Things happen in real time on the web, and by now, “Rathergate” is rather old. But its early days marked a dramatic moment for bloggers, and a dark one for traditional journalism: one that Dan Rather will never forget. A nascent watchdog known collectively as the “blogosphere” had emerged from the shadows.
Earlier this year, CBS aired a now-infamous 60 Minutes episode in which Rather presented typed memoranda supposedly written over 30 years ago by President George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard commander, the late Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian. The documents purported to show that Bush received preferential treatment while serving in the military. Hours after the broadcast, well-known bloggers like Little Green Footballs, Power Line, and the widely known Instapundit–as well as NRO’s Kerry Spot & The Corner–were casting doubt on the documents’ authenticity. As the controversy grew, they posted frequent updates and became virtual clearinghouses of information.
The rest is well-documented history, so to speak.
The thing about history, though, is that the efforts of minor players often go unnoticed. During the scandal, high-trafficked bloggers were interviewed on radio and television and mentioned in countless news articles. Two appeared on the cover of Time magazine. But smaller, lesser-known, and lower-trafficked blogs that didn’t get press coverage served a valuable function during Rathergate. By linking to well-known blogs, articles, documents, and one another, they made worthy contributions. A few even conducted their own independent, journalistic-style investigations (often scooping the professionals).
“It all happened organically, without any controlling influence at all, and it happened fast,” says Jeff Harrell about the growth of the blogosphere-fueled controversy. A freelance writer from Texas, Harrell’s blog, The Shape of Days, was frequently linked to by Instapundit as the story picked up steam.
Once the story caught on, it spread rapidly across the web, though some bloggers were skeptical at first. “It just seemed the type of thing that could make the blogosphere look bad if people jumped the gun and start[ed] crying ‘forgery’ without actual evidence,” admits a blogger who goes by the name “Cassandra” and runs I Love Jet Noise.
Rusty Shackleford, a political-science professor who hosts MyPetJawa, says he followed the story very closely but urged bloggers to proceed carefully. “My original post was quoted all over the blogosphere as a word of caution to those boring full speed ahead on indicting the Killian memo.”
He eventually joined the blogosphere’s quest for the truth as he searched the National Archives to find out whether the U.S. Air Force had purchased a typewriter during the stated time frame capable of producing the memos.
Other bloggers saw the frenzy as political noise. “I despise partisan bickering,” insists Harrell. “I thought this story was just another example…I dismissed it pretty early on.”
Once the CBS memos seemed likely to be forgeries, some bloggers began investigating different aspects of the story. “Patterico,” a prosecutor in California, fact-checked ABC News and posted the results on his site, Patterico’s Pontifications. He said ABC News falsely concluded that posters on FreeRepublic.com–the conservative news forum where the hoax idea germinated–were the forgers of the documents.
Patterico contends that ABC News’s conclusion was based on a misreading of the time-zone stamp on the posts, which they had assumed to be Eastern time. “ABCNEWS failed to note that the time stamp was Pacific time. Based on this simple mistake…[the network] falsely concluded that internet (sic) posters had posted their doubts about the documents before the program had ended,” he wrote. ABC News has since corrected the error on its website.
Additionally, Patterico interviewed “Buckhead” and “TankerC,” the subjects of ABC’s report and the first to express doubt about the memos. “I knew that these individuals would likely be the focus of some interest from the media, and that loonies would try to connect them to Karl Rove. I thought it would be interesting for them to get their real stories before the public.”
Now that’s journalism.
Like Patterico, Harrell used the power of the web to gather information and answer questions. “[W]hile the typographic evidence of forgery was pretty good, there was one hole I wanted to fill.” It seemed that the IBM Selectric Composer, an expensive typewriter from the 1970s, might have been able to produce the memos. While that possibility had been dismissed, Harrell continued to investigate. The expert he tracked down, a Composer owner, confirmed it could not have produced the documents. “I wanted to rule it out conclusively,” Harrell said.
While other bloggers parsed news reports and interviewed experts, Bill Dyer used his own expertise to add insight. A practicing lawyer in Texas who runs the BeldarBlog, Dyer verified and posted the professional credentials of lawyer bloggers pursuing Rathergate–such as Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) and Hugh Hewitt–after Jonathan Klein, former executive vice president of CBS News, referred to bloggers as “a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing.”
The effect bloggers have had on traditional journalism as they become fact-checkers, disseminators of information, and “citizen journalists” is still in flux. But the paradigm has clearly shifted in determining what is news and who is qualified to cover it, and smaller bloggers are playing an important role. Tom Maguire, host of the blog Just One Minute, also frequently linked to by Instapundit, says that smaller bloggers can do research to uncover overlooked angles and connections.
Patterico believes smaller bloggers can be noticed. Although larger ones get the media coverage, smaller bloggers can still break stories. “[I]f your message is unique, there is still a good chance it will get attention.”
Others see the importance of blogs and public interaction, particularly during Rathergate. “[B]y making the news cycle interactive, bloggers had essentially resurrected the front-porch aspect of civil life where folks used to gather to discuss the issues of the day,” Cassandra says. Blogging is “revitalizing democracy.”
At least one journalist seems to agree. Chris Satullo, editorial-page editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, recognizes the role of bloggers but stressed that journalists are still necessary. “The idea is not that journalists know what the best result is; it’s that democracy works best when issues get aired, real dialogue happens and ordinary people aren’t shut out of the deal by elites. [A]ny card-carrying civic journalist is going to celebrate the blogosphere.”
Including its smaller stars.
–La Shawn Barber is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C., and hosts her own blog at www.lashawnbarber.com.