the early '70s (this would later be proven untrue). David Brock's MediaMatters.org chimed in that "the case for their authenticity is strong," while also sounding the McAuliffe theme that if they were fakes, suspicion should fall on Karl Rove. (Slate blogger Mickey Kaus noticed the tension: "Media Matters," he wrote, "might want to decide if a) the documents are authentic, as argued at the top of their Web page or b) the documents are forgeries planted by Republicans, as argued at the bottom of their Web page. Lawyers are allowed to plead in the alternative, but a) and b) can't both be true, and the evidence for each of those propositions is also evidence against the other one.")

The partisan liberal sites were joined by a short piece from PC Magazine, which supposed that an IBM Selectric Composer could have produced the memos. But this wasn't news. The previous morning, Power Line--which had quickly established itself as the blog world's clearinghouse for updates on the story--had posted an email from one John Burgess, saying, "By 1969, I was using an IBM Selectric typewriter, with proportional type balls." Burgess claimed that the Selectric was widely available and could employ the Times New Roman font. The blog world was quickly deep into contemplating the capabilities of the Selectric.

Not so Dan Rather. Ambushed on the street Friday morning by a CNN camera crew, Rather insisted, "The story is true. The story is true." "The Internet," he said, "is filled with all kinds of rumors." That evening, Rather defended the 60 Minutes story during the Evening News. Appearing on the O'Reilly Factor shortly afterwards, a former CBS News executive, Jonathan Klein, dismissed the blogs. On the one side, he said, you have a professional news bureaucracy with "multiple layers of checks and balances." With blogs, you have "a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing." Klein's "pajamas" taunt would be seized on throughout the blog world. It would also come to represent the high-water mark of the CBS defense.