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September 10, 2004

A Tale of Two Media

On Wednesday, the "Young Media" -- a collection of bloggers, partisan posters on political fora like Free Republic, and a web-based media force called Matt Drudge -- took a highly suspect document-dump peddled to it by political operatives and recklessly used those documents, without doing even the most basic journalistic verification, to smear a political candidate.

But within 48 hours, the Old Media -- thoughtful, well-trained, diligent and vigilant and scrupulously careful regarding basic journalistic practices and ethics -- did the sort of careful reportage and analysis they're famous for and knocked down the reckless rumors peddled by the internet smear-merchant.

If that had actually been what happened, it wouldn't be worth commenting upon. That would be a dog bites man story-- what you'd expect to happen in the normal course of the day, scarcely worth commenting upon.

But of course that's not what happened. On Wednesday, it was the Old Media that ran with documents which appeared sham on their face and had a very dubious provenance, and it was the wild and wooly internet -- the conspiracy-theorists, the reckless partisans, the amateurs, the shamelessly attention-seeking nobodies from nowhere-- that did the careful reportage and analysis that proved those documents to be forgeries.

Yesterday, the man bit the dog.

Boy howdy, did he ever.

It's too soon to understand fully why the Old Media failed so badly, and why the Young Media succeeded so brilliantly. But it's not too soon to begin peddling some of that rash speculation for which the Young Media is derided.

1. The Old Media is hopelessly partisan and given to credulous belief in any asserted "fact" that fits its ideological agenda.

This charge is frequently leveled at the Young Media-- and, to be fair, most politically-oriented bloggers and fora-posters are in fact partisan or ideological or both.

But the Young Media is fairly evenly divided between liberals and conservatives, leftists and rightists. Although there's an unhealthy level of segregation between the two camps, leading to partisans reading too much that supports their ideological impulses and too little that challenges it, this segregation is nowhere near absolute, and there is a fair amount of back-and-forth between the rivals. The competition between the ideological poles tends to infuse bloggers with some degree of caution in reporting and analyzing events; there is a penalty -- in the form of ridicule and loss of credibility -- to being wrong.

If it is true that the Young Media is frequently quite partisan and/or ideological, is that any less true of the Old Media?

And if the Old Media is itself partisan and/or ideological, is that tendency restrained by ideological competition and challenge within its own ranks?

Did Dan Rather's newsroom instill a sense of caution in him? Was he challenged by fellow reporters who were Bush stalwarts (as he is clearly a Kerry stalwart), who might have given Rather's forgeries much less credence than he was willing to give them? Did Dan Rather's newsroom function as a sort of closed Darwinian system as regards facts or alleged facts, such that vigorous argumentation, challenge, and scrutiny by unlikeminded persons could help Mr. Rather see into his own ideological blindspots?

We don't yet have a tick-tock of precisely how this debacle unfolded, but at this point it seems that there was no such healthy diversity of views in Mr. Rather's newsroom. He was the bigfooting liberal reporter, surrounded largely if not exclusively by other liberal reporters.

They saw a story that pleased them on a personal and political level, and they ran it, their professional judgments apparently either disengaged or overwhelmed by partisan joy.

2. Top-Down versus Competitive "Marketplace of Ideas" Decision-Making.

We don't know yet how Rather's newsteam made the disastrous judgments it did.

But we do have an idea how the Young Media made the right judgments.

There is no formal heirarchy in the Young Media. Of course, the superstars of blogging -- Instapundit, LGF, etc. -- do carry an awful lot of weight in the blogworld. And, in fact, when LGF declared flatly, with no caveats or hedging, that the documents were forgeries, that influenced me to begin taking the story seriously.

Not necessarily to accept his conclusion, mind you. But, knowing him to be fairly credible and cautious source, I knew the forgery-argument should no longer be automatically dismissed as wishful partisan thinking (which was my first thought).

Even among bloggers who generally lean to the right, there was disagreement about the forgery-claims-- MyPetJawa, for example, urged caution througout the day, and argued that there simply wasn't enough evidence to make such serious charges. (Eventually his evidentially-threshold was met and and he confessed his initial impulse was most likely wrong.)

And, by the end of the day, even liberal bloggers were, on the basis of the growing evidence, beginning to make the surely-painful admission that there seemed to be something to all this pesky "forgery" business after all. That admission was made against political interest, but according to personal interest-- the personal interest of every blogger of accumulating and maintaining credibility.

There was no superstar newsman directing bloggers to put out a certain story, no legendary news-producers assigning the lesser-hands the "take" that they would all work towards. Bloggers and readers were convinced not through arguments-from-authority -- "I am an anchorman; my word is to be trusted" -- but through the painstaking (but surprisingly speedy) accumulation of evidence.

The Young Media's news-judgments on this story were atomistic and individually determined. It was not through some top-down directive that its collective judgment -- These documents are almost certainly forgeries -- was arrived at, but rather by argumentation and comment and presentation of evidence through a diffuse and somewhat-egalitarian system.

3. The Old Media has grown lazy and has come to feel contempt for its sine qua non function-- actual investigation and reportage.

It cannot be stressed enough that the Old Media was simply given a story which had been shopped to it by political partisans working for the DNC and Kerry camp. They didn't investigate much of anything-- a story was handed to them. Apparently the "old methods" -- calling up experts, digging, investigating -- have grown too tedious and mundane for our Old Media superstars.

But at least three people did do actual reportage and investigation. All three are in the Young Media.

PowerLine did a reporter's duty by talking (well, actually corresponding via email and postings) with experts in the field of military reports and typewriter typefaces. (Or, if not true court-defined experts, than persons who had a solid familiarity with the subject.) He put these numerous reports together to create a compelling narrative suggesting forgery.

LittleGreenFootballs, himself an expert in the area of typefaces and computer fonts, did something that I doubt the Old Media tries very often at all-- he conducted a scientific experiment. He compared the alleged Killian document to one he himself typed up on his Word 97 word processor. Then he compared the two-- they were virtually identical.

And Bill from INDC did something that the Washington Post and New York Times are just getting around to today. He actually picked up his phone and called the foremost expert in the field, who told him, after a short period of examination, that he was "at least 90% certain" the documents in question were fake. (Note that the Washington Post and New York Times are now quoting Bill's expert -- perhaps Bill doesn't own that expert, but one would expect a mention out of mere courtesy.)

All three of these blogs -- and the Free Republic posters who actually started asking these questions in the soon-to-be-famous (or notorious) post 47 -- did something over which the Old Media once claimed exclusive competency: basic reportage.

Calling people. Collecting information from experts, or from those who have at least a strong competency in the field. Checking things out. Testing out theories. Seeing if MS Word 97 actually could duplicate that "1972 typewritten memo to file."

And then presenting those findings to the world.

There is nothing that Powerline, LGF, Bill from INDC, or the Free Republic posters did that CBSNews couldn't have done, of course. CBSNews is a multimillion dollar world-wide news-gathering organization. The bloggers and posters who actually reported on this story are just lone (or paired) amateurs working out of their homes or offices.

CBSNews could have taken the rather elemental and easy steps these gentlemen did to confirm or, as it turns out, debunk the story that was handed to them.

But they chose not to do so. Why?

Why is it that talented amateurs -- unpaid and untrained -- saw the need to make these basic inquiries whereas the highly-paid, highly-credentialed gang at CBSNews did not?

It could be that, for amateurs, actual reporting is something of a thrill, while for paid veterans it is the least rewarding part of the job.

Whatever the reason, CBSNews had better get back to basics, and quickly, if it wants to survive this debacle, with any credibility remaining at all.

4. The Old Media is made up almost exclusively of persons having little training except in the actual practice of journalism, whereas the Internet "newsroom" is made up of millions, many having expertise in all sorts of obscure fields.

This might actually seem to let the Old Media off the hook-- a bit. After all, the internet is populated by millions; a newsroom, by hundreds at most. It is unavoidable that a population of millions will have more first-hand experience in a certain field than a very heterogenous population of hundreds. The Old Media cannot be blamed for being what it cannot be.

But a small population of very heterogenous training and culture should also know its limitations. It should know that an aggregation of overwhelmingly liberal urban professionals with almost no training outside the craft of journalism itself ought to have some trepidation about making conclusions regarding matters outside its very-limited area of expertise and experience.

The Old Media, however, seems to frequently regard itself as Modern-Day Renaissance Men, All-Purpose Experts Without Portfolio. Too often we see legal reporters commenting on jurisprudential issues, despite the fact that they are either completely untrained in the practice of law or (at most) graduated from law school but have very little actual experience in the field. Network anchormen are quite fond of appearing on late night talk shows and waxing philosophical about political and moral questions facing the nation, despite the fact that they do not seem to be actual experts in the field -- they are, at best, interested observers, a class that millions of other people fall into as well.

Perhaps I'm being unfair, but I do get the feeling from watching reporters "freelance" outside the field of journalism that they do seem to regard themselves as specially-qualified, by dint of their journalism degree, to speak intelligently and authoritatively on practically any and all fields of human endeavor.

They're not generally not experts in any field except journalism. And if someone on Dan Rather's team had strongly made that case to the decision-makers, perhaps they would have deigned to seek the outside help they needed in verifying, or debunking, the forgeries.

But, alas, it seems that no one did.


It is too early for triumphalist statements about the Young Media defeating the Old Media. It's too early for that, but many (including myself) haven't been able to resist that temptation.

It's always too early for triumphalism.

Nevertheless, yesterday was a seminal day in media-- a true-crime Bad Day at Black Rock. For whatever reason -- and we may never know the actual reason -- the Old Media faltered, and the Young Media drove in the sword and conquered it.

For one day, at least.

CBSNews should be asking itself how this all could have happened. The Old Media should be seriously scrutinizing how on earth it could have allowed its cherished credibility and authority be so thoroughly thrashed by a group of amateurs. How did it yield its very core function to a gang of wannabes?

If it asks the right questions of itself -- the tough questions; the very sort of questions they enjoy posing to non-media subjects -- and answers them honestly, it could become stronger for the ordeal.

If not -- and, alas, it seems they probably will not -- this will not be the last day the Old Media is humiliated by a group of unprofessional, uncredentialed no-account dilletantes armed only with an internet provider account and a somewhat-embarassing surplus of spare time.

Gratuitous Self-Linking Update: And, of course, it's pretty embarassing the Old Media missed all the other telltale signs that these documents were forged.

Bernard Goldberg ConfirmationUpdate: Liberal groupthink, unchallenged by any dissenters, contributed to the fiasco. "They WANTED the story to be true."

Update: Strong essay making similar (but not too similar) points here.

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posted by Ace at 10:12 AM

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