Bloggers bring peer review to journalism

[published in Press Gazette] America's foremost broadcaster goes into battle with bloggers, and loses

Bloggers bring peer review to journalism

By Quentin Langley

Dateline 13 September 2004

Bloggers usually get the story more quickly than mainstream media. What if they are also more accurate?

It no longer surprises anyone when Internet news sources get the story first. Many Internet news sources don’t have in place procedures for checking their stories, which makes them fast, if not always accurate. Most don’t have millions invested in a brand name, and don’t need to defend their brand by establishing a reputation for getting things right. It is frequently impossible to tell just from looking at a website whether it is produced by a mighty array of journalists and fact checkers, or by a twelve year old geek in his bedroom. Getting the story first is no surprise. But what happens when America’s most respected journalist gets the story wrong and the bloggers get it right?

The current embarrassments of CBS and its anchorman Dan Rather could be about to tell us.

The story so far is that “60 Minutes II” a flagship documentary programme presented by Rather – for decades a fixture at the top of US broadcast journalism, and since the retirement in 1982 of Walter Cronkite its best known face – put out a story that President Bush evaded his National Guard duty while serving in Alabama 30 years ago. This matters because it implies substance to long-standing rumours that Bush received favourable treatment because his father was then a Congressman and because it contradicts numerous statements by the White House which have to have come from the President himself. CBS produced a Texas politician who claimed to have made the call that got the young George Bush into the National Guard and documents purporting to show that his commanding officer reported him as absent but was under pressure to go easy on the (by now) ex-Congressman’s son.

The trouble is that neither of these pieces of evidence stood up to much scrutiny. Bloggers were quickly able to demolish them. For almost two weeks, CBS waged an increasingly desperate campaign to defend its position, before finally apologising and announcing an investigation.

The documents, it seems pretty clear, are forgeries, almost certainly produced on word processors. While there is a slim possibility that they could have been produced on the most advanced IBM electronic typewriter that was available in the early ‘70s, that would still leave them as probable forgeries, because neither the National Guard, nor any other arm of the US government, was using such advanced equipment at that time. In any case, the alleged author could barely type and kept all his records by hand.

Not only is it virtually impossible that the documents are contemporary, their content is also suspect. The officer alleged to have applied pressure to “sugar coat” the young Bush’s record turns out to have retired 18 months previously.

If the documents are forgeries, what of the politician who secured the young George W the supposedly soft option of service in the National Guard? For one thing, it is not as soft as it might seem. Though part-time, it involved a longer commitment – six years – than the regular forces, and was no protection against a posting to Vietnam. It could well be that as a fighter pilot in Texas and Alabama, Bush was at greater risk than the young Al Gore, serving as a journalist in the regular forces. For another, the politician who supposedly made the telephone call as a favour to the son of a rising young Republican Congressman, is a partisan Democrat, who has been touting different, and contradictory, versions of the same story for years. The New York Times, hardly a friend of the Republicans, dismissed him as a source years ago and his own daughter has publicly repudiated his claims.

This leaves CBS just one strand of defence. They claim that the content of the memos they attribute to the late Lt Gen Jerry Killian was confirmed by Killian’s commanding officer, Maj Gen Bobby Hodges. Even if CBS is forced to concede that the memos are forged, the story could be said to stand up if their content reflects comments Killian made to Hodges at the time. But there are two problems with this. First, Hodges claims he was duped by CBS. He did not realise the documents which CBS read to him over the phone were copies and assumed they were hand-written, which would have been in character for Killian. Secondly, one man’s recollection of a conversation he held over 30 years ago is a pretty thin basis for an hour long documentary. Remember, Lt Bush was not famous when Killian and Hodges apparently spoke about him, and wouldn’t become so until many years after Killian died. Even his father – by then Chairman of the Republican National Committee – was only moderately famous in the early ‘70s. So why would the conversation be memorable?

Since the broadcast, CBS has produced Killian’s secretary to assert that although the documents are forgeries which she did not type, she knew what was in Killian’s mind, and the documents broadly reflected that. Unfortunately for CBS, Killian’s family state the opposite.

So what lessons can we draw from the humiliation of Rather and CBS? First, bloggers can no longer be dismissed as “a guy sitting in his living room in his pyjamas”, as CBS’s Jonathan Klein attempted to do. Certainly not all bloggers are reliable, but many are highly qualified. Some are lawyers. Some are the type of technical experts who immediately recognise proportionally spaced Times New Roman font as a product of Microsoft Word. Lawyers and geeks wear pyjamas too.

Secondly, we have brought the scientific method to media ethics. It is the norm in scientific publishing that research is submitted for peer review. Dan Rather may not accept that bloggers are his peers, but some were able to spot within hours of his broadcast that he had been the subject of a hoax. That very fact changes the processes of media fact checking forever.

Thirdly, the speed of the Internet changes everything. CBS has been slow to apologise and investigate how things went so badly wrong. They have finally started to behave like the victims of a fraud, and not as some have suspected, the perpetrators. But this leaves many questions unanswered. Document experts approached by CBS before the broadcast had warned them their source was suspect, but they proceeded anyway. Would they have done so if the target had been John Kerry? When the target was John Kerry, Dan Rather said: “In the end, what difference does it make what one candidate or the other did or didn't do during the Vietnam War?” Now that CBS has revealed its source – another partisan Democrat – will they investigate fully and without favour the real story: the possibility that the forger has links to the Kerry campaign or the Democrat Party?

Quentin Langley is a visiting lecturer on the MA in International Public Relations at the school of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Cardiff specialising in online communications and media ethics.

Copyright © Quentin Langley 13 September 2004

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