Bloggers humble CBS

Edward Cone
News & Record


And that's the way it is, isn't anymore.

The sonorous voice of corporate media no longer has the last word in reporting the news. If you insist on hearing this truth from the sonorous voice itself, you could probably ask Dan Rather.

"We will fact-check you," goes a polite version of the weblog slogan. Now the veteran CBS news anchorman knows what that means.

Earlier this month, CBS aired some documents that were said to reflect poorly on George W. Bush's service in the National Guard. The legitimacy of those documents was very quickly questioned on weblogs, with powerful impact. Within 48 hours of the original broadcast, Rather was forced to defend his story on "The CBS Evening News." Major papers began asking hard questions. Even if the documents are never conclusively proved to have been forgeries, the inability of CBS to validate its claims made it look terrible.

The Rather story should be kept in context. Discrediting the memos doesn't disprove that Bush coasted on his service obligation, and the whole issue of his behavior (and that of John Kerry) during the Vietnam era remains far less important than the bloody mess he has made in Iraq. But this is still a watershed moment in redefining the media as a conversation, not a lecture. The wall over which the news used to be poured has been breached by citizens who have traded their pitchforks for keyboards.

Independent journalists with weblogs have pushed forward major stories before, helping to keep Trent Lott and New York Times editor Howell Raines on the hot seat until their respective fates were sealed. Now blogs are really coming of age as news generators and movers of the traditional media. They won't replace newspapers or television, on which they rely heavily, but they will change them for the better.

How do blogs wield such power? One answer, says Glenn Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor whose Instapundit site has been a Rather-watching hub, is that bloggers have to put up or shut up. "The Internet ... is a low-trust environment," he writes. "Ironically, that probably makes it more trustworthy. That's because, while arguments from authority are hard on the Internet, substantiating arguments is easy, thanks to the miracle of hyperlinks."

By linking to documents, articles and each other, bloggers can make their cases both deep and broad. Writing in 3-D, I like to call it, and it's happening everywhere in the infinite space of the Web. This newspaper, for example, is using its new Inside Scoop weblog to provides links to documents behind local news stories.

The old wisdom was that you don't argue with people who buy ink by the barrel. That rule is no longer operative when blogs cost little or nothing to produce. Another example: This summer, opinion columnist Michelle Malkin published a scurrilous book that purported to show the military necessity of shipping Japanese-Americans to internment camps during World War II. In a series of link-filled posts at his weblog, UNC law professor Eric Muller was able to blow big holes in Malkin's case before her book was officially released.

I sometimes think of blogs as a way of arming the public for the information age, a kind of Second Amendment for the First Amendment crowd. Since crowds are often smarter than the individuals who make them up, this should improve the quality of information available. But not all information is created equal; like firearms, blogs can be dangerous. Some individuals shoot off their mouths irresponsibly, and hoaxes and deliberate misinformation can be propagated online at least as easily as a game can be run on CBS.

So who watches the watchers? We all do. Bloggers fact-check each other, and as weblogs and networks of weblogs grow more powerful (Instapundit had 440,000 page views in a single day of Rather coverage), the traditional media will push back at them. That's a good thing. And that's the way it is.

Edward Cone (, writes a column for the News & Record most Sundays. 


© News & Record 2004