Bloggers have often enjoyed keeping alive stories that the traditional media news outlets let pass them by. Sometimes this leads to the traditional media being forced to take notice. For example, Trent Lott‘s infamous line about having voted for Strom Thurmond’s segregationist Presidential campaign was largely ignored by the media until blogs picked it up and ran with it—and in the furor that followed, Lott subsequently resigned as Senate Republican Leader.
Well, here we go again. Shortly after CBS news featured in a 60 Minutes II report some memos they’d gotten their hands upon, claiming that they were actual memos from the National Guard detailing Bush’s poor service record, a blog entry came out pointing out a rather odd fact: these memos supposedly typed in August of 1973 use the proportional Times New Roman font, a font that wasn’t invented until years later! This entry was immediately picked up by sites like BoingBoing, and of course a zillion other blogs.
For a couple of days, most of the “traditional” newsmedia ignored the story. Dan Rather vehemently defended the memos as having come from “solid sources” and having “no definitive evidence” that they were forgeries. Then the pro media, slow to rouse but quick to dig after being roused, got into the game and interesting things started turning up. For instance, it appears that CBS ignored some analysts’ refusal to authenticate the documents, or else didn’t actually show them the real documents when asking them to authenticate. Bloggers railed. The New York Times spoke to the original secretary for Colonel Killian, the man who supposedly wrote the memos, and produced the memorable headline—and I swear I’m not making this up—”Memos on Bush Are Fake but Accurate, Typist Says“. A Republican congressman called for a Congressional investigation. William Safire called for an independent investigation as well. Rush Limbaugh had a field day.
Today, CBS claimed it was going to make a “special announcement” relating to the memos. First it claimed the announcement would be this morning, then noon, then 5 p.m. Finally, after missing all its deadlines, Andrew Heyward, the President of CBS News, made the following statement (according to the Drudge Report):
“We established to our satisfaction that the memos were accurate or we would not have put them on television. There was a great deal of coroborating [sic] evidence from people in a position to know. Having said that, given all the questions about them, we believe we should redouble our efforts to answer those questions, so that’s what we are doing.”
Given how long it took them to produce that little scrap of prose, one can only imagine what must be going on behind CBS News’s doors. Ah, to be a fly on that wall…
While many sources are being circumspect about the document’s origins—saying that if they’re not provably genuine, they haven’t been proven false either—some experts are more willing to express some damning opinions.
Thomas Phinney, program manager for fonts for the Adobe company in Seattle, which helped to develop the modern Times New Roman font, […] said “fairly extensive testing” had convinced him that the fonts and formatting used in the CBS documents could not have been produced by the most sophisticated IBM typewriters in use in 1972, including the Selectric and the Executive. He said the two systems used fonts of different widths.
If anyone should know, I would think he should. The article from which that quote was taken points out that there seem to be numerous factual errors in the memos as well, but really, talking about the scandal isn’t meant to be the point of this post. If you want to find out more, you can check the hundreds of blog posts on the matter, or browse Google News’s collection of articles on the subject. By the time I end up posting this article, there will probably be new developments that I didn’t cover anyway. The roasting is only just beginning.
The thing I really wanted to say in this article goes back to Dan Rather’s abrupt denial that there could be anything wrong with those documents, back when bloggers were the only ones carrying the story. Even if he just got sloppy in his fact-checking, the fact that he featured these obvious fakes in the story makes him look really bad—and admitting to uncertainty would make him look worse. So perhaps he figured he could brazen it out, just stick to his story and eventually the blogs would forget about it and the whole thing would blow over. Then the media got involved, and he had no choice but to stick to his story—and CBS News had no choice but to cover for him, even if some of Rather’s colleagues might be a bit nervous about it.
What I have to wonder is how much of the decision to make that original denial stems from the problem that the traditional media seem to have in figuring out what to make of bloggers. It’s like they have this great big blog-shaped blind spot keeping them from grasping the concept. “But they’re not professional journalists!” one might imagine the staid newsmedia saying. And yet, they can’t deny that blogs are extremely widely-read, even to the point of being included in the press corps at this year’s political conventions.
This dichotomy invariably leads to the newsmedia cranking out patronizing “Awww, aren’t they just so cute?” puff pieces like this New York Times article by Jennifer 8. Lee (Many bloggers were not impressed)—and subsequently being completely blindsided when bloggers call attention to hot news stories. One can only imagine how much worse they would take it when the blogs dare to call their own professional reportage into question. (As a Transformers fan, I can’t help but imagine Megatron growling words to the effect of “Insolent worms! I will crush them!” here.) Perhaps this might explain CBS’s original reaction.
And having made that reaction, they can only circle their wagons now that the other media have picked it up. “The documents might be fake, but…but the story is true! Really!”
Well, whatever. That story has passed into the hands of the other professional newsmedia now, and the Congress, and they’re taking it places that bloggers couldn’t. The bloggers will watch them, and blog on whatever happens next. And eventually there will be another big news story that is originated in a blog and catches the traditional newsmedia by surprise. And another, and another, ad infinitum. We’re in the age of the blog now, where everybody who can bang a keyboard can have a voice. Journalism is never going to be the same, and the media are just going to have to learn to adapt.
Edit: In a brief footnote, it appears that the origin of the documents has been traced to a Kinko’s “21 miles from the Baird, Tex., home of retired Texas National Guard officer Bill Burkett,” a man with axes to grind against President Bush; he’s apparently made many allegations which have never been proven. The reader is left to draw his own conclusion.