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.
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.
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.