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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 SATURDAY MORNING (or late Friday night, if you were reading the websites), two shoes dropped. The Dallas Morning News reported that Texas National Guard Col. Walter "Buck" Staudt, whom the August 18, 1973, CBS memo described as applying pressure from above for favorable treatment for George W. Bush, had retired from the Guard a year and a half before, on March 1, 1972. The Los Angeles Times, picking up an ABC News story from the night before, reported that Maj. Gen. Bobby Hodges, one of CBS's principal sources and a man they said had authenticated the memos, was claiming that CBS had misled him. Hodges had been read the memos over the phone and thought that they were handwritten. After seeing the actual documents--photocopied documents, that is, since CBS has never claimed even to have seen originals--he declared they were a fraud.

Still, the Boston Globe and New York Times--which had given lavish play to CBS's National Guard accusations in their Thursday editions--were nominally siding with the network. In their Saturday story, the Times reported that "for every expert who said the documents" looked fake, "there seemed to be another who said they could indeed have been authentic." This was demonstrably untrue. In fact, the only pro-CBS "expert" the Times was able to find was Bill Glennon, "who worked for IBM in Midtown Manhattan for 14 years and repaired typewriters."

The Washington Post was much more circumspect, partly because the only CBS expert who had been revealed was San Francisco handwriting analyst Marcel Matley, who told the Post's Howard Kurtz that CBS had asked him not to give interviews.

The biggest news of the day came again from the Internet, where Joseph M. Newcomer posted on his website (www.flounder.com/bush.htm) an incredibly detailed, scientific, 7,000-word explanation of why the documents were necessarily forgeries. Today his account remains definitive.

Apparently moved by Gen. Hodges's testimony, the New York Times swung against CBS on Sunday. The Los Angeles Times, already skeptical, ran a nearly admiring piece about bloggers. After crediting them with breaking the news, though, the story ended with an attack from Emerson College professor Jeffrey Seglin, who said, "The fear I have is: How do you know who's doing the Web logs? And what happens when this stuff gets into the mainstream, and it eventually turns out that the 60 Minutes' documents were perfectly legitimate?"

Seglin's fears were misplaced. For one thing, the CBS documents would not turn out to be legitimate. But for another, bloggers are fantastically more transparent than major news organizations, which in their inner workings are among the most inscrutable institutions in America. Most blogs have an "About Us" link near the top of their page. Had Seglin clicked this link on Power Line, for instance, he would have found that bloggers John Hinderaker, Scott Johnson, and Paul Mirengoff were lawyers with prestigious firms such as Minneapolis's Faegre & Benson and Washington's Akin, Gump. On Flounder.com, Newcomer had posted his entire résumé, his home address, his email, and his telephone number. Besides Dan Rather and his lead producer Mary Mapes, Seglin would have been hard pressed to get even the name of a CBS employee who worked on the memo story.

But at least Seglin was able to bring himself to talk about the issue. Some prominent media watchdog groups would barely deign to discuss it. Over at the Poynter Institute (where Seglin was once a media ethics fellow), media critic Jim Romenesko had posted just one tiny item. (Romenesko wouldn't begin covering the story in earnest until September 15, a full week after it first broke.) The Columbia Journalism Review was just as bad. Their website, CampaignDesk.org, had not a single mention of the CBS story until September 13, when they referenced it in passing during a roundup of blog activity. On September 14, after criticism from this writer, CampaignDesk's managing editor, Steve Lovelady, explained why they were avoiding the story: "It's not clear whether CBS has been had by some undercover operative intent on smearing the president, or whether the network itself is the victim of a smear campaign."

ON THE NIGHT of September 12, however, all that lay in the future. At 11:28 P.M., Power Line's John Hinderaker published a virtual interview with Robert W. Strong, a veteran of the Texas National Guard and one of CBS's key sources. A pair of Power Line readers, it turned out, live down the road from Strong near Austin, and Hinderaker furnished them with questions. Again, the Internet was first.

On Monday, the New York Times swung fully against CBS, publishing a tough op-ed by William Safire and a pro-blogger piece in their Technology section. The left-wing of the Internet sunk into incoherence. Media Matters began publishing oppo-research dossiers on journalists who were covering the CBS story. At the blog of the left-wing American Prospect, Nick Confessore speculated that if the documents really were fake, the White House would have released the originals. Unless, Confessore noted, "the original documents make Bush look even worse than the fakes." This was nonsense. CBS claimed that the memos were from the "personal files" of Col. Jerry Killian; even if some "originals" of the memos had existed, Bush would not have had them.

CBS continued spinning during the evening newscast. Dan Rather brought out expert Bill Glennon to testify on the network's behalf. This was the same typewriter repairman who had been quoted in the New York Times. Curiously, given CBS's professed contempt for bloggers, Glennon had come to prominence as a blog commenter (first on the Washington Monthly's Political Animal, with comments later copied to the Daily Kos). As blogger Tim Blair noted, CBS's desperation had overpowered its suspicion of the rumor-filled Internet.

The traditional media, which at first had been following the lead of bloggers, started breaking more and more anti-CBS developments. On Tuesday, September 14, the Washington Post published a devastating story in which its reporters (1) demolished Glennon's testimony of just five hours before; (2) brought Newcomer's expert testimony to the fore; and (3) aired the results of their independent analysis, which found "dozens of inconsistencies [in the memos], ranging from conflicting military terminology to different word-processing techniques."

That afternoon the Dallas Morning News piled on with an interview of Killian's secretary, who said that her boss had never typed and that she didn't type the memos in question. That night ABC News ran a story with interviews of two document experts who had been consulted by CBS. Both of them claimed to have told CBS that they could not authenticate the documents. One of them, Emily Will, said that she sent CBS "an email message about her concerns and strongly urged the network the night before the broadcast not to use the documents. 'I told them that all the questions I was asking them on Tuesday night, they were going to be asked by hundreds of other document examiners on Thursday if they ran that story.'"

Meanwhile, Power Line's Scott Johnson appeared on Fox News Channel's Special Report, a newly minted celebrity.

REGARDLESS of what tack CBS now chooses, the questions about the authenticity of the 60 Minutes documents are settled. The evening of September 15, Dan Rather cluelessly told the Washington Post's indefatigable media reporter Howard Kurtz, "If the documents are not what we were led to believe, I'd like to break that story." Rather was a week late; Free Republic's Buckhead had scooped him. And dozens of bloggers, whether in pajamas or three-piece suits, had subsequently filled in many of the details. (CBS could still break one big story--who gave them the forged memos?--but has so far hidden behind an invocation of "longstanding journalistic ethics" governing "confidential sources." So forgers are now sources?) Bloggers, and Internet-savvy writers more generally, have now proven that they can ferret out journalistic malpractice and expose the guilty parties.

Part of what makes bloggers well-suited for the role of fact-checking is that there are so many of them. With millions of people blogging and reading blogs, you're bound to find a handful of real experts on any given topic, and these experts can coalesce quite easily. When National Review Online's blogger Jim Geraghty asked readers about James J. Pierce, a new document expert CBS trotted out on September 15, he was deluged with responses. Within an hour, Geraghty had been furnished with a link to a website showing the sort of low-level expert witness business Pierce usually does. As Little Green Footballs's Charles Johnson noted, "It's sort of an open-source intelligence gathering network that draws on expertise from around the world."

This critical mass creates a buzzing marketplace of ideas. To be fair, many of these ideas are bogus, but they are also rapidly exposed as such, sometimes in mere seconds. For example, an exuberant commenter will note that one of CBS's memos carries a Saturday date; another, dripping with condescension, will remind the first that Guard members are called "weekend warriors" for a reason--they drill (and keep office hours) on Saturdays. A number of the specific criticisms of the CBS documents on blogs were overstated, too categorical, or simply wrong. These provided aha! moments for CBS and its blogging partisans, but they were shot down just as quickly by commenters on the blogs criticizing CBS. It is not true, for instance, that typewriters couldn't do superscripts, as some CBS critics too triumphantly generalized. It is true that typewriters couldn't produce the particular superscripts seen in the memos, and that these same superscripts are automatically produced by Microsoft Word.

As a recent piece in Investor's Business Daily noted, "In the same way the market sifts and analyzes information stocks better than any individual investor or institution ever could, the blogosphere weeds out the chaff." Thus, a lone helpful comment at FreeRepublic.com gets quickly elevated into the spotlight, while the multitude of cranky grumblings disappear down the memory hole.

Aside from technological advantages, there seems to be an ideological divide at work, too. The political blog world is arguably more conservative than liberal, though there is a sizable contingent of liberal blogs. But these liberal blogs function more like the old media than do their conservative Internet brethren. While blogs such as Power Line and Little Green Footballs and Instapundit were chasing the CBS story, interviewing experts, posting material as they found it--whether or not it supported the case against CBS--many of the liberal blogs went into entrenched-partisan mode.

With the exception of the September 10 Daily Kos, few, if any, liberal blogs contributed any facts to the CBS debate. Few tried to unearth new information; many tried to change the subject; most insisted that there was no reason to believe the memos were forgeries until quite late in the game. Those who rationally weighed the evidence, like the Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum and Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo ("There's a word, though, for these sorts of recreations, if that's what they are: forgeries"), were pummeled by the commenters on left-wing blogs.

On September 14, blogger Matthew Yglesias finally conceded that the documents were probably forged. In a fit of pique, he sought to deny bloggers any credit. "They didn't break the story," he blogged. "The stuff they posted . . . was all wrong." Besides, Yglesias noted in a later item, "Nothing important about Bush's National Guard record hinges on the accuracy of those memos." Nick Confessore agreed, blogging, "We don't need the CBS memos to know" that Bush is guilty. They were aping the line the Los Angeles Times editorial page eventually took: "Whatever the truth, CBS' real error was trying to prove a point that didn't need to be proved. It doesn't take documents for anyone to realize that Bush pulled strings to get into the National Guard." Or, in the now immortal phrase of a New York Times headline writer on September 15, "Memos on Bush are Fake But Accurate . . ."

Despite all this, there were still lefty bloggers out in the fever swamps who refused to believe that the documents had been forged. Lindsay Beyerstein continued making attacks on the Washington Post blockbuster and then, when they came forward, on the document experts who told CBS not to use the memos. "Notice how this bullshit comes in waves?" Beyerstein sneered. "One claims that she sent an email to CBS urging them not to go ahead with the story because she had doubts about the memos' authenticity. I'd like to see that email."

The Internet is filled with all sorts of crazy stuff these days. Just ask Dan Rather.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.