Scott Johnson took a bite out of CBS's "60 Minutes II" and came
away with 15 minutes of fame.
Mr. Johnson, a Minneapolis lawyer with a political website called
Power Line, proved to be instrumental in challenging the
authenticity of documents CBS used to impugn George W. Bush's record
in the National Guard.
On Sept. 9, the morning after CBS aired its report about Mr.
Bush, Johnson updated his blog with comments from readers who
believed that the documents - allegedly written 32 years ago - were
forgeries. Questioning everything from the memos' military jargon to
whether a 1970s typewriter could have produced the "proportionally
spaced fonts" on the documents, the blog (short for web log) soon
drew the attention of other bloggers - and the mainstream media.
Twelve days later, after intense research by print and TV
journalists, CBS conceded that it couldn't vouch for the documents'
Its Monday admission deals a blow to the credibility of CBS News
and anchor Dan Rather, who had defended his "60 Minutes II" report.
But the episode has jolted the media establishment in another way:
It served notice that there's an aggressive new watchdog in town, in
the form of thousands of bloggers willing - even eager - to
question, nitpick, or attack reports in the mainstream media.
For the most part, political blogs act as forums for armchair
pundits to deliver often-partisan commentary. But because blogs link
to one another with comments and feedback, the buzz around one story
can attract the attention of hundreds of thousands of blog readers,
who in turn can offer "on the spot" knowledge or expertise. In the
CBS case, bloggers raised the initial doubts, analyzed each new
wrinkle, and occasionally did original reporting, scooping the
"What this story illustrates is the power of the blogs as a
medium for the transmission of information," says Johnson, who can
now claim to have made the cover of this week's Time magazine - if
only because the back of his head is visible in a photo collage
featuring Mr. Rather.
"My efforts were to act as a clearinghouse for the circulation of
information," which was then subjected to confirmation, he says.
To some, that's hardly a viable journalistic standard.
"We can't be too quick to equate the bona fides and journalistic
chops of a blogger with that of any mainstream media organization,"
says Christopher Klein, a former executive vice president of CBS
News. "The bloggers do not have any system of checks and balances.
My issue is simply when we start elevating these journals of opinion
to the level of newspapers of record, so to speak."
Other critics have complained that blogs can traffic in rumor,
such as a claim in February that Sen. John Kerry had had an affair
with a former intern.
Responding to the criticism, Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at
the University of Tennessee behind the Instapundit blog, says the
online community acts as its own ombudsman to sift fact from
"The check on blogs is other blogs," he says. "Because blogs
operate in a reputation-based environment, nobody minds a bias. But
they expect you to be honest about your facts. And if you get a
reputation for not being honest about your facts, people pay lots of
attention to you."
Since the CBS furor, the blogging community has been showered
with accolades in opinion pages and editorials. Still, it's
premature to start awarding Pulitzer prizes to the laptop set.
Professional journalists have been the ones consulting experts and
following up promising leads.
"I would argue that we were able to do a few things that blogs
were not," avers Christopher Isham, chief of investigative projects
at ABC News, one of the first news outlets to challenge CBS's
Still, a perception exists among some bloggers - and among many
news consumers - that without blogs the media wouldn't have picked
up the story. …