Flogged by the blogs
By Tony Blankley
Sunday, September 19, 2004
Once said British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead: "The major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur." That observation came to mind as I watched Dan Rather struggle violently like a proud old marlin caught on a hook by the young Internet fishermen.
Twisting and turning, the great fish only drives the hook in deeper. Plunging and rising, it only exhausts itself -- while the exuberant fishermen carefully manage the line and grab for the powerful hand hook with which they will end the great fish's sea-life.
I like a good fish dinner, but I've never cared much for fishing, as I hate to see a noble creature in its death agony. Yet that is what we are observing. It is Dan Rather and CBS News, through their failed effort to prove the legitimacy of their forged Bush National Guard documents, who are being revealed as hapless, helpless victims of an anarchic, swarming, overwhelming Internet blog technology. Soon, other great news institutions inevitably will be revealed for their inadequate capacity to fully report the news.
As in all revolutions, first, the old order must be destroyed, then we will learn both the strengths and the shortcomings of the new order. We're now getting a glimpse of the Internet bloggers' strength.
For three quarters of a century, when CBS News entered a fight it had been an unfair mismatch for its adversary. The credibility, research capacity and gate-keeping monopoly of the network would overwhelm its victim. It was breathtaking to see, moment by moment, the bloggers' advantage.
CBS did what it has always done -- produced and broadcasted a highly polished segment in which the argument was magisterially framed to their advantage, with the facts favorable to It cherry-picked for presentation. Annoying contrary facts were ignored. Carefully edited, prime-time quality interviews of their supposedly authoritative expert witnesses were laid in. The whole package was opened, narrated and concluded with dignified contempt for their victim by their star asset, uber-anchor Dan Rather.
Then the bloggers went to work. From the four corners of humanity, experts started deconstructing the "truth" that CBS had presented. Who knew that there are experts who specialize just in the history of IBM Selectric typing balls or the kerning capacity of computer printing?
As each of these experts added their information to one blog, other bloggers would monitor it, pass it on, add a new fact, reorganize the analysis and synthesize new information. If new information proved wrong, it was corrected by yet another expert in the blogosphere. Mistakes were cheerfully admitted and instantly corrected. People who had filled out such forms 30 years ago added their analysis.
Both technical and historic information constantly came in -- ever-increasing the fullness of understanding on the topic. It was like watching time-lapse photography of a cell dividing and growing. It was as if the very mechanism for establishing truth was a living, pulsating force.
CBS had one handwriting expert against the bloggers' legions of subspecialists. It was pathetic. The bloggers' advantage is that the experts find the bloggers. There are just millions of smart people all over the world sitting at their computers, ready to join the quest. The bloggers themselves often add powerful analytical capacity to the process. They picked CBS's story as clean as a school of piranhas would pick clean some poor water buffalo that wandered into their river.
Bloggers have had this capacity for a few years. We had a taste of it in the Trent Lott affair. But what has made the bloggers a strategic component of national politics is that their readership now includes many senior reporters, editors and producers in the old media. There are enough self-respecting old media journalists who simply cannot see the cornucopia of valid information on the Internet and then ignore it in their reporting.
Instead of the bloggers only reaching the few million of their readers, they are reaching the larger mass public through the old media. The old media is becoming complicit in its own demise, just as some French aristocrats supported the revolution against their own ancient regime.
Count me a supporter of the revolution. But revolutions are messy affairs where much of value is lost as well as gained.
Tony Blankley is editorial page editor of The Washington Times.