The blogosphere vs. the mainstream media

AUSTIN, Texas — Just two months before the tight and hotly contested 2004 Presidential Election between George W. Bush and John Kerry, CBS aired a 60 Minutes segment that was critical of Bush’s service in the Air National Guard.

“Tonight, we have new documents and new information on the president’s military service,” Dan Rather said in introducing the show. He explained that CBS had obtained four “authentic” documents allegedly written by Bush’s Texas National Guard commander in the early 1970s, the late Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian. The documents claimed Bush disobeyed an order to appear for a physical exam, and that friends of the Bush family tried to sugar coat his service.

CBS’s News Producer, Marry Mapes, had been following a story about Bush’s military controversy for years. So when Bill Burkett, a former Texas National Guard officer, presented Mapes with copies of memos supporting her investigation, she never questioned the authenticity of the purported papers and saw it as breaking coverage for CBS.

To what extent do bloggers play a role in holding the media accountable for the news they cover? 

In order to beat the competitors, Mapes assembled an unprepared report of Bush’s military service and rushed the story on air before properly obtaining clear authentication of the memos by document experts. She failed to confirm the original source of the documents and never investigated Burkett’s anti-Bush background.  Mapes also ignored the warning signs during her telephone conversation with General Bobby Hodges—Killian’s commanding officer during the period in question. Hodges told Mapes he believed Killian never ordered anyone including Bush to take a physical.

Dan Rather had just returned from covering the Republican Convention and Hurricane Francis. He was more distracted than usual to cover such a big story, so he entrusted the reporting to Mapes. The new 60 Minutes management team also relied on their well-respected news producer and failed to ask questions.

“There are a lot of logistical reasons the story was rushed on air,” Michael Whitney, a former Senior Broadcast Producer at CBS evening News and journalism professor at the University of Texas, said. “The immediate reaction, mine and everyone else at CBS was to not assume the story was wrong.”

A zealous belief in the truth of the story led Mapes, and those who trusted her, to let their guard down and disregard some fundamental journalistic principles in preparing and reporting the segment.

Immediately within hours after the episode aired, discussions challenging the authenticity of the documents surfaced on internet forums and conservative blogs.

Scott Johnson, a blogger for the Power Line, started raising questions focused on alleged anachronism in the documents typography. The charges quickly spread to other blogs and the information began streaming from the blogosphere.

The bloggers speculated that the memos looked like they were written on a modern computer instead of a 1970s military typewriter. The stylistic differences with other documents attributed to Killian, dated information and improper lingo were also disputed.

“These bloggers seemed to have discovered that the documents might be false because when Colonel Killian was alive, no electric type writer existed that had the certain type face on it that was on those documents,” Whitney said. “So that was the first suggestion that something was wrong with the story, that the story was flawed.”

Soon the accusations spread to the mainstream media and by the following day, the CBS controversy was front-page news on The New York Times and the Washington Post.

The network defended the story for weeks but later assigned an independent review panel to conduct an investigation on the issue.

The panel showed the memos as forgeries and faulted CBS News for negligence in the way it handled the documents. Eventually, the story had to be retracted.

“We deeply regret the disservice this flawed 60 Minutes Wednesday report did to the American public, which has a right to count on CBS News for fairness and accuracy,” CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves said.

Mapes and several other senior producers were fired or asked to resign, and Dan Rather later stepped down as anchor of the evening news. CBS’s credibility, 60 Minutes and Dan Rather’s image were tarnished in the public eye.

The incident affirmed the power of the blogosphere in holding the news media accountable for their work. A new era of journalism had arrived in which non-journalists used the internet to demand higher standards in the news media. The blogs provided a new medium for people to communicate and gave them a voice they did not have before with traditional media.

The bloggers were able to quickly syndicate a cliché they found in the media’s reporting process in a short period of time.

“I thought it was just a bunch of people sitting around in their pajamas working on their computer at night,” Whitney said. “I’d never heard of the blog. I didn’t know what the hell the blogosphere was. And all of a sudden we’re consumed by the blogosphere by the time I came into the office the next morning.”

One can suggest the blogosphere fights complacency through keeping the news media on their toes by holding it accountable for honesty and monitoring what it fails and lacks to do as the American watchdog.

This leads us to the big question we ask now: How many times have CBS or other major news organizations been able to do this and gotten away with it before the blogosphere emerged?

The bloggers first made a splash on mainstream media in 1998 when The Drudge Report published the infamous Monica Lewinsky scandal. Leakage of Bill Clinton’s alleged affair with a young intern unfolded on cyberspace instead of the morning newspapers. The story originally belonged to Newsweek magazine, but it never made publication until three days after the scandal had already been widely gossiped about on the internet.

Traditional media got scooped out by the blogosphere. The scandal represented a visible sign that the nature of journalism was starting to change.

That change came in the form of bloggers ability to manifest stories the networks failed to report.

Just last year, American news organizations came under fire and faced tremendous criticism for their failure to expose Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards for his extramarital affair with a campaign worker.

Sam Stein, a blogger for the The Huffington Post, broke the Edward scandal when he published a report about a set of short documentary films Edwards had commissioned before he ran for candidacy–but they no longer existed afterwards. The object of the videos was to portray Edwards as a sympathetic guy with a down-to-earth light that could potentially benefit his presidential campaign.

“Now, however, nearly all traces of the ‘webisodes’ – as they became known – are gone,” Stein wrote on his blog. “This closed-off approach naturally aroused my interest.”

Just a few weeks later the National Enquirer [A supermarket tabloid] picked up the story and built on Edwards’s revelations, announcing that he was having an affair with Rielle Hunter—an aspiring producer who proposed the films idea to Edwards in a New York City bar and later produced them.

Steve Clemons, publisher of the weblog The Washington Note, collaborated with Stein and began his own column. The affair was soon lampooned by late-night talk show hosts Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien while the Huffington Post led the report. The scandal was also covered by many foreign newspapers, while the mainstream media still has not mentioned it.

Many Americans found themselves reading detailed accounts of the allegations on the internet long before the news organizations started their reporting nine months later when Edwards finally gave a television interview to ABC News and admitted to the romantic relationship. Suddenly a story that the networks had ignored became front-page news and rocked U.S. media.

Many news organizations maintained that they remained silent because Edward had officially denied the allegations. Critics argued though that perhaps the media was too easily accepting of the denial rather than conducting diligent journalism.

Mainstream media lifted their blanket of silence to reveal a story the blogosphere had already uncovered a long time ago.

Likewise, another incident the media overlooked came in 2002 when Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott made a controversial comment praising Senator Strom Thurmond’s old segregationist theory at Thurmond’s 100th birthday.

“When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him,” Lott said. “We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”

The comment was broadcasted live on C-SPAN, but no one in the national media took notice.

Josh Marshall, founder of the popular blog Talking Points Memo, along with other bloggers quickly zeroed in.

“That story failed its 24 hour audition,” Marshall said during an interview with  reporter Lowell Bergman. “And I think in a pre-blog world that would have been the end of it.”

But it was not the end of it, because the blogosphere snatched up the story and unpacked what the networks overlooked until it received national attention from the mainstream media.

A few days later, Lott issued a written apology and just two weeks after the incident he resigned as Senate Majority Leader.

The bloggers claimed victory for keeping the story alive.

Equally as affecting, another role the blogosphere plays on mainstream media is its monitoring the press and keeping it accurate and honest.

In 2007, bloggers for several online news organizations, including Salon’s Glenn Greenwald as well as other independent bloggers such as Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake held Time Magazine accountable for factual errors in a story it published.

The magazine’s star political pundit, Joe Klein, wrote a column attacking Congressional Democrats for their efforts to craft the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act [FISA]. According to Klein, the Democrats’ bill would force the government to obtain court permission every time it wanted to eavesdrop on a foreign surveillance target.

Klein was wrong.  Had he read the legislation he would have understood that under the house bill, individualized warrants are required if the U.S. Government wants to eavesdrop on the communications of Americans but not for every foreign terrorist target calls.

Klein gave a misleading message to readers and dug a bigger hole for himself when he posted several more articles insisting that he was right. Time was also hammered by the bloggers for inadequately responding to Klein’s post. It continuously backed his writing instead of requiring him to correct his errors.

The bloggers persisted their attack on Klein and Time Magazine until he eventually admitted to his fault.

“I may have made a mistake in my column this week about the FISA legislation passed by the House,” he wrote on the Time’s blog.

In the end, Time Magazine retracted the story and published a corrected version.

Mainstream media failed to police themselves, and through the intervention of the blogosphere their carelessness was caught.

However, the blogosphere doesn’t always get the story right.

“Who’s to say the bloggers are accurate. The bloggers have their own opinions and their own agendas, and so who’s to say their right over the journalist,” Kate Weidaw, a reporter at KXAN Austin News, said. “There’s so many blogs out there. Just because a blogger got one story right doesn’t make that blogger the expert on journalism and fact checking.”

The bloggers got slammed in 2006 when they questioned the credibility of the Associated Press.

The AP wrote a story in which six Sunnis were doused with kerosene and burned alive by Shiite militiamen while the Iraqi military stood watching.

After the story published, Lieutenant Michael Dean, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Navy Multi-National Corps-Iraq Joint Operations Center, sent an email to the AP in Baghdad demanding the story be retracted, because the military had checked with the Iraqi Interior Ministry and was told that the AP’s primary source—an Iraqi police captain named Jamil Hussein—did not exist.

Dean’s letter quickly appeared on several conservative blogs, prompting heated debates about the story and criticism towards the AP.

Powerline, Newsbusters, The Jawa Report and Flopping Aces amplified these doubts and called the story “bogus.” The bloggers accused the AP of fabricating the story to make conditions in Iraq appear worse than they really are.

The AP countered attack by releasing a follow-up story citing eyewitnesses to the incident. The article explained that the Interior Ministry later acknowledged the Iraqi police officer whose existence had been denied by the Iraqis officials and the U.S. military is in fact an active member of the force. It also reported that he was facing arrest for speaking to the media.

Once the AP had substantiated the story as well as it could, Bob Geiger, a writer at Blogspot, slammed the conservative bloggers for wasting time by singling out one story in the media and trying to prove it wrong while ignoring thousands of other hideous stories coming out of Iraq. He and several bloggers wrote articles defending the AP and bashed the blogs involved calling that they apologize to the AP.

Nonetheless, for all its faults the blogosphere can be seen at the new emerging press watchdog. And while the blog world plays a role on the mainstream media’s stage, its primary purpose, though, should not be emphasized that it tries to keep a leash on the news media or should even be seen by journalists as a threat.

The blogosphere merely gives the public a forum to voice their inquiries to the media and the world, which in turn creates an interactive community between people and press. So bloggers won’t make professional journalists take their jobs anymore seriously because they already are. It won’t make the mainstream media be more accurate than they already are.

“The three rules of journalism are accuracy, accuracy and accuracy,” Mike Tharp, the executive editor at Merced Sun-Star newspaper, said. “If the reporter is right in her facts, she doesn’t need to worry much about the blogosphere.”

There’s much more to be developed in the blogosphere, but it should be seen as a source that sets the agenda that keep stories alive. The blogosphere should be seen as a tool for the mainstream media to work with and not against.

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