washingtonpost.com  > Nation > Columns > Media Notes Extra
Howard Kurtz Media Notes

The Bloggers' Moment

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 20, 2004; 8:15 AM

Scott Johnson, a lawyer in Mendota Heights, Minn., put up his first post at 7:51 a.m. on Sept. 9. By the time he got to his Minneapolis office, he had dozens of e-mail responses.

One of them was from Charles Johnson, a Web designer in Los Angeles, who promptly posted his own thoughts on the subject.

_____More Media Notes_____
Kerry Comeback Alert (washingtonpost.com, Sep 17, 2004)
A Trillion-Dollar Story (washingtonpost.com, Sep 15, 2004)
Tick, Tick, Tick . . . (washingtonpost.com, Sep 14, 2004)
The Kitchen Sink Campaign (washingtonpost.com, Sep 13, 2004)
On Guard (washingtonpost.com, Sep 10, 2004)
Archive
_____Live Online_____
Media Backtalk (Live Online, Sep 20, 2004)
Media Backtalk (Live Online, Sep 13, 2004)
Media Backtalk (Live Online, Sep 7, 2004)
More Discussions
Add Media Notes to your personal home page.

_____Message Boards_____
Post Your Comments

Scott, 53, writes for a Web site called Powerline. Charles, 51, posts on Little Green Footballs. They were among the bloggers who blew the cyberwhistle by charging that the documents used by "60 Minutes" in its report on President Bush's National Guard service appeared bogus.

It was like throwing a match on kerosene-soaked wood. The ensuing blaze ripped through the media establishment as previously obscure bloggers managed to put the network of Murrow and Cronkite firmly on the defensive.

The secret, says Charles Johnson, is "open-source intelligence gathering." Meaning: "We've got a huge pool of highly motivated people who go out there and use the tools to find stuff. We've got an army of citizen journalists out there."

With Bush telling the Manchester, N.H., Union-Leader that "there are a lot of questions" about the documents "and they need to be answered," the pressure has intensified on CBS. The network hopes early this week to finish its investigation of whether the memos said to be from Bush's Guard commander 30 years ago are forgeries -- a debate that has been driven by America's e-mailers.

In the last two years, the blogosphere -- a vast, free-floating, often quirky club open to anyone with a modem and some opinions -- has been growing in influence, with some one-man operations boasting followings larger than those of small newspapers.

Many sites are seething with partisan passion, often directed at the media. But they are also two-way portals for retired military officers, computer techies, former IBM Selectric salesmen and just about anyone else to challenge and fact-check media claims.

Not everyone is a fan. Former CBS executive Jonathan Klein complained on Fox News that "these bloggers have no checks and balances. . . . You couldn't have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing."

The pajama brigade pounced. After all, they had found problems that CBS had missed or minimized -- and had done it by downloading the memos from the network's Web site. "One of the things about a blog is we sometimes act as a clearinghouse for information from readers with an interest in an esoteric area," says Scott Johnson.

Bloggers also have the advantage of speed. Several major newspapers quickly began questioning the Guard documents, but they lagged behind the online critiques.

The first known posting came on the hotly conservative Free Republic site at 11:59 p.m. on Sept. 8 -- less than four hours after the story aired -- from a man dubbed Buckhead. The Los Angeles Times says he is Harry MacDougald, an Atlanta lawyer with GOP connections.

Conservative Web commentators are overjoyed. "I don't want to overstate the extent of my glee over the Dan Rather imbroglio now known as 'Memogate,'" wrote National Review's Jonah Goldberg. "But it may well be the Greatest Story Ever."

Blogger Andrew Sullivan now calls for Rather to be canned. "This is the blogs' breakthrough moment," he says. "Dan Rather is a much bigger deal than Howell Raines," who resigned as the New York Times's top editor after the Jayson Blair debacle. Some liberal columnists and editorial pages have ripped CBS as well.

Anonymous attacks thrive on the Net. The Chicago Tribune reports that the site Rathergate.com is run by Mike Krempasky, political director of a Virginia advertising firm run by conservative direct-mail king Richard Viguerie.

Were the bloggers politically motivated? Charles Johnson says he's a lifelong Democrat who plans to vote for Bush. Scott Johnson is a Republican activist who views Rather as an "intensely partisan liberal" and "quit listening to CBS News 20 years ago."

UPDATE: I filed this story close to midnight:

CBS News plans to issue a statement, perhaps as early as today, saying that it was misled on the purported National Guard memos the network used to charge that President Bush received favored treatment 30 years ago.

The statement would represent a huge embarrassment for the network, which insisted for days that the documents reported by Dan Rather on "60 Minutes" are authentic. But the statement could help defuse a crisis that has torn at the network's credibility.

It is not clear whether the statement will include an apology for a story now believed to be based on forged documents, although that is under consideration, sources familiar with the matter said. The sources said they could not be identified because CBS is making no official statement...

The statement was being hammered out last night after Rather went to Texas to tape an interview with Bill Burkett, the retired Guard official widely believed to have helped provide "60 Minutes" with the memos.

Picking and Choosing

So how exactly can Dick Cheney keep selected news organizations off Air Force Two?

While national candidates generally allow any accredited reporter to fly along -- the press pays for the privilege -- the vice president's plane is an invitation-only affair. And the New York Times has been stiffed for weeks, even when there are empty seats.

Asked why the campaign is mad at the Times, Cheney spokeswoman Anne Womack says the staff decides "what is the most strategic use of those seats." She says that only six to ten are available and that "sometimes we invite regional folks. We try to give preference to people who travel with us consistently." But the Times covers Cheney more extensively than most news outlets.

"I'm puzzled by what's been happening," says Washington Bureau Chief Philip Taubman, who plans to press the case with Cheney's staff. "We've given a fair amount of business to commercial airlines trying to keep up with him."

John Kerry, meanwhile, hasn't taken questions from the traveling press since Aug. 9 and President Bush has given no interviews since the GOP convention. "The commander-in-chief must meet a higher standard" of accessibility than a challenger, says Kerry senior adviser Joe Lockhart, who insists that when he was at the Clinton White House, there were more press briefings while the president was traveling. Lockhart doesn't dispute his candidate's recent unavailability.

Responds White House communications director Dan Bartlett: "There is no ambiguity with the American people where President Bush stands on the big issues of the day. . . . He'll be taking more questions from the press. I can understand why they don't want their candidate to take questions. He has a hard time answering."

Sharp Claws

Is Kitty Kelley, who needles the famous for a living, a bit thin-skinned?

After she appeared Friday on CNBC's "Capital Report" to push her book on the Bush dynasty, "The Family," author Ron Kessler challenged some of her claims in a follow-up segment. Kessler, whose book "A Matter of Character" looks at the Bush White House, said his sources say it is absurd to suggest that George W. Bush used drugs at Camp David when his father was president, and that Kelley's publishing standard seemed to be "as long as they don't successfully sue, then it's okay."

When he returned to the green room, Kessler says, Kelley yelled at him: "You may not slander me! You may not slander my book! Do you understand me? I'm putting you on notice."

Suzanne Herz, a spokeswoman for Kelley's publisher, Doubleday, says: "We fully support Kitty Kelley's actions in confronting Mr. Kessler in connection with his baseless and irresponsible on-air remarks about 'The Family.' His attack was clearly another attempt to discredit Ms. Kelley and attack the messenger because he did not agree with the message."

But can't guests disagree with her findings? Says Kessler: "It's rather ironic that someone who trashes everyone else is threatening me, another journalist."

Anonymous Accuser

Geneva Overholser has given up her column for the Poynter Institute after its media Web site refused to allow her to name the accuser in the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case.

"What's the point of having a blog if I can't say what I think?" said Overholser, whose former paper, the Des Moines Register, won a 1991 Pulitzer for stories that named a rape victim with the woman's permission. Overholser says there is "a different standard" for naming an accuser when she files a civil suit, as the woman in the Bryant case recently did. Poynter editors say that "the journalistic purpose to be achieved by naming the accuser is outweighed by the potential harm that could result from doing so."

How to merge the hottest media story with the biggest political story? Time has a cover story that endeavors to tie the CBS/Rather mess to the template of the '04 campaign:

"Which world did you watch last week?

"Do you live in the world where President Bush, whose bold wartime leadership has made America safer, survived an ambush from that liberal lion Dan Rather, who tried to swing the race with a bunch of phony documents trashing Bush's National Guard service, only to have the charges blow up in his face?

"Or do you live in the world where Rather, the Tiffany network's honored heir to Walter Cronkite, spoke truth to power, made a true if perhaps flawed case that Bush shirked his duty more than 30 years ago, and is by implication unfit to serve as Commander in Chief today?

"Red Truth holds that Rather has at last taken his place alongside other disgraced liberal icons, who have recklessly disregarded the standards of journalism to try to bring this President down. Blue Truth sees Rathergate as a sideshow; the problem with the mainstream media is not that they are biased but that they are lazy and have given Bush a free pass from the start. Red Truth looks at Bush and sees a savior; Blue Truth sees a zealot who must be stopped. In both worlds there are no accidents, only conspiracies, and facts have value only to the extent that they support the Truth."

For what it's worth, I consider this a Purple column.

Remember when Kerry was going to make the fall campaign about the economy? Well, that was before the law firm of Lockhart, McCurry and Sasso took over:

"After the summer's phony war over Vietnam medals and memos, the 2004 election has landed in the real-world battleground of Iraq," says Newsweek. "For Camp Kerry, it's a liberating feeling to engage in straight talk about Iraq, shaking off debate about the candidate's Senate votes. . . .

"Kerry's gambit: to revive his campaign -- trailing by anywhere between one and 13 points in new polls -- by questioning Bush's credibility on the conflict, his management of postwar Iraq and the no-bid contracts won by his veep's old firm, Halliburton. Kerry is betting that the hard truths of Iraq will undercut Bush's soft-focus picture of a liberated nation, and ultimately the president's image as a war leader.

"It's a bet that Kerry was unwilling to make until this month. Not so long ago, Kerry's strategists planned to spend the fall talking about the economy and health care, thinking they had proved their candidate's national-security credentials in Boston. They also planned to stay positive, shunning political attacks in the belief that slime could alienate swing voters. But that was before Kerry's August swoon, and an influx of fresh faces -- a mix of Boston loyalists and Clintonites -- at the top of the Democrat's team. Their main job is to keep Kerry on message and sharpen his attack on Bush."

We're up to the sixth or seventh Kerry slogan (remember "Let America Be America Again?"):

"After months of struggling to find a theme to capture the essence of his candidacy, Sen. John F. Kerry has settled on one: The election, he says, boils down to a decision between four more years of 'wrong choices' or a 'new direction,'" says the Los Angeles Times.

"Since Labor Day, the Democratic presidential nominee has stuck to that theme relentlessly, using it to shape arguments on Iraq, the economy and nearly all other topics he broaches.

"To some Democrats unnerved by President Bush's recent surge in the polls, Kerry's adoption of a clearly defined theme to draw contrasts with the Republican incumbent offers a measure of hope. The question for Kerry is whether this new approach to framing the election comes too late to matter."

The Kerry-Edwards ticket is finally talking about al Qaeda, says the New York Times:

"Opening a week long Democratic offensive on Iraq and terror, Senator John Edwards promised Sunday that a Kerry White House would eliminate what he called a 'backdoor draft'' of Reservists and National Guard members and would 'crush' Al Qaeda...

"Mr. Edwards's comments came as Terry McAuliffe, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, promised a new salvo this week against the Bush administration's Iraq policy. Mr. McAuliffe, in a conference call with reporters on Sunday, said that Mr. Kerry would deliver a major speech on Iraq on Monday and would criticize President Bush's handing of the war in a new advertisement, and that party officials would hold a news conference with mothers of soldiers stationed in Iraq."

The Los Angeles Times picks up on Bush's fiscal overpromising:

"To hear President Bush talk about his plans for a second term, voters might think that the era of big government spending is back. From his proposal to overhaul Social Security to his commitment to fighting terrorism and his initiatives on health, education and job training, the agenda Bush is spelling out in speeches and campaign documents calls for the robust use of government money.

"All this comes from the same candidate who promises to cut the federal budget deficit in half by 2009 and whose Cabinet agencies are preparing for some serious belt-tightening of domestic programs if he is reelected. . . .

"But many analysts say Bush's second-term promises may be a poor predictor of what he could actually accomplish. Even some administration allies say it would be nearly impossible for Bush to achieve all his ambitious objectives and still halve the deficit by 2009."

Which you would think would be a major issue, along with Kerry's sometimes fuzzy math.

If you missed the New York Times poll on Saturday, it's 51-42 Bush among likely voters:

"Senator John Kerry faces substantial obstacles in his bid to unseat President Bush, with voters saying he has not laid out a case for why he wants to be president and expressing strong concern about his ability to manage an international crisis, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.

"Less than seven weeks before Election Day, Americans continue to think that the nation is heading in the wrong direction and are distressed about how Mr. Bush has handled the economy. Yet the president, apparently lifted as much by what Mr. Kerry has done wrong as by what Mr. Bush has done right in the campaign, has an eight-point lead among registered voters, the poll found.

"In one particularly troublesome sign for Mr. Kerry, a majority of voters said he was spending too much time attacking Mr. Bush and talking about the past, rather than explaining what he would do as president. In contrast, half of the registered voters said Mr. Bush had offered a clear vision of what he wanted to do in a second term."

Here's my favorite stat: Only 20 percent believe Bush is telling the whole truth about his National Guard service, and only 29 percent believe Kerry is telling the whole truth about his Vietnam duty. Which tells you something about the credibility of politicians.

Iraq may be a vehicle for a different kind of campaign issue, argues New Republic Editor Peter Beinart:

"President Bush talks a lot about the war on terrorism. And so many have assumed he wants to make this election a referendum on foreign policy. But I don't think that's true. What he wants, I suspect, is to make this election a referendum on 'character'--the same issue that helped him so much in 2000. It's just that, after September 11, foreign policy is the easiest way to do that. In 2000, before international affairs was a top voter concern, the Bush campaign said Al Gore showed poor character by exaggerating his invention of the Internet and the prescription-drug costs for his dog. Today, the Bushies say John Kerry shows poor character by waffling on the war on terrorism. An actual debate about the wisdom of Bush's foreign policy--particularly in Iraq--is precisely what his campaign's character strategy is designed to prevent. . . .

"But the question of whether America is an occupier or a liberator in Iraq is not about faith in America; it is about facts on the ground. Maybe President Bush does believe more strongly that the United States is a liberator (though he has used the word 'occupation' several times). Unfortunately, the Iraqi people disagree."

By the way, National Review says it ran up $65,000 in legal bills while fighting a baseless libel suit and is asking its fans to contribute.


© 2004 washingtonpost.com