Retorting 101 - Dan Rather gets trapped in blogosphere

Friday, September 17, 2004

By Andrew Sullivan

I have a feeling that the biggest news of last week had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the media. We are in the middle of an insurgency against the occupation of the airwaves by that amorphous group called -- in blogspeak -- MSM, or mainstream media. And the latest direct hit has exploded in the illustrious offices of Dan Rather and CBS News.

A brief recap:

Last week, CBS News reported on fascinating and newly discovered documents that purported to show that George W. Bush did not perform his military service in the Texas National Guard adequately and that political influences got him off the hook. The alleged memos -- from Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, Bush's Texas National Guard squadron commander -- are almost certainly fakes. And the fakery was uncovered by a series of blog postings on a variety -- a bewildering variety -- of old, new, and tenacious blogs. Within a couple of days, the news about the probably forged memos had reached full circle to become stories in the MSM itself, with even The New York Times conceding that Dan Rather had almost certainly been hoaxed to some degree or other.

From any kind of perspective, this is not an earth-shattering event. The documents are by no means the only evidence for Bush's lax National Guard service. U.S. News & World Report just ran a far more devastating piece proving Bush's patchy record, a story that was naturally ignored by almost everyone. I know of very few people who believe that Bush's family connections never influenced how he managed to avoid combat during the Vietnam years. And just as few who really believe this is an issue that should determine the election.

What's riveting has been the reaction of CBS. Like Howell Raines and the directors of the BBC before him, Dan Rather seems to believe that journalism is some kind of caste profession, a calling that no amateur blogger can aspire to. His reaction to the questioning of his reporting was pure Raines: These questions grew out of new witnesses and new evidence, including documents written by Lieutenant Bush's squadron commander. Today on the Internet and elsewhere, some people, including many who are partisan political operatives, concentrated not on the key questions of the overall story, but on the documents that were part of the support of the story. They allege that the documents are fake. Those raising questions about the CBS documents have focused on something called superscript, a key that automatically types a raised "th." Critics claim typewriters didn't have that ability in the 1970s, but some models did.

Rather goes on -- but he is obviously twisting in the typewriter ribbon. Notice how he tries to dismiss the queries because the documents were not the only evidence provided in the story. That's a defense? Notice also the red herrings -- the idea that some advanced typewriter existed somewhere that typed like the one in the memo. But in a local Texas National Guard office? And Rather ignores the mountain of other signs that the memos were faked -- the way in which identical forms were created using Microsoft Word, the dissent of Killian's relatives, and finally, the opinion of CBS's own expert who conceded yesterday that he had not even authenticated the papers. "There's no way that I, as a document expert, can authenticate them," Marcel Matley told The Washington Post. The originals were faded copies. No independent expert has vindicated CBS.

This is not the first time that a major news organization has been hoaxed. It happens. But what's stunning is the way in which CBS has responded. Its defensiveness is not the attitude of any journalistic organization truly interested in finding out the truth. CBS's Jonathan Klein even went so far as to say the following: "Bloggers have no checks and balances. ... [It's] a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas." Actually, I'm in sweatpants and a tanktop. But of course, it doesn't matter a jot what a fact-checker is wearing as long as his facts are correct. CBS's apparently aren't.

There's been a lot of hubris in the blogosphere about this, and, indeed, some blogs, most especially Power Line, should get the blog equivalent of a Pulitzer for their dogged pursuit of the truth. But the reality is far simpler and less flattering to bloggers. Journalism is not a profession as such. It's a craft. You get better at it by doing it. And there are very few ground rules. By and large, anyone with a mind, a modem, a telephone, and a conscience can be a journalist. The only criterion that matters is that you get stuff right. And if you get stuff wrong (and you will), you correct yourself as soon as possible. The blogosphere is threatening to some professional journalists because it exposes these simple truths. It demystifies the craft. It makes it seem easy -- because, in essence, it often is.

Blogging's comparative advantage has nothing to do with the alleged superior skills of bloggers or their higher intelligence, quicker wit, or more fabulous physiques. The blogosphere is a media improvement because the sheer number of blogs, and the speed of response, make errors hard to sustain for very long. The collective mind is also a corrective mind. Transparency is all. And the essence of journalistic trust is not simply the ability to get things right and to present views or ideas or facts clearly and entertainingly. It is also the capacity to admit error, suck it up, and correct what you've gotten wrong. Take it from me. I've both corrected and been corrected. When you screw up, it hurts. But in the long run, it's a good hurt, because it takes you down a peg or two and reminds you what you're supposed to be doing in the first place. Any journalist who starts mistaking himself for an oracle needs to be reminded who he is from time to time.

CBS News has failed on all these counts. It did shoddy reporting and then self-interestedly dug in against an avalanche of evidence against it. Rather can blather all he wants about the political motivation of some in the blogosphere -- but what matters is not bias but accuracy. His attitude, moreover, has bordered on the contemptuous. The blogosphere has chewed him up and spat him out. He has acted as if journalism is a privilege rather than a process, as if his long career makes his critics illegitimate, as if his good motives can make up for bad material. The original mistake was not a firable offense. But the digging in surely is. It seems to me that when a news anchor presents false information and then tries to cover up and deny his errors, he has ceased to be a journalist. I'd like to say that Dan Rather needs to resign from his profession. But, judging from the last few days, he already has.

Andrew Sullivan is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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