Media Matters

Citizens’ Arrest

How the first draft of history got hyperlinks.

By 9.21.04

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SAN DIEGO -- In 1998, retired Special Forces operators forced CNN to apologize for a story alleging that American troops had used nerve gas in Laos during a secret 1970 mission called Operation Tailwind. Although Special Forces alumni responding to the story used Web-based technologies to communicate with each other and with CNN, blogs did not then exist. Slandered veterans could not talk with each other in real time, or expect help from anyone outside their own circles. Nevertheless, these experts in "force multiplication" succeeded in getting the story's producer sacked.

One year later, Pyra Labs added Blogger software to the collection of Internet tools already on the market. Blogger leveraged the increasing popularity of all things Web to make "asymmetrical warfare" by non-journalists against inaccuracies in Big Media easier than it had been before. Its debut set in motion a chain of events that would eventually cause CBS News and its iconic anchorman to come belatedly to grips with the idea that their own credibility had gone the way of Jonathan Livingston Seagull: lost in a painted sky, where the clouds are hung for the poet's eye, and the breaking news bites the network guy.

But Dan Rather's comeuppance is just the latest in a string of advances for "participatory journalism" that goes back to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Thousands of people discussed those attacks and their implications on the Internet, and more than a few of these people either started blogs at that time or saw their existing efforts come to sudden prominence.

The first old-media stalwart to feel the glare of the new spotlight was British journalist Robert Fisk. Fisk had gone native in his reflexive disdain for all things Western long before 2001. But it was after 9-11 that the columns he wrote during the first phase of America's war on the Taliban and its terrorist sympathizers received point-by-point refutation from popular bloggers. Fisk was on the ground in Afghanistan with press credentials. Despite that, every dispatch he filed seemed to spawn informed rebuttal. Ken Layne, himself a journalist and one of the people exasperated by Fisk's transparent bias, famously quipped that thanks to the Internet, "we can fact-check your ass." Layne and others made good on that boast, linking to Fisk's original writing and publishing annotated disputes with him on their personal blogs. By December 2001, when Fisk wrote a self-loathing reaction to his own mugging by a Muslim mob, his name had become shorthand for the withering refutation that his columns usually received.

Blogs and bloggers were not at that time trading lead guitar licks with well-known Web pages or bulletin boards, but they filled an important niche, like the rumbling bass under "Spirit in the Sky" or the clink of the cowbell that jump-starts "Honky Tonk Woman."

THIS RELATIVE OBSCURITY was short-lived. By July 2002, a columnist for the Arab News would complain that Wall Street Journal online blogger James Taranto was doing in cyberspace what Arab nemesis Ariel Sharon was doing on the ground. Later the same year, bloggers scuttled Senator Trent Lott's career by calling mainstream attention to his fawning praise for even the segregationist parts of an elderly colleague's record.

When a young woman named Rachel Corrie was accidentally killed by an Israeli bulldozer in March of 2003, bloggers like Charles Johnson of LittleGreenFootballs could not keep the mainstream media from eulogizing her as a peace activist despite her incriminating diary entries and close ties to Palestinian terrorists. A month later, however, bloggers helped debunk claims of widespread carnage in Iraq by posting satellite photos that showed otherwise. When one magazine writer called Baghdad "a landscape of death and destruction, all stamped 'Made in America,'" Glenn Reynolds shot back, "Give it up, dude. This is the Internet -- and now we can fact check your ass from orbit." Verification was done through hyperlinks, search engines, and economies of scale rather than controlling interest in reconnaissance satellites.

After the fall of Baghdad, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd used a dishonest ellipses to alter the meaning of a presidential speech. Blogger Robert Cox was the first to note the deception in Dowd's May 14 column, and the blogosphere quickly held her Pulitzer-Prize-winning feet to the fire. Dropping the inconvenient parts of a quote became known as "Dowdifying" it.

A month before CBS and its Big Media cousins were reminded of the difference between a pack and a herd, Jacob Sullum of Reason magazine's "Hit and Run" blog caught Harper's magazine editor Lewis Lapham trying to dress before-the-fact speculation about the Republican National Convention as after-the-fact reporting. The ensuing outcry from bloggers and Harper's subscribers alike forced Lapham to apologize for his "silly" rhetorical trick.

Many recent stories about the impact of blogs on RatherGate have been grudging in their admiration and fearful of what can happen when the unwashed masses at computers in their pajamas dispense with the checks and balances that brick-and-mortar newsrooms are supposed to have. Careless talk about how bloggers edit themselves contributes to this fear. In fact, bloggers don't edit themselves; they edit each other -- and that's even better.

FAR FROM BEING HIS or her own editor, every blogger is more usefully understood as his or her own executive producer. What any one person writes and publishes can be checked instantly by others. This "distributed intelligence" is, as it turns out, a potent weapon in the fight against received wisdom as documented by the daily paper and in books by William McGowan (Coloring the News), Heather Mac Donald (The Burden of Bad Ideas), Bernard Goldberg (Bias), and Laura Ingraham (Shut Up and Sing).

People living under authoritarian regimes seem to grasp this potential more quickly than Americans do. It's no wonder that a recent poll found that Iranians trust the Internet more than any other medium. They may perhaps know something we don't.

Fortunately, the blogosphere is now a force to be reckoned with. In the lonely cool before dawn, you hear their hard drives whirring along, but when you get to the link they're gone to the next thing. In a world full of bias, they're proving resistant to spin.

Bloggers will never replace full-time journalists or smart columnists like Mark Steyn and James Lileks, but it takes more than face-melting guitar solos from the professionals to cover most songs properly. When the mainstream media finally get around to playing a different tune, Dan Rather and his delusional allies will be out near the Port-a-Potties with a tuba and a set of Uilleann pipes. Meanwhile, on the main stage, bloggers have earned the right to step out from behind supporting instruments and over to the keyboard. On songs like "Thunder Road," for example, the keyboard matters.

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.