January 14, 2005 | 10:23 AM ET

" Closely-watched media humbled," is the headline on a column in USA Today, where Philip Meyer writes:

When Internet commentators known as bloggers started pointing out the anachronism in the typeface of the documents purporting to show George W. Bush dodging his duties in the Texas Air National Guard, they weren't telling CBS anything it hadn't been told before.  Emily Will, a document specialist in Raleigh, N.C., was one of the people hired to vet the documents.  She sent CBS an e-mail three days before the broadcast, pointing out the problem.  The producers ignored it.

What gives bloggers their power is not their access to information but their ability to put it on the public agenda.  After the broadcast, when CBS posted the documents on the Internet to back up its story, the hue and cry of the bloggers could not be ignored.

Things aren't really getting worse, he says -- we've just started noticing how bad they are:

Some commentators have said CBS violated historic journalism standards by going public with unverified information.  But before the Internet, the standard wasn't really that high.  Journalists could get away with more because they weren't watched as closely.
One old-fashioned investigative technique was to publish unverified information in the hope that the resulting uproar would smoke out new sources that would provide the verification.  That's exactly what The Miami Herald did in 1987, when it reported presidential hopeful Gary Hart's overnight liaison with Donna Rice.  It had moral certainty that it was telling the truth, but not legal certainty. That came only after its story had been out for several days and other investigators came forward with pieces of the puzzle.

Yes, in retrospect, the things that we've learned about the media in the past couple of years have caused me to reassess any number of previous Big Stories, and wonder just how much truth they contained.

And Jay Rosen, who chairs NYU's Journalism Department, isn't impressed with the way media bigfeet like Dan Rather have dissed the bloggers.  Rosen writes:

I kind of resent your attitude toward your numerous critics who operate their own self-published sites on the Web.  They were being more accurate than you were, much of the time.

Yes.  Bloggers aren't perfect, but they don't have to be.  Nobody does.  But Big Media can no longer stand on their credentials; it's track record that matters, and the track record doesn't look that great.

Journalist Dan Gillmor says that CBS, and Big Media in general, should listen to its audience.  I think that's good advice.  I wonder how many of them will take it?

January 12, 2005 | 12:41 PM ET

Media meltdown, Rathergate continues

The RatherGate story keeps going on, as Howard Kurtz spends a second day on the story at the Washington Post.  Here's the part that caught my attention:

If there is one line in the 224-page report on CBS News that has set critics aflame, it is that there is no "basis" for concluding that Dan Rather and his colleagues had a "political bias" in pursuing their badly botched story about President Bush's National Guard service.
What, they say? No evidence?

"In any fair-minded assessment of how CBS performed and why they so badly butchered their own standards, that has to be part of the explanation," said former New York Times reporter Steve Roberts, now a professor at George Washington University.  "It's not just that they wanted to be first, they wanted to be first with a story that was critical of the president."

When bloggers notice something like that, it's one thing.  But when establishment journalists like Steve Roberts are pointing out that CBS was doing its best to hurt Bush and help Kerry, then the message has gotten out.  As it should.

Elsewhere on this site today, Howard Fineman announces the death of the mainstream media as a political entity.  He calls it "The American Mainstream Media Party," and says it began when Walter Cronkite spoke out against the Vietnam War, and ended in 2004, when people quit trusting the mainstream media.

I think there's a connection, of course:  Political parties aren't noted for their honesty or lack of bias, and when the media became a sort of political party (which it denied for years, but which is now so obvious that Fineman can pronounce its death) it became less honest, though it's not clear that the press was ever as disinterested as it sometimes pretended.  That's why when Fineman writes, "Still, the notion of a neutral, non-partisan mainstream press was, to me at least, worth holding onto," I think he's wrong.

The reality of a neutral, non-partisan mainstream press would be worth holding onto -- if it had ever existed.  But it didn't.  What Fineman identifies as a golden age of neutrality was really a sham, and an artifact of two short-lived phenomena:  First, Democratic/liberal political dominance so widespread at the time, at least among politicians and the press, that there weren't a lot of things to fight about; and, second, the inability of people who noticed bias and dishonesty to get the word out.

Neither situation obtains today.  And rather than talk about the demise of neutrality and objectivity in news reporting, it might be better to note that CBS's problems, and the problems with Big Media in general, stem from an obvious and heavy-handed lack of neutrality and objectivity, coupled with a dishonest -- and increasingly lame and obvious -- effort to pretend otherwise.

RatherGate doesn't mean the end of neutral and objective reporting.  It means that even the shammers can see that the sham isn't working any more.  Will Big Media take that lesson to heart?  I doubt it.

January 10, 2005 | 8:45 PM ET

Rathergate breaks

CBS has come half-clean on the "RatherGate" story:

Four CBS executives were fired Monday following the release of an independent investigation that said a "myopic zeal" led to a "60 Minutes Wednesday" story about President Bush's military service that relied on allegedly forged documents.
...
While the investigation found the network failed to follow basic journalistic principles in preparing the "60 Minutes Wednesday" piece, it said it found no evidence that a political agenda by network officials contributed to the decision to air it.

And that "no political agenda" bit is why CBS is only half-clean.  So a network noted for its anti-Bush sentiments airs a story based on obviously bogus documents (How obvious?  Just look at this animated gif comparing the allegedly typewritten memos CBS relied on with the same material typed into Microsoft Word using its default settings.) runs with a story just in time to swing the election, but there's no politics involved?  Well, short of the Vulcan mind-meld, I guess there's no way to be absolutely certain what's in people's minds.  But on the other hand, as law professor Jim Lindgren notes, CBS's panel is happy to level accusations of political motivations at its critics:

Thank God for the NavyBlogger Varifrank, who works with a lot of Europeans, reports that disrespect for the Navy caused him to lose a bit of his usual professional cool:

Ph3 (Sar) Jacob J. Kirk  /  U.S. Navy
Crew members aboard USS Abraham Lincoln fill jugs with purified water from a Potable Water Manifold.

Today, during an afternoon conference that wrapped up my project of the last 18 months, one of my Euro collegues tossed this little turd out to no one in particular:

"See, this is why George Bush is so dumb, theres a disaster in the world and he sends an Aircraft Carrier..."

After which he and many of my Euro collegues laughed out loud.

And then they looked at me. I wasn't laughing, and neither was my Hindi friend sitting next to me, who has lost family in the disaster.

I'm afraid I was "unprofessional", I let it loose - "Hmmm, let's see, what would be the ideal ship to send to a disaster, now what kind of ship would we want?  Something with its own inexhuastible power supply?

Something that can produce 900,000 gallons of fresh water a day from sea water?  Something with its own airfield?  So that after producing the fresh water, it could help distribute it?

Something with 4 hospitals and lots of open space for emergency supplies?  Something with a global communications facility to make the coordination of disaster relief in the region easier?

Well "Franz," us peasants in America call that kind of ship an "Aircraft Carrier."  We have 12 of them.  How many do you have?"

Of course, one reason why Franz may not appreciate the role of the Navy is that foreign media seem to be downplaying it.  The BBC certainly is, as Christopher Booker notes in The Telegraph:

'Don't mention the navy' is the BBC's line

Last week we were subjected to one of the most extraordinary examples of one-sided news management of modern times, as most of our media, led by the BBC, studiously ignored what was by far the most effective and dramatic response to Asia's tsunami disaster.  A mighty task force of more than 20 US Navy ships, led by a vast nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Abraham Lincoln, and equipped with nearly 90 helicopters, landing craft and hovercraft, were carrying out a round-the-clock relief operation, providing food, water and medical supplies to hundreds of thousands of survivors.

The BBC went out of its way not to report this.  Only when one BBC reporter, Ben Brown, hitched a lift from one of the Abraham Lincoln's Sea Hawk helicopters to report from the Sumatran coast was there the faintest hint of the part that the Americans, aided by the Australian navy, were playing.
...
The real story of the week should thus have been the startling contrast between the impotence of the international organisations, the UN and the EU, and the remarkable efficiency of the US and Australian military on the ground.

As the Financial Times reports:

The UN is being criticised for its failure to organise dozens of aid groups in and around Banda Aceh more than a week and a half after the tsunami hit the region, forcing some of them to bypass the international body and take action into their own hands to ensure aid reaches areas with the most urgent needs.

"If we wait for the UN to tell us what to do, we wouldn't do anything," said Abdul Hadi bin e Rashid, first admiral of the Malaysian navy at the country's operations tent at Banda Aceh airport.

"There are people who are hungry and angry. Why wait? So we just do it."

That's never been the U.N.'s motto, alas.  Perhaps the world should have a bit more respect for those who actually, you know, do stuff.

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