A Web site opposed to Dan Rather that has ties to a Virginia conservative activist was incorrectly identified in a Sept. 20 Style story. It is Rathergate.com, not RatherBiased.com. (Published 9/21/04)
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.
Scott Johnson, 53, writes for a Web site called Power Line. Charles Johnson, 51, posts on Little Green Footballs. They were among the bloggers who blew the cyber-whistle by charging that the documents used by "60 Minutes" in its report on President Bush's Air 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 to finish its investigation early this week 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 salespeople 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 RatherBiased.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."
Picking and Choosing
So how exactly can Vice President 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 10 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 Times 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."
Democratic presidential candidate 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."
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 greenroom, 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."
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."