The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Wednesday, September 15, 2004


Instantman linked to an article on Rathergate by San Jose Mercury News technology
consultant Dan Gillmor and pronounced it good. I beg to differ; the article is a confused
mess whose only position is the inadvisability of taking a position:


I still don't know whether Dan Rather and his colleagues at CBS News'
``60 Minutes'' show got snookered by a memorandum-faking con artist
when they reported on documents that raised new questions about
President Bush's National Guard duty. As a journalist I hope they didn't,
though I suspect they did.


The memos are fake. Period. Disbelief in this fact is akin to suspension of judgement
as to whether the earth revolves around the sun.


And while doubts about the memo's authenticity were first raised on the
Internet, some of the self-congratulatory online chest-thumping is overdone.
Why? The traditional media would not have ignored the issue. Certainly by now,
big newspapers and broadcasters would have been asking deservedly tough questions of a dismayingly recalcitrant CBS.


You'll see in a minute why I have my doubts as to whether this is really true. If the
matter had been left in the hands of the traditional media, I doubt whether CBS would
have had anything to be recalcitrant about.


Yet I'm also convinced that the emergent online community known as the ``blogosphere'' -- the world of Weblogs, or blogs -- has played an essential
role in this bizarre sequence of events. ...


Gillmor really goes out on a limb, considering that every single news story about
Rathergate credits the blogosphere as the impetus behind the forgery allegations.
Tomorrow, Gillmor will claim to be convinced that computers have had a major
influence on how newspapers are produced.


Soon after Rather and company signed off last Wednesday evening, some
right-wing bloggers started asking tough but legitimate questions about
the memos.


So ... the presumption is that tough questions are not legitimate? You can see why
I am reluctant to leave this affair in the hands of the mainstream media.

And what is this "right-wing" crap, anyway? Is Jim Treacher right wing? Evan Kirchhoff?
(The first post I ever read from Evan started out with this sentence: "North Dakota has
declared my lifestyle illegal." I thought I had found a blog written by Akbar and Jeff.)
Roger Simon?


They observed that the typeface and appearance were quite advanced for the electric typewriters of the era. Some bloggers asserted, without proof, that the memos were an outright forgery.


What proof were they lacking? Videotape of the forgery being committed, captured
by a man in a time machine? By any non-passive-aggressive criteria, the forgery
could be considered proven just by looking at the fucking documents.


Then family members said they didn't believe the supposed author, long dead,
had written them. Big media and left-leaning bloggers jumped in, and collected
more damning data (and some supportive of CBS's story, too).


Which data supportive of CBS' story was that? The lies that the Boston Globe was peddling?


CBS responded the way Big Media organizations are prone to doing. It threw up
a semi-stonewall, reiterating utter confidence in the report.

Then the network suggested that the bloggers' political agenda and lack of
journalistic credentials made their charges somehow ridiculous. That was
another error.

Anyone reading the agenda-driven bloggers' reports had a right to be wary,
given their motives and, in many cases, uncritical parrotting of the scurrilous
and largely debunked charges about Sen. John Kerry's Vietnam service. But
the Bush-memo suspicions couldn't be dismissed, either. Maybe there's no
fire, but there's a heck of a lot of smoke.


When Charles Johnson creates an overlay that shows how precisely the memos
match Microsoft Word's Times New Roman 12-point font, the question of what
Johnson thinks of Kerry becomes somewhat irrelevant.

But that's us crazy bloggers, paying attention to facts rather than someone's
political correctness. (And I'm not casting lazy aspersions here; this is exactly
what political correctness is all about -- Johnson is a right-winger, therefore
he cannot be believed -- and why its ugly head must be crushed and its wriggling
body sliced to bits.)


Regardless of what one thinks of the bloggers' politics, they advanced the
memo story. And they did it fast -- no doubt more quickly than the mass
media would have done.

They could fuel the firestorm for several reasons. First, they were passionate
about their cause: looking for reasons to shoot down the CBS report, which
turned out to be a huge target.

Second, they are many. We in the media -- at least those of us who might
have been prepared to jump instantly into the question of whether the
memos were real -- are relatively few.


It's been a week since CBS aired its report, and six days since the forgery
allegations surfaced.

Got an opinion yet, O less-than-instant jumper?


Third, the velocity of information is so much greater with digital technology.
What once would have taken days or weeks to make its way through the
media sphere now ricochets around the world in hours.

One danger in such a world is the spread of misinformation, corrected too
late to erase or even very much mitigate the damage. Some hard-core
partisans don't seem to care about this, but the rest of us should.


It took 60 minutes for CBS to spread slander based on forged documents.

The correction provided by the blogosphere took significantly longer.


And it's worth noting that this would not have become such a public
controversy had the major media not picked up the story.


Yeah, and none of the hurricanes would have been such a big deal if the media
had not covered them.

If New Orleans is ten feet deep in water but that fact does not make the nightly
news, does it make a sound?


...

Media watchdogging isn't new, either. But the newest version is nothing
like the mostly polite coverage we in the business tend to extend to
ourselves and our peers. What's happening now is sometimes instructive,
and always tough.

Journalists have demanded more transparency of others. Now, thanks to
the ability of large numbers of people to dissect our work in public and in
something close to real time, they're demanding more of us. We'd better
get used to it.


So there you have it: Mainstream journalists are too polite to call bullshit
when they see it.


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