This is the infamous “Killian Memo”, the blatantly forged document that discredited Dan Rather and CBS News during the height of the 2004 presidential campaign. If this hoax had been deployed prior to the emergence of blogs, it would probably not have been discredited before election day, and might have changed the course of the election.
This image was the iconic representation of the success of bloggers in fighting dishonest smears coming from Big Media. It showed that even the most prominent liberal stars of TV news were vulnerable to an internet investigation involving hundreds or thousands of independent volunteers working and communicating via their computers.
It exposed the arrogance and unaccountability of outfits like CBS, and awakened the hope that they might become answerable for their bias and errors. If newspapers and television could be held to enforceable standards of accuracy — without any dependence on ombudsmen, in-house review boards, peer standards committees, or any of the other devices through which the modern news industry pretends to police itself — then “truth in journalism” might become a real possibility.
The downfall of Dan Rather in the fall of 2004 was brought about by the hard work of a lot of ordinary people, by men and women without any J-school credentials or experience in the field. It was a triumph of a new form of media.
And Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs was the hero of that triumph.
Needless to say, Mr. Johnson wasn’t the only star of the show. The initial exposé of the Killian memo came from Free Republic. Other prominent bloggers were in the thick of it doing important work, including Power Line, Michelle Malkin, Roger Simon, and Instapundit. Bill at InDC Journal played a crucial role when he contacted an expert on typewriters who made mincemeat of the CBS in-house expert’s laughable assertions. Many other smaller blogs, commenters, and forum posters contributed to the effort. It truly was “an Army of Davids”.
A year ago, Jonathan Klein, current president of CNN, airily dismissed the bloggers who dethroned Dan Rather. “These bloggers have no checks and balances… You couldn’t have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances [at 60 Minutes] and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing.”
Of course, it wasn’t so long ago (25 years, to be exact) that CNN was the new media outlet on the block. And the neighborhood kids turned their noses up at Ted Turner’s brainchild. Broadcast newshound Sam Donaldson derided CNN as the “Chicken Noodle Network.”
Time, you see, not only heals all wounds. It heels all mavericks, making top dogs out of underdogs.
The underdogs of our time, journalistically speaking, are bloggers. And the online unraveling of Rathergate was their first unmitigated triumph.
One of the bloggers who led the charge against Rather is Charles Johnson, proprietor of the curiously named Little Green Footballs. Shortly after this triumph, Johnson joined forces with another popular blogger, Roger L. Simon, to form (thumbing their noses at Klein and all other doubters) Pajamas Media.
It’s their contention that blogging has demonstrated journalism isn’t rocket science, nor is it even medicine or law, requiring highly specialized training over a long period of time. Rathergate, the Jayson Blair scandal, and other major media slip-ups too numerous to mention revealed that the mainstream media have no magical wardrobe.
…Johnson and Simon consider the entire blogosphere their fact-checkers. This is a sacred tenet among many bloggers. If a blogger makes a mistake, readers will call him on it right away, either via comment or email. And the blogger is honor-bound to correct it immediately and clearly.
Instead of relying on a few overworked editors to fact-check every story, bloggers count on thousands of other bloggers to, as they like to say, “fact-check their a**.” Bloggers, in other words, lean on the collective knowledge of the entire Internet rather than a handful of elites.
Johnson and Simon claim that, like most bloggers, they will not hesitate to own up to errors. In their view, more established media are too arrogant and hidebound to admit many of their mistakes.
This is the ideal that we all try to live up to. This is what got Dymphna and me into blogging.
Wretchard at the Belmont Club was our primary inspiration, but Charles Johnson was up there at the top of the list of people who set the example.
What does “fact-checking their a**” mean?
During Rathergate it meant that an insistent buzz from thousands of small internet sources and several large ones kept CBS from riding out the Killian memo hoax. The blogs got inside CBS’ OODA loop and kept them off-balance, leaving then unable to mount a successful defense.
The blogs had the facts on their side, but the distributed intelligence of the internet was the informational framework that made their efforts successful. The new media changed the communications landscape in the same way that the invention of the printing press did in the 15th century, bypassing an established hierarchy and opening the field to newcomers.
The blogs that emerged in these new media lived or died based on how closely they stuck to the truth. A neophyte blogger quickly discovers — as Dymphna and I did repeatedly — that any errors of fact are punished instantly from multiple sources. Respect and credibility depend on responding promptly to errors and correcting them with updates.
When dealing solely with opinions, none of this matters, but as soon as a blogger drops a factual assertion into his argument, he comes under the scrutiny of knowledgeable readers who are alert, ready to respond, and never seem to sleep.
My first stumbles taught me to check my facts, and my accuracy has improved. But human error always creeps in, especially when I have prejudices and blind spots that predispose me not to see the facts.
Self-correction is difficult. When I say to a commenter or an emailer, “You’re quite right,” and post an update, it’s painful and embarrassing, but it pays off over the long term.
So what has gone wrong with this process as it applies to the conflict with LGF about Vlaams Belang and Sverigedemokraterna?
As mentioned yesterday, Charles Johnson has left standing a number of erroneous posts on these topics, without posting a public retraction or correction. These are not mere opinions, nor interpretations of photos or rat cartoons. These are actual errors of fact, ones that can be easily confirmed as false if anyone bothers to look up the cited sources.
So why has fact-checking failed in this case?
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The evolution of the blogosphere propelled a number of accomplished bloggers to the top of the heap. Thorough coverage of important issues, good writing, and a reputation for being scrupulous with the truth have given the major players their well-deserved traffic and reputations.
However, an unfortunate side effect of blog fame is the potential for the same kind of unaccountability that has become endemic in the mainstream media. If a blogger can count on maintaining his traffic and popularity, at least in the short term, then natural corrective influences become less important.
A smaller blog simply can’t afford these luxuries, but the risk is there for any blog that becomes large enough.
So how well does the Dan Rather analogy apply to Charles Johnson and Little Green Footballs?
Some aspects of Mr. Rather’s situation seem quite apt. Consider what the The New York Times wrote in the wake of Rathergate, after CBS’ investigative panel issued its report:
Over the next week or so, CBS News issued a number of press statements and “CBS Evening News” reports that staunchly defended the Sept. 8 segment despite increasingly strong indications that the reporting for the segment was flawed. The panel finds that these statements and reports contained numerous misstatements and inaccuracies. Moreover, the panel finds that once serious questions were raised, the defense of the segment became more rigid and emphatic.
But other aspects of the CBS debacle differ from the LGF situation. LGF has no Mary Mapes to take the fall for any errors. There is no corporate board which can ease Mr. Johnson out when he becomes embarrassing. He may suffer an attrition of traffic over the long haul, but it’s also possible that his popularity is independent of any fidelity to the truth, and that he will continue to flourish.
So the analogy, though instructive, is incomplete. This leaves open the possibility of a different denouement than emerged from the whole sordid mess at CBS.
What are the options for Charles Johnson, or for any other prominent blogger who makes significant factual errors?
I see the same three possibilities that faced Dan Rather when the forged Killian memos were exposed:
|1.||Acknowledge the errors and accept responsibility for them, even though they were committed by subordinates. This was not the road taken by Mr. Rather.|
|2.||The infamous “fake but accurate” defense, which acknowledges that the “facts” were bogus, but asserts the underlying truth of the accusations. Dan Rather attempted this strategy, but it never gained any real traction, not even in the MSM.|
|3.||Stonewalling. This was the method most favored by Mr. Rather, and which he persists in to this day, as witnessed by his lawsuit against CBS.|
So far Charles Johnson has preferred option #3, failing to take up any of the suggested corrections posted here yesterday.
But I’m optimistic that this situation might change. After all, Mr. Johnson gained a well-deserved reputation for ferreting out the truth, and letting the chips fall where they may.
This is the final wrap-up of the conflict between CVF and LGF over the issues of Counterjihad Brussels 2007, Vlaams Belang, and Sverigedemokraterna. All the research has been done, the refutations have been posted, and the links are collected together in one place for archival purposes. Anyone who is interested can now look at all the information and make up his or her own mind.
Moving past these issues opens up the opportunity to examine the evolution of the blogosphere.
The internet evolves at an astonishing rate and in unpredictable directions. A lot has changed in the last three years. Big blogs are still important, but thousands of small niche blogs (like Gates of Vienna) have emerged, and are following new strategies and employing new modes of organization.
The distributed intelligence of the internet is expanding to include different functions. Blogs and forums emerge out of other kinds of structures, or form independently and become associated with them. Such structures may include activist organizations, non-profit foundations, interest groups, and political parties. On the blogs and the forums talk still rules, but other organizations are engaging in various forms of action.
As the pragmatic and action-oriented forms of organization collide with the more idealistic world of “pure” blogging, conflict becomes inevitable. It is inherent in the tension between maintaining a principled stance and actually taking effective action.
From these conflicts we can learn and grow stronger.
This is what CVF is all about. Times have changed. The blogosphere has moved on. The center of gravity has shifted into different structures, and the changes continue.
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.
— Bob Dylan, from The Times They Are A-Changin’