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Media and responsibility

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on October 22, 2004
(Issue 2243, The Digital Music Lover)

Dan Rather has learned what is undoubtedly a shocking lesson this fall: The TV networks are no longer able to set the nation's news agenda.

And what's most interesting about this development is that the mainstream media, for the first time, acknowledges that the decentralized nature of the Internet has changed how the national media is held accountable by its viewers and readers.

If you missed the whole shebang, a quick overview. CBS' news division aired a report by Rather claiming to have newly discovered letters from President Bush's former Air National Guard commander. These documents complained of high-level pressure to lie about Bush's performance and make him out to be a better officer than he was.

But within hours of the report being aired, dozens, then hundreds of Internet sites (mostly blogs) began questioning the authenticity of the documents CBS had shown on-air. Specifically, these sites pointed out that the letters – supposedly written in the early 1970s on the typewriters of that period – had superscripted "rd" and "nd" after numbers – like this "2nd" and "3rd" – something that only a very few specialized typewriters of the day did. Instead, the appearance should have been "2nd" and "3rd."

Rather dismissed this questioning as the work of right-wing extremists (the same excuse he gave when journalism ethics experts criticized his appearance before the Democratic National Committee a few years ago).

However, not every blog was conservative, much less right-wing. And soon respected forensics experts began weighing in – including several who, it turns out, had warned CBS News before the report was aired that the documents were likely forgeries, only to have their concerns brushed aside.

What it all means

As we saw with Matt Drudge's blog and the Monica Lewinsky shameathon, the Internet has given all sorts of nontraditional voices a larger role on the national stage. It was the then-small Drudge Report – a right-leaning blog run out of Matt Drudge's home – that first broke the story of the White House sex scandal when the mainstream media had declined to cover the story.

As with the CBS miscue described above, the national media only covered the story after it was becoming widely known through the Internet.

But both cases also point out that while the decentralized nature of the Internet lets activists and concerned citizens bypass the information bottleneck that the traditional print and broadcast media have over TV and newspapers, that grassroots effort can't run with a story all the way.

It was the TV networks and major newspapers and wire services that uncovered the vast majority of relevant facts in the Lewinsky case, and it is also the national media that is continuing to probe CBS' recent behavior.

For instance, your average blogger lacks the connections and resources the New York Times and Associated Press have brought to bear in learning that CBS contacted the Kerry campaign on behalf of the Bush critic who provided the alleged documents.

That sort of story – which has been, if anything, more damaging to CBS News' reputation than the original airing of likely fake documents – only comes about after years of painstakingly developing sources who trust you.

The role of journalism

It should also be pointed out that while more people than ever are online today, that's still fewer than 75 percent. And how many of them saw the blogs that originally called CBS' reporting into question? 1%? 1/10 of 1%?

When CNN and the New York Times reported that CBS may have relied on bogus documents, all of a sudden CBS took the charges seriously. They couldn't simply dismiss the criticism as the work of a right-wing cabal.

Within a week, CBS withdrew the charges made in the story, and said it was investigating both its willingness to base a report on documents it hadn't properly vetted, and its role in serving as go-between for the man who provided the documents and the Kerry campaign.

None of that would have happened based solely on the bloggers.

At the same time, none of it would have happened if the bloggers hadn't originally begun taking a look at the documents and asking pointed questions about the legitimacy of CBS' report.

There is a tendency within the media to not report on each other with the same vigor and skepticism as we report on other institutions. Professional courtesy or not wanting to be accused of sour grapes, news organizations tend to treat the competition's reporting as gospel.

This time, that gospel turned out to be something substantially less – and because those willing to stand up and ask discomfiting questions had access to an audience via the Internet, a major news organization was held accountable for its own sloppiness in a way that would have been unimaginable a generation ago.