September 10, 2004 2:23 PM PDT

Bloggers drive hoax probe into Bush memos

Forget the political conventions.

When history books are written, bloggers' real contribution to the 2004 election may well turn out to be in providing leagues of amateur sleuths to fact-check political controversy.

For the last 24 hours, the Internet has been abuzz with bloggers' claims that the memos about President Bush's time in the National Air Guard publicized by CBS were actually a hoax. Keepers of online journals around the country have been analyzing the memos in excruciating detail, comparing the notes' typography to the technical specifications of early 1970s typewriters.

The result? It's too early to say whether the bloggers calling "hoax" have won the day. But they have certainly helped drive questions about the veracity of CBS's "60 Minutes II" report on Wednesday night to the highest levels of the major media, and in so doing have helped shape what could be one of the most explosive--or simply weirdest--stories of the political season.

"Blogs have been characterized as places where people just go to mouth off, but what this brings out is the ability of blogs to actually help report a story," said Paul Grabowitz, professor of new media at the University of California at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.

The incident could help legitimize the role that blogs and other nonprofessional online writers are already playing in the everyday business of news reporting.

Even traditional reporters working online have had to struggle to win credibility over the past decade. But nontraditional sources such as blogs--which run the gamut from high-school journal entries to war reporting from Iraq--have often had an even harder time being taken seriously.

The Drudge Report was one of the first to break into the consciousness of the mainstream media, largely by scooping the stories of old media publications before they hit the street. The report's publication of Monica Lewinsky's name before Newsweek ran its story on the Clinton affair catapulted the report and Lewinsky into national headlines.

But unlike the report's writer, Matt Drudge, bloggers rarely call themselves journalists. Many focus as heavily on community and discussion as on original reporting. From this can come startling insight and well-reasoned analysis, or on-the-spot news posted faster than most news outlets can manage.

The Bush memo story has shown the Internet's broader power of linking thousands of readers together, as much as it has demonstrated the intrinsic power of blogs themselves.

Not long after CBS aired its story on "60 Minutes II," dealing with memos that allegedly showed President Bush's Texas National Guard superiors raising questions about his service, a pseudonymous message board posting on the conservative FreeRepublic.com Web site called the documents a hoax.

This kind of rhetoric is common on that site's message boards, but the author asserted that the typewriter font used in the CBS memos was anachronistic and would not have come into common use until after the alleged date of the memos.

Thursday morning, while most news services were still catching up to the CBS story, Minneapolis attorney Scott Johnson posted a link to the FreeRepublic claim on his conservative-leaning Power Line blog. The item sparked an eruption of e-mail from readers, ranging from former military officers to an IBM typewriter repairman, many doing detailed, expert-sounding analysis of the memos' typography. Johnson posted excerpts from the messages, most of which said the memos were likely to have been forgeries.

Other conservative bloggers chimed in, posting comparisons to Microsoft Word printouts that they said looked virtually identical. Liberal bloggers spoke up too, working to dismantle the skeptics' claims.

Ultimately the Drudge Report linked to Johnson's site. The resulting traffic took Power Line temporarily offline, but helped raise the typographical questions to a national level.

The national media has found other reasons to question the CBS story. But the issues raised by the bloggers have now been prominently featured in publications including The New York Times and the Washington Post.

"I feel a little bit overwhelmed," Power Line's Johnson said Friday. "I still feel like we're in the eye of a hurricane."

6 comments

Join the conversation!
Add your comment
I had to laugh at the author's "scare" tactics...
The article describes the "deeply conservative FreeRepublic.com", and sneeringly refers to "this kind of rhetoric" on that site. Was that the author's attempt to try and discredit the source? In reality, freerepublic.com is merely a "conservative" web site, with lots of give-and-take between traditional conservatives, libertarians, neo-conservatives, and none-of-the-aboves.

Would you like it if other "news" outlets referred to a news.com article as being published on "the fringe web site news.com which routinely spews over-the-top rhetoric from opinionated columnists"? Or would you prefer that the attribution be given to "news.com" and let the reader decide for him/herself what to think about the source? Why can't you simply report honestly, without embellishing the story with your "feelings"?
Posted by (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
RE: I had to laugh....
Frank  As the author of the story, I can assure you that the description of FreeRepublic was not intended "sneeringly"  in fact, we were giving the site credit for raising what has become an important national issue. I was simply hoping to distinguish that site from Power Line. I hope that neither "conservative" nor "deeply conservative" are viewed as epithets, any more than "liberal" or "deeply liberal" might be to persons identifying with the political left.

However, you do raise the important issue of parity. In the story we do not apply any adjective to the "liberal" sites mentioned. For that reason, we have decided to remove "deeply" from the description of FreeRepublic.

I hope none of this is widely viewed as "scare tactics." As you might note from the article, we are trying to point out the influence that non-traditional news and discussion sites are having on the political debate, not discredit them. -jb
Posted by klaxonator (13 comments )
Link Flag
"Hoax"?
I don't think that the bloggers the article refers to are calling "hoax" as much as they are calling "political dirty trick" and "blatant example of media bias." Gary Killian, son of the man alleged to have authorized the "memos" has publically said he told the CBS reporter who contact him that he doubted the memos' authenticity, that his father had a favorable opinion of George W. Bush, and that the reporter should speak to a certain pilot who served with Bush. The reporter responded that the named pilot was "too pro-Bush," according to Killian. CBS knew these documents were questionable, knew their sources were unreliable, but still went with the story. CBS says each of the documents "was thoroughly vetted by independent experts and we are convinced of their authenticity," but they acknowledge that they do not have the originals, only copies, and refuse to name their experts, or identify the source of the documents. As we have seen all too often, its not the nature of the evidence, its the seriousness of the charge. Even now, while defending the documents, CBS insists that even if they are fakes, they "raise serious questions." I agree, they do raise serious questions: questions about the integrity of Dan Rather and CBS news.
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
the hoax about the hoax debunked by bloggers
It's not just rightwing bloggers participating in this issue. Those opposed to the wingnuts at Powerline also scrutinized the documents and showed how these could have been created on machines of the day, specifically the IBM Composer and IBM Executive model typewriters, which the Air Force was using at the time (since 1969).

See for example: <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://hunter.dailykos.com/story/2004/9/10/34914/1603" target="_newWindow">http://hunter.dailykos.com/story/2004/9/10/34914/1603</a>

This has resulted in a shift in media coverage away from the wingnut point of view:

<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2004/09/11/MNGO68NEKR1.DTL" target="_newWindow">http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2004/09/11/MNGO68NEKR1.DTL</a>
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
 

Join the conversation

Add your comment

The posting of advertisements, profanity, or personal attacks is prohibited. Click here to review our Terms of Use.

What's Hot

Discussions

Shared

RSS Feeds

Add headlines from CNET News to your homepage or feedreader.