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Editors Weblog is from the World Editors Fourm, an international group of newspaper editors. It's about trends and challenges facing editors worldwide. keeps track of developments from the British side of the Atlantic. Very strong on online journalism.

Digests & Round-ups:

Memeorandum: Single best way I know of to keep track of both the news and the political blogosphere. Top news stories and posts that people are blogging about, automatically updated.

Daily Briefing: A categorized digest of press news from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.

Press Notes is a round-up of today's top press stories from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Richard Prince does a link-rich thrice-weekly digest called "Journalisms" (plural), sponsored by the Maynard Institute, which believes in pluralism in the press.

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

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September 18, 2004

Rather's Satisfaction: Mystifying Troubles at CBS

Dan Rather and CBS took the risky course, impunging the motives of critics, rather than a more confident and honorable one: Let's look at our sources and methods. What can explain such a blind reaction? Here is my attempt.

After Mr. Rather posed a question to Nixon at a National Association of Broadcasters convention in 1974, Nixon asked pointedly, “Are you running for something?” Mr. Rather shot back, “No, Mr. President, are you?” Link.

Here I take a crack at explaining why Dan Rather and CBS News have disappointed their colleagues, enraged their critics, compounded their losses, endangered the CBS brand and mystified so many observers in the days since their troubles began, which was really only hours after 60 Minutes carried a report on President Bush’s record with the Texas Air National Guard.

That report, which Rather hosted, announced to the nation the sensational existence of documents CBS had failed to authenticate.

This is the crime of which the network stands accused in the theater of election year politics, and in a longer history of resentment that some see as coming to a fiery end in Rather’s acts of self-destruction. Whether that’s true or not, CBS has to understand that its news division has become protagonist (or villain) in a 60 Minutes-style scandal story, an investigative drama, not just an investigation.

The documents were “sensational” because of the revelations in them about the character and conduct of the President in a bitter election-year struggle. If they had forgeries inside them, then the charges CBS aired were very likely attempts at political sabotage. For the network to be involved in something like that goes beyond bounds of forgivable error.

Here’s author and journalist Susan Tifft, on the Newhour with Jim Lehrer, talking about it:

CBS and Dan Rather in particular are really sort of the poster children for all the charges of bias, left-wing bias in the media, so I think CBS in particular is very much, you know, not on the ropes exactly, but certainly the focus of a great deal of attention. And people inside CBS are very concerned about this.

So I think what their legacy is going to be from this and how we’re going to remember this incident in journalism I think is going to depend a great deal on how they handle it.

Legacy hour. That means we’re in the theatre of reputation, and Rather is himself the major character, although it was supposed to be not Dan Rather under trial but fellow Texan George W. Bush. Big Journalism is involved. Kid Internet. Military Service. Democratic Activists. The Liberal Media. The Bush Clan. Texas Power Circles. The DNC? To say “this is theatre” is not to diminish the story, but to suggest why it’s grown so big.

Bringing devastating memos into a campaign’s final sprint is like bringing pistols on stage. You better know what you are doing at that point in the script. It’s theatre when tensions in the “little” story match up with larger tensions in the political atmosphere, which the news audience can sense. The resolution of the mess at CBS could thus figure in the psychology of the election, or if not that then the fate of network news and Big Media from here on. We’ll have further investigation. We will also have further theatre:

And when he was caught out, mostly by a legion of bloggers who seemed to know more about the subject than he did, Mr. Rather responded like a politician caught in a scandal, attributing partisan motives to his critics while ignoring most of the charges against him.

That’s from Byron York’s effective overview in Opinion Journal. Ernest Miller’s annotated timeline is also a most valuable document. The authenticity of the memos came under doubt almost right away. And as Miller shows, almost right away Rather began behaving under a weirdly opposite premise: That there was no doubt the memos were authentic. And where the cry rang out… then prove it! he shouted back something else that was weird: I already proved it.

To which many people said: huh? This, then, is a moment to bear in on.

A clear sign that the weight of collegial opinion in the press establishment is now against Rather and in favor of “huh?” is this paragraph in Friday’s New York Times account:

“They have not convinced me they properly nailed it,” Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, said of CBS. “If they are going to make an assertion or allegation or use documents, they certainly better be sure of them, because the validity of the assertion is going to be questioned, the process by which you make your assertion or present your information has to be transparent and CBS hasn’t hit that target yet.”

The newsroom mind has a simple switch for judging stories like this. You nailed it. You didn’t. Nailing refers to the kind of sourcing and documentation required to authenticate what the story claims is true. If you publish a work of investigation, and it raises serious charges against important people, but you haven’t nailed it, then you are guilty of malpractice. You should pay a heavy price for that.

When Bill Kovach—former Washington bureau chief for the New York times, former editor of the Altanta Constitution, former head of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, former ombudman for Brill’s Content—says “they didn’t nail it,” that means 60 Minutes failed peer review.

In Rather’s mind—and it came through in his statements—60 Minutes had already passed peer review in its reporting on the Guard records. They had already been declared authentic by the toughest judges there are: himself, his producers and other CBS News people. This is from Saturday, September 11, three days after the original report aired. Rather to Howard Kurtz:

“Until someone shows me definitive proof that they are not, I don’t see any reason to carry on a conversation with the professional rumor mill,” the CBS anchor said. “My colleagues and I at ‘60 Minutes’ made great efforts to authenticate these documents and to corroborate the story as best we could… . I think the public is smart enough to see from whom some of this criticism is coming and draw judgments about what the motivations are.”

Document authentication couldn’t be taking place on the Internet. It had already taken place. It had happened behind the scenes when the story and the memos supporting it checked out to Dan Rather’s satisfaction. Which became a factor in events: Ladies and Gentlemen, Dan Rather’s satisfaction has been met. You can return to places now. It amazes him that anyone else’s system of doubt could establish the public standard for a checked out story.

For who has higher standards than Dan Rather, the people of 60 Minutes, the News Division of CBS? Who knows more about the art of corroboration? Mary Mapes, the CBS producer whose name is also on the Texas Guard story, had been working on it for some five years. (And bloggers render their verdicts over night!)

60 Minutes, the editorial franchise, had long ago established itself as the most successul news and investigation program ever, just as CBS had long ago established itself as the gold standard in broadcast news. And on all kinds of stories, all over the world, Dan Rather had long ago established his own reputation as fearless, hard working, incorruptible, tough on everyone, in the pocket of no one, a classic big story reporter.

That’s a key thing to know about Rather: yes, he’s anchored the news on CBS longer than anyone, even the great Cronkite. But self-definitionally, he’s still a reporter, the hustling correspondent who outworks everyone else. (This tells you he’s a romantic, as well.) The reporter in him authenticates the anchorman. “Rather has always taken pride in unchaining himself from the anchor desk to cover wars, political campaigns and various other crises,” wrote Howard Kurtz this week.

There was a political legacy connected to reporter Dan Rather. It included, in his mind, being hated for his toughness. He was conscious of it. And like anyone who is hated for public reasons he had to explain this reaction in a way that was not hateful or harmful to himself.

“I try to look people in the eye and tell them the truth,” Rather said. “I don’t back up. I don’t back down. I don’t cave when the pressure gets too great from these partisan political ideological forces,” he said to Howard Kurtz. (Note the triple adjective: partisan, political, ideological.)

“Anybody who knows me knows I’m an independent, I’m not politically inclined, except I love to report on politics,” he told Jim Rutenberg. “My job is to follow important stories wherever they may lead me.” This is his statement about professional character. It explains to Rather why he’s been hated. It’s also his way of tuning us out.

We’re politically inclined. He’s not.

He’s professionally independent. We’re not.

He has to go wherever the truth leads a man. We don’t have that burden.

We’re free to take sides, and we do. He’s not free, and he doesn’t.

Call it the self-image of the politically lonely truthteller, the maintenance of which became a big factor in what Rather said when he began to speak into the national microphone last week. It wasn’t the standard: we stand by our story. It was… We stand by our story, and look who we are. To those with questions about the documents (“are they authentic, journalists?”), Rather and company gave the argument of credentials (“we are authentic journalists.”) Now, if the Guard story crashes so do those credentials. But this is Rather’s instinct, bound up in his sense of personal honor. As the Los Angeles Times reported:

Although many others helped report and corroborate the story, Rather said, “I’m of the school, my name is on it, I’m responsible.”

I’m of the school. You have to tune into his sense of theatre. Rather is a secret incendiary. His pattern—escalate the drama—can be seen on the CBS Evening News when a natural disaster strikes; he’s always the most emotional, the closest to apocalypse. Rather is the only network anchorman to employ a “hot” style; all the others are emotionally cool, which is thought to be a requirement for longevity in television.

Escalation shows in his answer to one of the first questions thrown at him last week. Will you investigate the memos given the rising doubts? Instead of saying: we stand by our story, and, yes, we will continue to investigate all sides of it, Rather chose the “steadfast plus” option. We stand by our story and there is no need to investigate.

Again, this creates more theatre. If the memos are fake, then his confidence seems faked, and he becomes a more comic figure on stage, taking a big public fall. “Your pride gets in the way,” said Ken Aueletta on the Newshour Thursday night, trying to explain how it happened. “And your chest puffs up and you say, full speed ahead. And maybe you shouldn’t.”

But an excess of pride only goes so far in explanation. William Safire thought insufficient pride was shown:

To shut up sources and impugn the motives of serious critics - from opinionated bloggers to straight journalists - demeans the Murrow tradition. Nor is any angry demand that others prove them wrong acceptable, especially when no original documents are available to prove anything.

Safire’s right about that. And I still want to take my shot at explaining how it happened that Rather took this risky course, impunging the motives of serious critics (“from opinionated bloggers to straight journalists”) rather than the more confident and honorable one: let’s look again at our sources and methods, and investigate what happened to make us think we nailed it. Even better: an outside team gets to the bottom of it, and in a few days publishes a report. That’s what CBS should have done. It’s outrageous that sane options like these weren’t even considered.

Rather pre-empted all the cautious moves because his instinct was to escalate. His instinct was to escalate because he saw in critics only their motives: to discredit the reporter who raises tough questions about candidate Bush. Rather had anticipated this— but by way too much. “They will attack the messenger because they don’t like the message” fit too well the theatrical terms in which he saw himself. This is from the New York Observer’s Joe Hagan:

Mr. Rather said that the focus on questions over the veracity of the memos was a smoke screen perpetrated by right-wing allies of the Bush administration.

“I think the public, even decent people who may be well-disposed toward President Bush, understand that powerful and extremely well-financed forces are concentrating on questions about the documents because they can’t deny the fundamental truth of the story,” he said. “If you can’t deny the information, then attack and seek to destroy the credibility of the messenger, the bearer of the information. And in this case, it’s change the subject from the truth of the information to the truth of the documents.

“This is your basic fogging machine, which is set up to cloud the issue, to obscure the truth,” he said.

I think he fell into a crazy kind of professional love with the Mr. Smith-ness of it. A powerful and extremely well-financed fogging machine against the lone reporter and his team of light-shiners. He wanted that confrontation to come. It fit his sense of theatre. It authenticated everything about him.

The verification stage was over, he thought. It has been settled by CBS authority, inside CBS offices, in the counsel CBS kept with itself. Those who wanted to question it could consult the CBS legacy, or Rather’s accumulated rep. This was not about verification, he thought, it was a confrontation with the rich and powerful, with the Republicans and their fogging machine. He had planned for an investigative drama. He thought it was legacy time in the truthtelling biz.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Howard Kurtz, Michael Dobbs and James V. Grimaldi investigate in the Washington Post (Sun. Sep. 19):

An examination of the process that led to the broadcast, based on interviews with the participants and more than 20 independent analysts, shows that CBS rushed the story onto the air while ignoring the advice of its own outside experts, and used as corroborating witnesses people who had no firsthand knowledge of the documents…

As the days begin to blur for [executive producer] Josh Howard, he embraces the same logic: “So much of this debate has focused on the documents, and no one has really challenged the story. It’s been frustrating to us to see all this reduced to a debate over little ‘th’s.”

Indeed, that is the big mystery. Jim Rutenberg in the New York Times (Sep. 19): “One mystery among CBS staff members is why network officials remained so confident for so long about the documents as so many questions arose.”

See also In the Rush for a Scoop, CBS Found Trouble Fast by Josh Getlin, Elizabeth Jensen and Scott Collins, Los Angeles Times (Sep. 18).

Read Jeff Jarvis, blogger and “Big Media Guy” (as he sometimes calls himself), in the New York Post on what CBS should have done (Sep. 19): Dan’s Mistake: “They should have said to the bloggers, ‘Thank you — and welcome to journalism; we can use your help.’”

Dawning of The Pajama Press. Michael S. Malone, writing in his Silicon Insider column at ABC News (Sep.16).

The heroes of this story are, of course, the denizens of the blogosphere. The Pajama Press has won. They have been the welcome counterweight to the increasingly unbalanced message being purveyed by the MSM this political season. I’ve written a lot about these folks in the last few months, mostly with admiration, but mixed with a little fear. Their power and influence has been building now for several years.

Few people noticed that the Web readers of many major publications, like The New York Times, were now greater than the print readers; or that Web-based movements were creating swings in everything from the stock market to Nielsen ratings. All the pieces were in place for a radical discontinuity — and now it has come.

And take note of this disclaimer ABC News runs: “This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.” But also see Tom Watson, Don’t Praise the Bloggers, which argues a different case.

The Chicago Tribune’s Howard Witt (Sep. 18): “…Welcome to the “blogosphere,” the chaotic new media world where questionable truths joust with plausible fictions, agendas are often hidden, and motives are frequently mixed, and millions of ordinary citizens clamber to offer their own rumors, opinions and jeremiads. All of which is either very bad or very good for the republic and the future of the American free press, depending on your point of view.”

Jay Currie’s useful round-up has links from when the story was first emerging: Blogs vs. 60 minutes.

Ben Wasserstein, op-ed in the Los Angeles Times (Sep. 19): “The blogs picked up the story, but they couldn’t carry it to the finish line alone. They were complemented by traditional media but never came close to supplanting it. The bloggers who first cast doubt on the CBS memos deserve congratulations, gratitude and, of course, their time in the sun. This has been another moment of triumph for this dynamic and emerging field, and it will surely not be the last. But it has been a moment, not a revolution.”

Howard Kurtz: After Blogs Got Hits, CBS Got a Black Eye (Sep. 20)

Cathey Young, column in the Boston Globe (Sep. 20): Memo stirs old vs. new media war.

Edward Wasserman in the Miami Herald (Sep. 20): The transparency trap. “To me, the cry for transparency isn’t about holding media accountable; it’s a way to make certain media discountable. It creates a rationale for ignoring content you dislike by dismissing it as the deliberate product of unshakable prejudice.”

Flunking peer review: “The fact is CBS used those documents as the smoking gun,” said Alex Jones, head of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. “I don’t believe Dan set out to mislead anybody, but he’s got to stand up and take a bullet. His credibility and that of CBS are very much on the line.”

Roger Simon on the Rather reporting by Michael Dobbs of the Washington Post: “The blogs may have broken the story open, but Dobbs is now doing the heavy lifting.”

Jonathan V. Last, What Blogs Have Wrought, in the Weekly Standard: “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, 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.”

Dan Rather interviewed by Howard Kurtz Sep. 16:

“If the documents are not what we were led to believe, I’d like to break that story,” Rather said in an interview last night. “Any time I’m wrong, I want to be right out front and say, ‘Folks, this is what went wrong and how it went wrong.’ “…

“This is not about me,” Rather said before anchoring last night’s newscast. “I recognize that those who didn’t want the information out and tried to discredit the story are trying to make it about me, and I accept that.”

CBS News: official statement on the matter from Sep. 15 (pdf form)

“Journalism in the Age of Blogs.” Kelly McBride at Poynter Ethics Journal (Sep. 16):

It’s a sure bet that bloggers will continue to challenge and undermine the work of journalists. In response, journalists will get better and tougher. Anticipating the constant scrutiny, reporters will tell readers and editors where they got their information, why they think it’s sound, what they did to check out their sources.

Journalists can no longer assume the audience will trust the story. Instead, newsrooms will take extra steps to articulate their mission and educate their audience with every story, every day. This is what we did. This is how we did it. This is why you should trust us. We used to hide all this. We didn’t want the competition retracing our steps, tracking down our sources, doing a better story. The mystery of making the news is no longer worth preserving.

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 18, 2004 2:42 AM   Print


Hmm ... lots of armchair psychology there. I find something missing around here:

"They had already been declared authentic by the toughest judges there are: himself and Sixty Minutes people."

But *why* had they been declared authentic? I think eliding that, whatever it was, leaves the rest lacking. Once he had a firm belief in their authenticity, then he reacted defensively, reflexively. But if his belief was reasonably well-founded on the information available to him at the time (even if that information was completely wrong), then it's hardly deep to observe that he lashed out against critics (who turned out to be right). There really are people who hate him with a passion, and as the cliche goes, if Dan Rather walked on water, Fox News would headline Dan Rather can't swim.

That is, in a sentence, you say that a veteran journalist couldn't believe he was conned, since it conflicted with his self-image as a smart tough reporter, so he thought his critics must have been political liars.

But, to me, that's not very interesting, it's prosaic. Instead, I'm interested in how he got conned in the first place.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at September 18, 2004 4:00 AM | Permalink

But Dan's been conned before--remember the CBS Report about messed up VietNam vets? Why is Dan falling on his sword to protect his producer, who clearly has a had a political agenda for a long time.

Posted by: Kate at September 18, 2004 8:51 AM | Permalink

"Instead, I'm interested in how he got conned in the first place."

I'm interested in knowing whether he was conned at all.

People in New York seem to be unwilling to consider the possibility that Dan knows far more about these obvious forgeries than he is letting on.

Hatred of George Bush has blinded many people. Why in the hell is it a default position that Dan Rather can't be included in the number.

Remember, he said his source was UNIMPEACHABLE.

Everyone knows that's absurd. Instead, lets take him at his word. And unimpeachable in this context means to me, FELLOW-TRAVELLER. Who really believes Dan Rather is an independent?

And all the Democrats did immediately run with this story in an incredibly coordinated fashion. The stink from this is unmistakable. Follow it.

Posted by: RattlerGator at September 18, 2004 9:16 AM | Permalink

This is a great (if depressing to read) summing up of Rather. The picture that emerges (to me) is that of a bloated, arrogant public figure whose excesses have finally reached the point where their consequences are beyond his egomaniacal power to hold back.

I like the idea of Rather's intuition being to "escalate". We all know people like this. Questioning their facts is the same as attacking their person, because *they* wouldn't get the facts wrong, you see. Plus they're locked into an adversarial attitude with anyone who disagrees with them.

No doubt Rather also sees himself standing up and taking a blow for all the "little" people who worked with him on the Killian memo story. (Not only is he defending their honor, he's using them as shields--it isn't just Crazy Dan who worked on this story, it's all these upstanding men and women, although Crazy Dan will take the heat because that's the kind of guy he is. Just ask him.) Only ego could have robbed Rather of the perspective necessary to see that dismissing all the experts and bloggers and reporters and sources as partisans or dupes "attacking the messenger" was only making it worse for him.

Perhaps a more interesting question is why CBS News is letting him do this. It's interesting that you have other CBS News figures, around the edges of this story, evidently confused as to why Rather is doing what he is doing. Where are, to borrow a cliche, Rather's bottom line-obsessed corporate masters in all this? I thought that's what greedy oligarchs were for--to clamp down on this kind of loose cannon. And what about the other players in this drama, like USA Today and the Boston Globe? Are they going to be able to squirm away because the Rather meltdown is providing them convenient cover?

Meanwhile we get to see another story about the media investigating the media. Rather's documents have already been traced back to a town suspiciously close to an old Bush nemesis, Bill Burkett (not my idea of an unimpeachable source). But beyond looking at the header on a fax and connecting two closely situated dots I suspect we're not going to see any wonderful, 60 Minutes-style investigative journalism about CBS News or Rather. Pace Finkelstein, the press doesn't like to rat on its own.

Posted by: Brian at September 18, 2004 9:41 AM | Permalink

Seth F: But *why* had they been declared authentic?

RattlerGator: I'm interested in knowing whether he was conned at all.

I agree with this. CBS had been given the same six documents that USA Today had, but went to air with, and only posted, four. Why? Their "experts" did not authenticate the documents. Mapes and Rather may have felt that there was enough corroboration with what the documents said with Strong, Moore, Burkett (assuming he's the confidential source) and Hodges (assuming CBS misunderstood him or he validated the content before he said CBS misled him). I think this defense of "Fake But True" and "answer the question" tells us much about their thought process in airing the program.

Now that Staudt has decided to break his silence and speak out against this story, making it "Fake and False" and Knox was interviewed postmortem telling.

I find the preponderance of the evidence at this time points to CBS knowingly using documents that had been given to them from a discredited and partisan source - not "unimpeachable" by any stretch of the imagination. That CBS used four documents from a batch where serious questions had been raised about at least two if not all six documents (and these memos are obvious frauds).

I find it much more believable that this was a story either "too good to check" or one that they went with knowing that it contained questionable documents, two of which were not used because their experts raised doubts. They used the documents to get the interview with Barnes, who lacked serious credibility without the memos.

I think the one-sided nature of the report and highhanded defensiveness afterwards was a decision on the part of 60 Minutes, and later CBS News, to bolster a house of cards.

But without an investigation, it's just my opinion, isn't it?

I am also bothered by the fact that the creator of these fraudulent memos forged them with the signature of deceased Air Force Lt Col Killian, and that doesn't seem to be an important factor in the reasoning to "out" the source.

I think USA Today could break this by admitting their documents are frauds and naming their source.


Posted by: Tim at September 18, 2004 10:19 AM | Permalink


Posted by: zing手机铃声下载 at September 18, 2004 12:10 PM | Permalink

Jay, it is very useful to have a recapitulation like this. It does contain reasonable judgments and it sets a baseline for the next step of examination. Thanks.

Posted by: sbw at September 18, 2004 12:31 PM | Permalink

CBS' Experts

Three of four of CBS' experts have come out saying the network's documents could not be verified. The last, James Pierce, is not happy with CBS either:

Posted by: Tim at September 18, 2004 3:44 PM | Permalink

From kf:

Why is it significant that retired Col. Walter Staudt denies he sought favorable treatment for George W. Bush when the latter was in the Texas Air National Guard? ... That is, he's alive, was cast in an unfavorable light by CBS' almost-certainly-bogus documents, and can sue for libel. ... A Staudt suit could change the dynamics of Danron in ways I undoubtedly don't fully comprehend. But here's a first stab: ...
I wonder if the Killian family couldn't join that lawsuit? Would a lawsuit against CBS rally the MSM to their defense, or are the actions of CBS a greater threat?

Seems to me I was recently hearing shrill voices counseling Kerry to sue the SBVT? I wonder if it piques any litigious liberals if documents were fabricated, the signature of a deceased Guard officer was forged (Killian), and another officer (Staudt) was cast in a false light?

Would that constitute a smear campaign?

Posted by: Tim at September 18, 2004 6:35 PM | Permalink

RATHER MUST GO: Andrew Sullivan psychoanalyzes Rather thus, "Here's an explanation: Rather is arrogant, out of touch and biased beyond belief. He thinks he's running a political campaign, when he is supposed to be a journalist."

Posted by: Tim at September 18, 2004 8:43 PM | Permalink

Allah speculates:

The point? If the LA Times is right, then Kerry's campaign had Burkett's information before CBS got the memos from its mystery source, a possibility that until now had seemed unlikely given the six-week timeline mentioned in the Post on September 10th. Not only that, but the story seems to have attracted Mary Mapes's renewed attention right around the same time that Kerry's people were getting stuff from Burkett. An interesting coincidence, no? We already know what Steyn thinks.

Posted by: Tim at September 18, 2004 9:10 PM | Permalink

Commenter #3 (RattlerGator) says :

People in New York seem to be unwilling to consider the possibility that Dan knows far more about these obvious forgeries than he is letting on.

Freepers seem to be on a roll these days and I think this is what's registering for a lot of liberal bloggers. Days before the RNC, some people at DailyKos almost got punked by freepers passing as counterconventioneers offering lodgings to out of towners. During the RNC, Protest Warriors and other so-called guerrilla anti-activists infiltrated the marches in NYC and are held responsible for the fire that broke out during the United for Peace and Justice march.

Since the Rathergate broke, you have a man who seems to be a professional punching bag for mythical freeper haters every election year since 1996 ( Rising Hegemon: The Bogus Assault -- Father Freeper of the Year (should buckhead not be able to serve) ). And now, thanks to LA Times, it looks like, yes indeed, Rather was either punked by a freeper lawyer who goes my the moniker Buckhead or this guy knows who is the punker ( Blogger Who Faulted CBS Documents Is Conservative Activist ).

There is an awful lot of people out there more than willing to do the GOPs dirty work and it's not just "the little people". Maybe because these are the first truly blogged elections, distributed fact checking has become the monster under big media's bed. Maybe the proliferation of social networking tools have made coordinating of these kinds of dirty guerrilla tactics easy, thus reaching what seems like a fever pitch.

I think that GOPers of all persuasions are scared. These are incredibly close elections and, given that p, there is a tacit encouragement of the grassroots to do anything and everything they can.

Will it work? Maybe. Maybe not.

At least a historical record of these elections is already in the making and available in the greatest public library of all time, the internet. No one party will be able to claim control of the facts --Google, our trustworthy and standards loving librarian will make sure of that.

And that's the only positive thing about all these messes. Will it be the same in 2008? I highly doubt it. This kind of distributed fact checking will not be news anymore.

Posted by: Liza Sabater at September 19, 2004 2:38 AM | Permalink

hey uncle good piece. just in case you hadn't noticed, one of Kos's weekend people put up a mainpage post quoting and linking to this piece in BOP. some idiot decided to attack your credentials in the comments. people including myself came to your defense. anyways say hi to everyone for me.

Posted by: julia at September 19, 2004 10:14 AM | Permalink

Very interesting post, Liza. Your description of Rather as a "professional punching bag" for the Right is quite apt. Now that we know who Buckhead is (politically-active Republican lawyer and member of The Federalist Society) his possible connection to events deserves careful scrutiny. And I think that will happen. What will also happen, of course, is premature conclusion-drawing about his role in the plot-- but that's a given these days.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at September 19, 2004 2:52 PM | Permalink

Jay, I've come to a somewhat different take on this CBS News/Rather fiasco. I know that probably doesn't surprise you, and I want to be sensitive not to appear to be engaged in one-upmanship instead of an exchange of views - a conversation.

What can explain such a blind reaction?

A month ago, I wrote some harsh words about journalism from a point of view of authority. Peter Parks wrote in part:

... It's certainly true that after hours, days or weeks of reporting, journalists as human beings come to a story with a certain point of view that might not reflect every reader's point of view. But it's a viewpoint of authority based on research, a questioning of assumptions, and fair play for all points of view.
To which I responded:
Journalists are not authorities on other professions. Journalists get more wrong about a story then they get right, more often than not. They develop Master Narratives to more efficiently communicate using automatic thinking.

Research? Journalists are at best symbiotic and at worst parasitic. They are not researchers.
It seems to me that this case with CBS News/Rather/Mapes is a hypermedia example of a common everyday occurance where reporters supplant their own authority for whom to believe or what constitutes evidence/fact and when substantiation has been achieved ("nailed down") on any and every topic.
[Journalism's] credibility has never been better than every good journalist's commitment to do the best they can, under the circumstances (which usually involve constrained time and resources). Which is to say compromised, though understandably so. (Searls)
The press are SELDOM authorities on anything other than the business and art of their trade - seldom the subjects or "objects" of their coverage. But prior to the information age, the feudalistic nature of "establishment" - and especially broadcast - media allowed a faux authoritarianism ("gatekeepers") of what constituted "unimpeachable" information.
What's changed is the involuntary outsourcing of fact-gathering and -checking to a growing assortment of amateurs and professionals who are largely external to the profession. What we need isn't competition between blogs and mainstream news outlets, but a working symbiosis between the two. (Searls again)
What I think we're seeing in the blogosphere is not just an outsourcing of fact-gathering/checking - but pushback. Perhaps fact-gathering/checking motivated by pushback. Pushback motivated by dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction born out of misrepresentation, from being misquoted, from being villified and meeting combatitive and highhanded defensiveness when asking for corrections. Until we stop calling with corrections and start publishing them independantly; growing in numbers, multiplying, self-organinizing into a blogosphere.
[Sulzberger] said that what upset him after the Blair scandal is that The Times received relatively few calls from people mentioned in Blair's stories.

"They just generally assumed that newspapers operated that way," he said.
Perhaps a great visual example of the result of symbiosis is this graphic from WaPo which brings together in a compelling way the distinct and distributed (content, style, typographical) concerns raised (and connected via links) across the blogosphere.

What can explain such a blind reaction?

1. Understanding the process and culture that precedes such a reaction. Where, in the war zone of Gotcha! journalism, a "deafening silence" is an admission of guilt, corroboration means tricking sources by withholding information, and such a leap in judgement can be made to the assumption of document authentication because Bartlett didn't scream fraud when presented with documents alleged to be from a dead man's personal files either upon receipt or within hours before broadcast.

2. Understanding the culture that creates the "view from authority" within pressthink and "its refusal to accept the constraints of the reality principle" in favor of the theater, the legacy, the Pulitzer Prize winning combativeness until PROVEN DEFINITIVELY wrong.

Posted by: Tim at September 19, 2004 3:19 PM | Permalink

(This comment is cross-posted at BOP)

Untangling the threads here is extremely difficult, because the partisan right and the partisan left are making contradictory claims about power and journalistic integrity.

The partisan right is saying that Rather and CBS represent a system of power that is unchecked and responsible to no one but itself, and this episode illustrates just how corrupting this kind of system can be. This seems rather beyond dispute, as Rather and CBS are not acting as an agency which feels responsibility to explain itself to the public who it generically holds to high standards. CBS says so, so it's so. In most cases, CBS gets the story precisely right, but on a deeper level it is the editorial choices about what it chooses to cover that are the subject of dispute, even if the lens is through the lack of precision in this particular story. Michelle Malkin illustrates this point perfectly. Despite the heaps of factual inaccuracies and misleading rhetorical turns of phrase in her book massacring the historical memory of the internment camps, she will bray about a populist/blogger revolution against old media. Glenn Reynolds, who held anti-war activists as objectively pro-Saddam, dislikes the old guard media, as does Michey Kaus, who has a terrifically irresponsible legacy of factual inaccuracies and editorial biases. In their claims that old media is losing power because it is unaccountable they are accurate, but where is the system to hold them accountable for what they say or advocate?

Some may hold that the blogosphere itself holds them accountable, but it does not. Despite Ed Cone's claim that Malkin's book has been discredited before it even came out, it seems pretty clear that her book is now being inserted into the narrative about WWII, that Japanese-Americans were interned because of some need for national security. This is a wholesale massacre of history, done using the same methods that are taking down CBS. So this is about populism, but it's also about a sort of top-down populism where the insertion of ideas can be purchased.

In other word, the right-wing blogosphere (as a much smaller adjunct of the right-wing press and radio empires), claiming the mantle of populist fury worthy of Spiro Agney, fanned the flames of a story about factual precision and unaccountability at CBS into a power grab for a strong political agenda. And that's why I suspect CBS has such a hard time with this story. It's obvious that the right has no interest in telling a true story here, but in telling the truth CBS would be ceding power to them anyway. And with the Swift Boats having such currency despite its clear falsehood, CBS was making a counterclaim that no, you, the right-wing, don't get a clear pass to buy your version of truth.

So the right-wing deserves credit for keeping this story alive and braying, even if the initial discrediting came from a political operative, as seems fairly likely (the discrediting came within a few hours of the story). But any credit given to them for unmasking the truth behind the lack of precision in Rather's claims would be quickly frittered away to perpetuate a larger right-wing lie about the direction of the country.

By contrast, the left partisans have a different problem, and that is they have no serious agenda to get behind. All they have is an angst that their interests are threatened by a group of dangerous dishonest people, and a ruinous rage at the same types of power arrangements that the right dislikes (such as 'the media', which if it has an address might as well be located at CBS headquarters). As a result, any claim to power by the right must be illegitimate, by definition, because all those claims to power are dishonest.

The lack of WMDs, the Swifties, the tax 'cuts', viciousness of this administration, the horrors of Abu Ghraib, all of these are enough to make one bet that the right's claims to anything are basically self-serving and irresponsible. Thus, when CBS, a weird combination of a powerful media group which the left dislikes airing a story that the left needs about Bush's irresponsible and dishonest past, is under attack, the responsible is a knee-jerk repudiation of the claims of the right-wing. The journalistic establishment is perhaps the most irrelevant group here. They have no credibility among either the right or the left, for they have failed to stake out any reason why either side should believe their judgment on any but the smallest of stories.

John Kerry cannot at this point credibly claim that he will do much differently in Iraq, or on the economy, or as a leader in general. His surrogates can make that claim, I can make that claim, and third parties can make it, but he cannot, because while he will criticize the President on the matters that seem most serious - lying to the American people - what is really going on sits three levels below that discourse. It is what Dean was talking about, the lack of participation in governance, the lack of a place for citizens in American politics or media. Neither Bush nor Kerry is saying that this election is about 'us', the people, in the sense that we must take responsibility for our country and its actions. And Rather's claim and the right-wing reaction and populist revolt were a continuation of this superficial struggle over who owns truth. Rather wants CBS to own it, the right wants Fox and the grassroots right to own it - both are corporate autocracies which the left finds scary, but the former at least gives the left a bit more relevance while the latter allows for genuine participation, as long as that participation is rooted in the right ideological framework. CBS will give you no path to participate - the right gives you Free Republic, or any number of blogs or talk radio shows.

Until the left-wing can develop the ideological foundation for its newfound populist structure - the blogosphere, Air America, Democracy Radio, the left book empire, etc - it will be overmatched in such a struggle. And until establishment journalists can figure out their own response to the demand to participate, it will be left to the most powerful and vibrant political force in American society, the right-wing.

Posted by: Matt Stoller at September 19, 2004 3:20 PM | Permalink

Couple of corrections, if I may:

Jay: Your description of Rather as a "professional punching bag" for the Right is quite apt.

That was not Liza's description. She was actually describing Phil Parlock as a "professional punching bag". The Left considers Mr. Parlock an actor whose theater is opportunistically showing up at Democratic events and holding up Republican signs in order to provoke a confrontation for news coverage. You know, free speech means you're not allowed to dissent at my rally.

Now that we know who Buckhead is (politically-active Republican lawyer and member of The Federalist Society) his possible connection to events deserves careful scrutiny.

Don't forget TankerKC's role. I'll bet he has ominous conservative leanings and ties as well. Of course, this is a distraction by the Left still chasing down the VRWC, and part of the problem with the Left that Matt recognizes.

Matt: It's obvious that the right has no interest in telling a true story here, ...

The Right accepts that Bush's National Guard service was characterized appropriately by George Magazine (that bastion of conservatism) as Not Heroic, Not AWOL.

It's time to set the record straight . . . . Bush may have received favorable treatment to get into the Guard, served irregularly after the spring of 1972 and got an expedited discharge, but he did accumulate the days of service required of him for his ultimate honorable discharge.
But that's not enough, is it? The Democrats need the "full smear". That was the point of the memos. This was a dumb story in February this year and continues to be, but has found new fire in order to extract revenge for the SBVT. In fact, it was probably the partisan anger and frustration on the Left at watching their "chest full of medals war hero" candidate effectively being questioned that motivated this fraud/forgery. So now the "truth" of Bush's service, which wasn't a compelling story, has become a story about CBS' complicity in a dishonest political attack. And despite all attempts to cast it as a Rovean trick, it has implicated the DNC and Kerry (see Burkett, Cleland, and Kinkos).

So the right-wing deserves credit for keeping this story alive and braying, even if the initial discrediting came from a political operative, as seems fairly likely (the discrediting came within a few hours of the story).

This is true but misleading. The discrediting was down by the political operative on the Left that created fraudulent documents, forged Killian's signature and the passed them on to Kerry's campaign and Mapes/CBS News.

All they [the Left] have is an angst that their interests are threatened by a group of dangerous dishonest people, ...

An angst that BOPNews feeds, fans and perpetuates from what I can tell by villifying and demonizing conservatives through stereotypes and memes, thank you very much.

They have no credibility among either the right or the left, for they have failed to stake out any reason why either side should believe their judgment on any but the smallest of stories.

That's true, but my impression is that ideology is filling a vacuum for determining crediblity. That vacuum has developed over the decades as people came to distrust and disbelieve the press. I'm skeptical that ideological agreement is a good determiner of credibility - whether at Fox News or CBS News or BOP News.

CBS will give you no path to participate - the right gives you Free Republic, or any number of blogs or talk radio shows.

The left gives you Democratic Underground, Eshaton, DailyKos, .... The Left still struggles to catch up on talk radio, but then there is an absence of broadcast TV shows for the Right. Not sure how that balances out, but I do think talk radio has an immediacy for motivating grassroots reaction that the Left does not have except for the Internet.

Until the left-wing can develop the ideological foundation for its newfound populist structure - the blogosphere, Air America, Democracy Radio, the left book empire, etc - it will be overmatched in such a struggle.

I don't think the Left is ideologically bankrupt. It is captive to competing extremes without a rallying point of its own. As a result, the Left went looking for an external rallying point - ABB, Bush-hate, Right-angst.

Hardly anyone is voting for Kerry and too few are voting against Bush. Lots of folks are voting for Bush and a few are voting against Kerry. And as Kevin Drum points out, it's on an issue as well as character.

Its the difference between the Right winning the House in 1994 and losing the White House in 1996. In 1994, the Right had something to vote for AND vote against. In 1996, there were only reasons to vote against - and that wasn't enough.

I do think there is room for the Left to give voters a For and Against argument on Iraq, the top issue. But it is not FOR: Domestic spending, AGAINST: Iraq spending; FOR: Staying in Iraq, AGAINST: Staying in Iraq; etc.

Posted by: Tim at September 19, 2004 5:48 PM | Permalink

Dear Seth

If you read Kurtz from Sunday you will see that Rather, Mapes, et al conned themselves. They didn't investigate the documents seriously, didn't authenticate them beyond the signature, which on a faxed document is useless as an authentication method, and ignored their own assembled experts who were telling them the documents had problems. Why? Well, here is where playing psychologist becomes necessary, and the winner is (among those millions submitted by the analyzers): They wanted the story to be true and in their hearts they believed it to be true. And when the White House didn't react their desires and beliefs were validated. (Of course they gave the WH only hours to react and its doubtful that it even had time to digest what it had been sent before the story went to air.)

Anyway, I notice a pattern in your comments. 1.) The blogosphere is only so much ho-humery. 2.) It didn't really have any impact here. 3.) It's interaction with the MSM is not the interesting story, etc. etc.

One wonders what it is here that you want and need to be true. This is not an ad hominem. I merely pose it to ask if there is some paradigm you hold that should be exposed and that is causing you to view the story in a light different from any other commentator. Though I do agree: the question that is most interesting is who sent the documents and will CBS ever feel enough pressure that they reveal the identity of this figure.

Posted by: Lee Kane at September 20, 2004 12:41 AM | Permalink

Lee, yes, the very latest coverage has examined what I've wanted to know about the story, and I've been reading it with great interest. To me, it's a study of so many reasoning errors - denial, groupthink, hearing only what you want to hear, etc. Also a phenomena I call the "corrupted web of trust" - Andrew trust Dan, who trusts Mary, who trusts Ben. But Ben is wrong. But nobody wants to say so because it reflects so badly on the whole group.

Regarding what I want, I find blog triumphalism very annoying, on many levels. One, it's not true - it can't be true *mathematically* (we can't all have a million readers). Two, it's extremely cruel, a version of "Let them eat cake". No offense taken, but my perspective on this is not hidden. If you're interested, see an interview with me where I go into this in much detail.

Blog triumphalism is one viewpoint that people "want and need to be true", and on some of the reasons I sympathize deeply. But that doesn't make it true. Per Jay's cite, see Tom Watson's piece.

Now, I should hasten to add that the blogs breaking the story did top-notch investigative work here. But if the huge media had uniformly dismissed the story itself, that work wouldn't have been heard outside a very tiny audience. Again, that's simple mathematics.

Perhaps I shouldn't write such comments, on the basis that there's no point.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at September 20, 2004 3:06 AM | Permalink


I've been annoyed by "blog triumphalism" in the past myself, however this story is one in which complaints about triumphalism seem particularly uncharitable. I was particularly interested in this comment:

"But if the huge media had uniformly dismissed the story itself, that work wouldn't have been heard outside a very tiny audience. Again, that's simple mathematics."

This is a very strange thing to say. It would seem more accurate to say that, whatever the media's wishes, weblogs made sure they couldn't ignore this story. You seem to be taking the influence of individual writers and of weblogs as a whole out of the equation, as if that's possible. What is the size of the "very tiny audience"? Do you even know? And if the media heard and ignored the criticism of Rather's hoax, wouldn't that have been an even bigger story? Wouldn't it be reflected in (at least) some of the more widely read political magazines? You act as if the media had a choice. Did it?

The sentiment I'm detecting is close to resentment (correct me if I'm wrong). Something like webogs *shouldn't* matter. What I find far more annoying than weblog triumphalism is the fact that the media has to be kicked in the shins before it investigates itself.

Simple mathmatics is that relatively few people read New York Times Magazine. Relatively few people watch CBS News these days. I'm not even clear what you infer from the "tiny audience" of weblogs, so I'll reserve further comment on your observation.

Posted by: Brian at September 20, 2004 9:34 AM | Permalink

The left gives you Democratic Underground, Eshaton, DailyKos, .... The Left still struggles to catch up on talk radio, but then there is an absence of broadcast TV shows for the Right. Not sure how that balances out, but I do think talk radio has an immediacy for motivating grassroots reaction that the Left does not have except for the Internet.

Yes, that's true, but the ideology of the left is as yet bankrupt when it comes to incorporating such a grassroots structure. Movement conservative is an odd beast, half populist and half billionaire-bought, but certainly its populist wing is incredibly important and absorbed within the ideology.

Posted by: Matt Stoller at September 20, 2004 10:58 AM | Permalink

Brian, the sentiment might be resentment, but it's not "weblogs *shouldn't matter". It's that, with the debatable exception of a very very few high-traffic sites or well-connected individuals, weblogs *don't* matter. Compared to the audience of big media, the number of people who would see a a story on blogs, especially a non-echo of a mass media story, is minuscule. Do I really have to dig out readership statistics for this?

In fact, blog triumphalism is most mistaken in cases like this one. For example, there are plenty of very rich, very journalisticly powerful, major media people who would be overjoyed to destroy the reputation of Dan Rather and/or CBS as a credible news source. So if blog-writers do an investigation which provides useful material to that end, the Rather/CBS opponents will gladly use that ammunition. But don't confuse the blogger's power (near zero themselves) with major media power (CBS-level).

*Ought* it be this way? It just *is*.

Now, people might be mistakenly reading it as put-down. I don't intend it that way. But just because some relatively powerless people did something that was enthusiastically adopted by extremely powerful people, does not support any idea that there's been some sort of realignment in power.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at September 20, 2004 1:01 PM | Permalink

Seth, Yes, I actually would like you to dig up statistics to back up your claim that weblogs as a whole have a "tiny audience". I don't know why you take that point as a given. "It just *is*" is not, pardon me for saying, a very convincing argument.

I don't believe the Rather hoax would have played out this quickly or this badly for Rather without the work that was done advancing this story in weblogs. To be sure, that assertion is (like your counter-claims) largely based on intuition, but I think there are some cogent arguments for it. Even if you allow that weblogs merely sped the story up a couple of days, maybe a week, I'd point to that as a huge impact on a post-September campaign schedule where the major parties struggle mightily to set the agenda. I'd say that weblogs are at least as significant as some of the major columnists, although I'm always ready to hear arguments that MSM columnists don't matter either.

More important than pageview stats (and I can already guess how that discussion will go) is another question I pointed to: that size of audience is only one (perhaps unimportant) part of the equation. The fact that MSM feels compelled to write about and explain weblogs (e.g. the role they played in exposing the CBS hoax) should tell you something.

Posted by: Brian at September 20, 2004 1:36 PM | Permalink

Roger Simon has published his day statistics of approx. 25,000 unique viewers. Instapundit gets 300543. Daily Kos: 267202 Hugh Hewitt 73303.

There are many more.

It's enough to have a catalytic effect.

Posted by: John Moore at September 20, 2004 2:20 PM | Permalink

Concept Report from Personal Technology. JupiterResearch
"Weblog readers currently comprise only four percent of the online community, and Weblog creators, only two percent."

That's "of the online community", note.

"Emily Will said she called the network that Tuesday and repeated her objections as strongly as possible. "If you air the program on Wednesday," she recalled saying, "on Thursday you're going to have hundreds of document examiners raising the same questions."

Being a colorful story is not the same as having power.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at September 20, 2004 2:30 PM | Permalink

John Moore: Note my phrase "with the debatable exception of a very very few high-traffic sites or well-connected individuals, ..."

Sigh. I really shouldn't do this stuff :-(.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at September 20, 2004 2:32 PM | Permalink


I don't know how many readers blogs have, although isn't Instapundit doing something like 300,000 visits per day? If he were a print pub he'd be in the top couple dozen newspapers in the country in terms of circ. If he were a cable news show, he'd be a hit, etc.

However, I think it's less important how many are reading the blogs. vs. who is reading the blogs. There may be something of a "tipping point" at work here. People very interested in the subject of media and politics read the blogs; those people are in turn opinion leaders within their circles or actually work for media orgs. In other words, the readership is well-placed enough that anything credible posted on a popular blog is likely to percolate into the mainstream media and into watercooler discussions where that information is then in fact disseminated to very large numbers (millions or tens of millions) of people, as has happened in the CBS case. (Yes, anyone could have uncovered the stupid forgeries, but the point is no one did --except the bloggers. It is reasonable to speculate that without blogs this CBS scandal never happens.)

In this sense, using the power of "tipping points," the blogs punch way above their weight. I don't know if this is triumphalism. Certainly, some blogs are crowing, but I think to focus on emotional byproducts over net effects is to miss the entire point of what is happening to the path information takes as it flows down the mountain. One might even be excused for thinking that information is now, on occasion, starting to flow up the mountain. Is that triumphalism?

Even if it is, does it negate the underlying reality/paradigm shift/chaing in media ecosphere climate?

I do not think it does.

Posted by: Lee Kane at September 20, 2004 3:01 PM | Permalink


I agree that without the MSM carrying the bloggers' water on this story to the mainstream... the scandal's impact is lessened or made null. But then the question becomes: in a competitive, ideologically impure news environment, can well-placed bloggers be ignored? In other words, the argument turns on this: was it a *choice* of the MSM (pretending for a moment that the MSM is a single rational entity) to pick up the bloggers reporting on the documents? Or was it inevitable that the story get picked up, ie, the MSM was without choice.

I personally vote for the latter. Observing the story, it appears that much of the media did in fact seek to minimize, misreport or ignore what was happening on the blogs, but a few reporters didn't at various times because the lure of a good story was just too good (first it was ABC that paid attention only to later ignore the story; then it was USAT, which pursued it only to later drop the ball. Finally, the WP came on late and delivered the coup de grace). In other words, it almost seems like the story came out in the MSM against its will--because like it or not, the MSM is in the news business, and blogs as a whole are connected enough that if it becomes huge news in blog land it can't be ignored in MSM land--at least forever. And then the dam starts to crack and you end up with today's CBS statement.

Posted by: Lee Kane at September 20, 2004 3:20 PM | Permalink

typo: it's "impugning", not "impunging"

Does CBS have an ombudsman? Assuming the answer is "no", would it have made a difference if they had?

Posted by: Anna at September 20, 2004 4:18 PM | Permalink

Matt Stoller,

You're making a lucid point here but, at the risk of sounding obsessive, bad journalism by the mainstream press is what makes Matt Drudge, Fox News and Mickey Kaus viable, not to mention the Swifties.

Seth's point that the mainstream press have, collectively, a much louder and more authoritative voice than any collection of bloggers is valid too, but they're squandering it. If the press had not voluntarily abrogated, as Rather said in his BBC news interview two years ago, its responsibility to act as the counterweight to the enormous voice of the government and popular panic, at least some of the issues you describe would simply not be in play now.

I happen to think the press surrendered its identity as the Fourth Estate a decade or so before Rather noticed, but I don't see as arguable the notion that since 911, the press have functioned as a gross parody of themselves. The New York Review of Books and Campaign Desk have, on a monthly and daily basis respectively, devoted almost their entire energies to quantifying the failures of the press, and they've barely scratched the surface.

So, yes, the left don't yet have the institutional and communications infrastructures that the right have devoted the past three decades to building, with their various think tanks and media presences, but that distorting of the debate, or at least that weighting of it, would be limited by an actual functioning mainstream press. The left are certainly victims of themselves, but they're also victims of a misplaced trust in the integrity of the press.

And I'm not sure that you're right in describing the right machine as allowing genuinely populist participation; I think it's more a matter of having created a convincing illusion of it.

The point of all this is that, Kerry's inability to speak in sound bites aside, the most powerful issues available to the left have been so poorly covered by the press that they sound absurdly radical when they're articulated.

I also think that a populist movement profoundly influenced the Democratic primaries this year, through the medium of Howard Dean. Dean's fundraising success brought home to the press the idea that opposition to the invasion of Iraq was not low and outside, but a fairly widespread sentiment. The polls reflected that prior to the invasion, although press coverage certainly didn't. So what Dean did, and the medium through which he did it, was as close to a genuine populist expression from either party as we've seen in some time. It significantly altered the framework within which the invasion was discussed; not nearly enough, but enough to make a difference.

And finally, I think all the mainstream press tributes to the blogosphere are so much wanking. It's just another avenue for failing to accurately assess themselves.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Posted by: weldon berger at September 21, 2004 12:30 AM | Permalink


I think you must realize that your hastily assembled links don't answer either of my questions (the second you seem to be assiduously avoiding--and no *sigh* you shouldn't do that). Have you actually read the report you link to? Moreover, your link to the JuptiterReports site only gives an ultra-brief thesis of the report--the body of it isn't available without an account with Jupiter. I'm sure you were aware of that too. Is that all Google came up with for you on a moment's notice?

And I do hope you realize how many people 4% of the online population is. Or maybe you don't, your links don't actually say. But how does it compare with, say, the average MSNBC audience share? Maybe Chris Matthews could get a blog and *gain* influence! (Oh wait, he already has one, or at least his personal assistant who writes under his name does.)

And why do you think the audience (however large or small it is) has no influence or connections, i.e. is read by no one of significance?

Just curious.

Posted by: Brian at September 21, 2004 1:09 PM | Permalink

Brian, I must demur, I am afraid I haven't the time to write extensive research and detailed statistics of blog-audience versus major-media news. And even if I did so, there's always the reply that the blog-readers are the "influencers", so a microscopic audience doesn't matter. This objection is nigh-unanswerable.

I also find it discouraging that I repeatedly note that are indeed a few blog-writers with large audiences, but these are far more like mainstream media columnists than otherwise.

As I noted, that comment was done very quickly, just to show some grounding for my statements.

I did skip the second question, but just because I was trying to keep the contentiousness down. I have a recent essay which in part replies to why the MSM writes about bloggers.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at September 21, 2004 1:33 PM | Permalink

Seth, I guess this falls under the heading of "claims made on weblogs sometimes lack supporting evidence." As for contentiousness, I would say your statements about weblogs are provocative (though not in a bad sense) and worth answering, but they need to be followed up beyond a brief "I *know* weblogs aren't influential." Especially in response to a story that initiated on weblogs that got hat tips in major media outlets which did follow-up work.

Is Glenn Reynolds more like a media columnist than a weblog writer? Maybe, in the sense that he's not a great writer and sometimes has difficulty reaching escape velocity from his ideology. His published columns certainly don't impress.

But he's really mastered the art of drawing together diverse strands of input from all over the media and Internet and making something that is more than a digest. Which, come to think of it, is what makes Instapundit a weblog and not a column. So I think you're off-base on this point as well.

Posted by: Brian at September 21, 2004 1:52 PM | Permalink

Let me put it this way: If someone claimed that graphitti on bathroom walls was as powerful as TV news, we could always go down a path of "But everyone uses the bathroom! What's the audience there? It must be millions. How do you *know* it's not influential? Unless you write me a disseration, we just can't know. So thus we must accept that bathroom graffiti is a powerful as TV news"

I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on the null hypothesis or the burden of proof.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at September 21, 2004 3:03 PM | Permalink

Ken Schram's Commentary: Rather Wasn't Duped

The network anchor is sinking.

And it's all because Dan Rather set out to prove what he already believed.

He believed he could nail President Bush because he believes the President is lying.

Now Dan Rather says he's sorry.

Know what?

I don't believe him.


But I don't get that Rather is one bit sorry that he's given people yet another reason to question the accuracy and integrity of broadcast news.

I don't get that Rather gets the implications of this.

Rather now says he made a mistake in judgment, then adds it was an error made in good faith.

Good faith, my foot.

Dan Rather wasn't duped.

He got exactly what he went shopping for.

Just like someone who buys a $10 Rolex off some guy on the street.

Believe it.

Posted by: Tim at September 21, 2004 9:04 PM | Permalink


Thanks for proving my point. Regards,

Posted by: Brian at September 22, 2004 4:20 PM | Permalink

Jay wrote: Legacy hour. That means we're in the theatre of reputation, and Rather is himself the major character, although it was supposed to be not Dan Rather under trial but fellow Texan George W. Bush. Big Journalism is involved. Kid Internet. Military Service. Democratic Activists. The Liberal Media. The Bush Clan. Texas Power Circles. The DNC? To say "this is theatre" is not to diminish the story, but to suggest why it's grown so big.

SPJ Ethics: Relevant portions violated by CBS News IMO by airing and then lashing out at their critics. And yes, perceived "wingnutters", whether from the Left or Right are readers, listeners, viewers and each other.

Seek Truth and Report It: Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

Journalists should:
  • Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.
  • Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.
  • Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability.
  • Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.
  • Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.
  • Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.
Act Independently: Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know.
Journalists should:
  • Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
  • Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
Be Accountable: Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.
Journalists should:
  • Clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct.
  • Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media.
  • Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.
  • Expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.
  • Abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.
Something I noticed that may be missing (besides community or nation) is the use of experts: identifying them, their credentials, and how they contributed to the story. CBS trying to keep their experts anonymous and, if true, telling Matley not to give interviews should be something the SPJ ethics code addresses.

Posted by: Tim at September 22, 2004 8:09 PM | Permalink

Courtesy of Bud Vesta (H/T: Hugh Hewitt):

The Ballad of Dan Rather
(Sung to the tune from the Beverly Hillbillies)

Come and listen to my story 'bout a man named Dan,
The documents were fake and he didn't give a damn;
He put 'em on the air, an' he thought he'd done the job,
But up from the web come a howlin' mob.

Blogs, that is.
Web logs.
Checkin' facts.
There's more at the link. Y'all stop by, now, hear?

Posted by: Tim at September 29, 2004 2:09 PM | Permalink

From the Intro