Friday, January 14, 2005

How OSJ Could Have Prevented Rathergate

Back in 1999 my friend Andrew Leonard wrote this on

On Monday, Jane's Intelligence Review, the "international journal of threat analysis" (a must-read on your average CIA spook's list), solicited feedback on an article about "cyberterrorism" from the geeks who hang out at the Slashdot "news for nerds" Web site. On Thursday, after the Slashdot members sliced and diced Jane's story into tiny little pieces, an editor at the magazine announced that the story would not be published as planned. Instead, the editor, Johan J Ingles-le Nobel, declared that he would write a new article incorporating the Slashdot comments, and would compensate Slashdot participants whose words made it into the final copy.

"When you ask for feedback you get feedback," wrote Nobel, "and since roughly 99% of the posters slammed the article, even saying things like 'we'd expect better from Jane's', I've informed the author that we're not going to run with it. Instead I'm going to cull your comments together and make a better, sharper feature out of it -- I'll be getting in touch with several of you for more specific details or for more clarification."

This week, CBS released a report on the National Guard documents debacle, firing four producers, but not the head of CBS News or Dan Rather. The story was a scoop of the highest degree. Except that is was wrong. Opinions on how they got it wrong include "staff is all leftists who wanted to get Bush" in the words of PowerLine Blog to the systemic problems of a monolithic monopoly. As has been well reported, the story of the debunking of the documents is the story of blogs
-- as Time trumpeted a few weeks back.

Conservative bloggers -- with an axe to grind -- were suspicious. The night the story ran someone named buckethead wrote this on

"Every single one of these memos to file is in a proportionally spaced font, probably Palatino or Times New Roman. In 1972 people used typewriters for this sort of thing, and typewriters used monospaced fonts. The use of proportionally spaced fonts did not come into common use for office memos until the introduction of laser printers, word processing software, and personal computers. They were not widespread until the mid to late 90's. Before then, you needed typesetting equipment, and that wasn't used for personal memos to file. Even the Wang systems that were dominant in the mid 80's used monospaced fonts. I am saying these documents are forgeries, run through a copier for 15 generations to make them look old. This should be pursued aggressively."

Pursued it was. Picked up by PowerLine's Scott Johnson, the idea that the docs were fakes just gained more and more energy, evidence, conspiracy theories, investigation. Johnson's post, called the 61st Minute, was updated continuously the day after the 60 Minutes piece including a comments like this from Larry Nichols:

As a PSM I had to know every job in Personnel, including the proper filing of documents in individual military records. Memos were NOT used for orders, as the one ordering 1LT Bush to take a physical. This would have done as a letter, of which a copy should have been sent to the CBPO (Consolidated Base Personnel Office) to be filed in 1LT Bush's military record. Memos DID NOT get filed in personnel records.

Then, over at, Charles Johnson simply retyped the suspect document in Word and came up with a document that looked identical, he claimed, to the 60 Minutes document. A blog called INDC Journal ( ran a report of an analysis by a forensic scientist. Legitimate signatures of Col. Killian were dug up. Someone pointed out that the memos feature kerning, which typewriters are physically incapable of. Amar Sarwal found that the Gen. Straud that a 1973 memo refers to actually retired the previous year. Theresa McAteer pointed out that a legit memo written on Sept. 5, 1973, a month after the suspect memo is dated, is typed on a monospace 70s-style typewriter.

By the end of the day, PowerLine's John Hinderaker put it succintly: "60 Minutes is toast."

In a piece celebrating bloggers as People of the Year, Time described the process like this:
"The more comments Johnson posted, the more e-mail he got, which he then posted, generating even more e-mail, and so on. The process turbocharged itself. In all, he updated the post 15 or 20 times over the course of that day. ... By 10:30 a.m., Power Line had an arsenal of arguments attacking the memos-typographical, logical, procedural, historical. ... The Drudge Report, the Mondo Cane grandfather of all right-leaning news blogs, linked to their site about midafternoon, sending a torrent of traffic their way and promptly crashing their Web server. By the end of the day, about 500 sites had linked to Power Line. 'I think it's fair to say that that post that Scott began is probably the most famous post in the young history of the blogosphere,' [Power Line blogger John] Hinderaker says proudly. "

What's interesting about this story is not so much that there are "citizen journalists" out there, doing the job that "real" journalists are not doing. In fact, there was no reporting or investigation to the original post -- just a bit of reasoning and reasonable suspicion. It was the flood of posts from readers that created a virtuous circle of other people's ideas, documentary evidence, and widespread dissemination. It is this ecology of facts, opinions and linking that is best described by the term"blogosphere."

But of course real journalists -- producers, editors, reporters -- are supposesd to be doing this job. It's a massive failure of journalism for this big a story to be based on a hoax, and for CBS to have backed up the story for so long. But it's hardly the only fiasco facing Big Journalism these days. The bitter taste of Jason Blair must still be fresh in press executives' mouths.

Now think back to 1999 and that Jane's piece on cyberterrorism. Is it so crazy to imagine that rather than keeping these documents top secret, going public only in front of millions of viewers and every press outlet in the world, that 60 Minutes would have released a few online, to the blogopshere, and received the benefits of their suspicious, research, and nitpicking? Apparently, a few hundred conservative bloggers have to be tougher than any editor inside of CBS.

When you talk about this, you're talking about Open Source Journalism, which is the opposite of the Art of the Scoop. Open Source Journalism is about getting it right, rather than getting it first. But getting it all is still a job for news organizations; journalism is not dead but it is going to be changing rapidly from here on out.

Will organizations like CBS change with it? Dan Gillmor isn't optimistic: "I don't think CBS is, today, institutionally capable of truly understanding the value of listening to its audience -- of grasping how much help the audience can be in the journalistic process. The network's offhanded dismissal of the grassroots continues even now. (I know there are individual people at CBS who do get it. But they are not running things.) That said, it would have been at least tactically smart for CBS to have acknowledged the grassroots component of this debacle. Common-sense PR should have made this obvious. Is this a cynical comment on my part? I guess so, but I hate to see the network compounding the damage so unnecessarily, in part because (unlike some in the blog world) I still value the good stuff CBS does."

Gillmor, the author of the influential book "We the Media," has long practiced his own brand of Open Source Journalism. Back in 2001, he talked to Online Journalism Review about his own blog at the San Jose Mercury News, a job he recently left to pursue a grassroots journalism project. "There have been occasions where I put up a note saying, 'I'm working on the following and here's what I think I know,' and the invitation is for the reader to either tell me I'm on the right track, I'm wrong, or at the very least help me find the missing pieces."

Despite the buzz about blogs as the new journalism, Jay Rosen, author of the PressThink blog, doesn't think that blogs by themselves represent the end of Big Journalism. "Blogging is only one part of a larger development--citizen's media," he writes, "that forces smart people in the press to confront the paradox of the self-informing public, previously thought to exist only at the level of the primordial village."

A self-informing public is in fact a movement, but it's not necessarily an antagonist to mainstream media -- if journalists will embrace the amazing power of the many, take advantage of their willlingness to inform themselves, and meet their expectations for accuracy. To be fair, it won't be easy because bloggers on both extremes of the political spectrum will be out for blood. But a little blood now could prevent major hemmoraghing in the future.