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Ernest Miller Ernest Miller pursues research and writing on cyberlaw, intellectual property, and First Amendment issues. Mr. Miller attended the U.S. Naval Academy before attending Yale Law School, where he was president and co-founder of the Law and Technology Society, and founded the technology law and policy news site LawMeme. He is a fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. Ernest Miller's blog postings can also be found @

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« Incompetent or Unethical? The Story of CBS News' Response to Criticism Over the Killian Memos | Main | The Fingerpointing Has Begun at CBS »

September 18, 2004

Real Time Fact Checking

Posted by Ernest Miller

On Thursday, the Washington Post (annoying reg. req.) had a live online chat with Chief Political Correspondent Terry Neal (Talking Points Live: Terry Neal). Responding to a question regarding Rathergate, Neal said:

The bottom line is, for however badly CBS and Dan Rather seem to have screwed up, it was the aggressive reporting of the media--and especially the Washington Post (Michael Dobbs, Howie Kurtz, et al)--that revealed the problems with the memos in the first place.
As anyone who reads this blog knows, indeed anyone following the story at virtually any level whatsoever, it was blogs that broke the story.

I don't want to give Neal a hard time, but he's the political correspondent for the Perhaps he should be paying a little more attention to the blogosphere.

In any case, by the end of the 1-hour chat, Neal had been corrected:

New York, N.Y.: I agree with your point about not blaming the entire media for CBS's bad judgement, but in terms of digging into the story of whether they were fakes -- didn't that start in the blogs?

Terry Neal: You know raise a good question. And to be honest, I'm not sure of the answer. I don't know who the first person or people were to raise the issue. Either way, it can't be denied that the mainstream media has been aggressive in its reporting of the memo mess, whether it was broken there or in the blogs first.


Washington, D.C. : The aggressive reporting of Howard Kurtz and Michael Dobbs only came after the work of bloggers who uncovered the whole mess.

Terry Neal: I'm getting a lot of notes like this...See my previous answer. And allow me, as a mainstream media guy, to give credit were credit is due. Kudos to the bloggers!

Comments (19) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Blogging and Journalism


1. Armed Prophet on September 19, 2004 01:48 AM writes...

Don't forget, Neal's column is titled "Talking Points." I recall Josh Marshall griping about this when it debuted last year. Neal also interviewed Ana Marie Cox for a Post webcast a few months ago. I count that as a demerit as well.

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2. Seth Finkelstein on September 19, 2004 01:58 AM writes...

INDCjournal (one of the blogs breaking the story) has an extremely good post on this:

[The following is from INDCjournal, not me]

"For the record, the idea that the blogosphere is somehow "superior" to traditional media is
a ridiculous bit of hubris. Blogging has its own special advantages (speed, openness, an
often transparent thought process), but I hope that it never replaces the mainstream
media, because the mainstream media is a profession that plays by rules. They aren't
supposed to publish rumor and innuendo, they don't burn sources with abandon, there's
typically an acceptable level of fact-checking and verification, and even their half-hearted
attempts at neutrality still represent the best way to get raw information. Some bloggers
follow old media rules, many don't. Most media organizations follow these rules, some
don't. When it comes to the MSM, we want all of them to follow the rules."

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3. El Gringo on September 19, 2004 02:03 AM writes...

I don't understand why anyone wanting to be taken seriously would use the label "talking points" for anything. The phrase first went mainstream, as I recall, when it was revealed that Monica Lewinsky was pitching "talking points" authored by Bruce Lindsey to Lynda Tripp during the Starr investigation.

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4. dick on September 19, 2004 02:08 AM writes...

Are you saying that we should give it all up for the major media like the Boston Globe who published porno pics and said they were from the Iraqi prison or CBS when they tried to palm off forged docs (and not for the first time) or for the LA Times when they chastised Bremer for not giving a speech when he left Iraq at the same time that CNN was broadcasting Bremer's speech or for the Washington Post telling us that the streets of Baghdad were closed down and all businesses were closed while the Iraqi bloggers were sending us photos of the traffic jams of people on the way to work and the kids walking to school and the stores all open for busines? Is that the point of your comment that the MSM follow the rules and give us the true info? Are we to depend on them to give us not only the bad news from the war zones (they are good at that part of the equation) but also the good news that the Iraqis are taking over the various tasks of security, policing, running the various departments, setting up loans, banks, businesses (they seem to forget that part of it completely)?

From the CBS/Rather story we can see just how good the MSM is at checking the facts and verifying them. We can also see just how good the media is at reporting the news rather than making the news up.

Pardon my saying this but I think you need to take a good long look at what you wrote, check it to the current situation, take a good long drink of whatever your pleasure is, and start all over again. Your next attempt may just be worth reading. The current one is good only for laughs.

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5. TG on September 19, 2004 02:23 AM writes...

So many of us now spend so much time on blogs, that we don't quite recognize that many of these mainstream guys don't do what we do. I think Terry got his opportunity to catch on....bloggers won't be the main news sources (although we will fill in valuable info, such as from military personnel emails and blogs from Iraq), but we damn well will make the mainstream media be careful with their facts, and more balanced with their slants, even as they are the folks we continue to link to, much of the time, for major news events.

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6. Mike G on September 19, 2004 03:54 AM writes...

Okay, so a guy writes a column about something and when he's asked about the most basic and central fact about it, his reply is, "Golly, I dunno. That's a good question!" (Because god forbid he should even read what The Weekly Standard or somebody had to write about it.)

What exactly separates that level of cluelessness from Dan "I sure would like to break that story" Rather?

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7. Paul on September 19, 2004 05:15 AM writes...

To me, the most amazing thing about this episode was the level of expertise brought to bear by the blogsphere. There were font specialists, typewriter repairmen and word processing software writers all contributing almost instantly. They weren't paid but rather (hah) did it on their own time. Some were trying to help their political party but others were simply dedicated to the truth.

The author of one of the more informative postings started out saying he is no fan of Bush but detests forgery even more. It would be hard for a news organization to match this level of expertise even if they were diligent.

Perhaps bloggers will start being rewarded for demonstrating their expertise. If I were CBS, I'd contact the bloggers who skewered me the next time I had documents to authenticate. Another example of the internet "cutting out the middleman".

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8. rastajenk on September 19, 2004 05:31 AM writes...

"They weren't paid but rather (hah) did it on their own time. Some were trying to help their political party but others were simply dedicated to the truth."

Kind of like some Vietnam vets whose integrity has been questioned recently.

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9. zeppenwolf on September 19, 2004 07:11 AM writes...

Neal: "Either way, it can't be denied that the mainstream media has been aggressive in its reporting of the memo mess"

Sure, nominally aggressive-- once they were dragged into it kicking and screaming!! Incredible.

Does anyone still doubt the existence of the bubble these guys live in?

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10. Gary B. on September 19, 2004 07:14 AM writes...

Dan Rather wouldn't be in trouble right now if it had been left up to the MSM. The bloggers set the agenda again based on facts that CBS failed to require be accurate before they ran with the story.

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11. David S. Lott on September 19, 2004 07:29 AM writes...

From the Terry Neal webconf:

"New York, N.Y.: I agree with your point about not blaming the entire media for CBS's bad judgement, but in terms of digging into the story of whether they were fakes -- didn't that start in the blogs?

Terry Neal: You know raise a good question. And to be honest, I'm not sure of the answer. I don't know who the first person or people were to raise the issue."

He doesn't know?

This is the reporter?

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12. LaVallette on September 19, 2004 10:00 AM writes...

Neal: "Either way, it can't be denied that the mainstream media has been aggressive in its reporting of the memo mess" You Wish, Mr. Neal!!.

You did an even worse job on the issue of Viet. Vets for Truth. Four hard hitting ads.(so far) and a best seller book based on evidence from primary sources who were "there" (you dont have to be on the football field to know what happened at the football). The best the MSM can do is to make a passing reference to the existence of the Viet. Vets., and only when the MSM absolutely cannot avoid making such a reference, accompanied by the snide comment that their claims have been discredited. This is done without any details of what the Vets.' claims are and of the primary evidence on which these claims are based, and without the MSM then listing which claims have been discredited and on what basis.

And we are supposed to rely on the MSM!!!! The days of the "godlike" all knowing MSM reporter are gone Thank GOD!!!

PS> I remember when Walter Cronkite was in his prime some people referred to him as the "voice of god" and I am sure he believed it too. And Rather was his successor specially chosen by him.

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13. Mike N on September 19, 2004 10:52 AM writes...

When you post on the web you can be sure that somewhere out there are experts in that field who, if your facts are wrong, will let you know it in a matter of minutes. I like that.

Research is easier today.

With internet news there's no more "unnamed sources" crap. I've never trusted news reports like that. Bloggers usually link to their sources. When reporting on rumors bloggers usually say so.

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14. David Tiley on September 19, 2004 12:02 PM writes...

From completely outside the US - Australia - I would say that the blogging response to the CBS documents had a basic contradiction.

1. People hopped all over it, producing a zillion theories.

2. We had no idea whether these people really were authentic or moonbats broadcasting an alternate reality. Is this person REALLY a typewriter expert or just very very ideologically committed?

So many of the convinced commenters were overt Bushites, which is good for accuracy - we know the bias - but not so good for confidence in the authority of the opinion. And some of the early erupters like LGF are known to play the Right side of the field.

So on the one hand the work was done, but on the other it was hard to trust.

In these ways, blogging is a two-edged sword. It is in the nature of the beast.

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15. Ernest Miller on September 19, 2004 02:10 PM writes...

Some of the claims made by bloggers would be more difficult than others to verify, ultimately resting on the conclusions of experts. However, one of the most persuasive arguements was quite simple to verify and can from Little Green Footballs: the claim that the memo was easily replicable in Microsoft Word. You didn't have to take Charles Johnson's word for it, you could do the experiment yourself.

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16. Insufficiently Sensitive on September 19, 2004 07:30 PM writes...

"2. We had no idea whether these people really were authentic or moonbats broadcasting an alternate reality. Is this person REALLY a typewriter expert or just very very ideologically committed?"

The writer above must be a journalist from MSM.

David Tiley's attention is immediately, myopically, fixed on the writer and not the argument made by the writer. He thinks that the messenger is more important than the message. In MSM mindset, 'we're professionals, we have ethics, anything we say can be taken on faith. You don't need to examine our assertions for being reasonable, plausible, logical or factual.'

Whereas in the blogosphere, thanks to Ken Layne, 'this is the Internet and we can fact check your ass'. So a blogger is ten times more likely than an MSM journalist to provide supporting information for assertions - including links, which MSM disdains like the plague. Blog presentation of news properly directs a reader's attention to the message, with the assumption that fact-checking of the writer's ass WILL be done. The links provided are there to facilitate the process of verification, and the establishment of authority in the writer.

The focus on the writer instead of the message is the MSM's first step of misdirection away from the sordid details of the CBS memo fraud - in which CBS squanders more of its moral capital by assuming that audience faith in the messenger will cancel a proper analysis of their forged 'evidence'.

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17. Kurt on September 20, 2004 03:18 PM writes...

The MSM era of information supremacy is over! Dead and burried. May it rest in peace.

The tipping point came the moment bloggers broke the memogate story. A moment that will be studied and analyzed in history classes and journalism schools for years to come.

The bloggers are doing the job the MSM should be doing. Instead of kicking and screaming like spoiled kids, the MSM needs to wise up and come to grips with the new reality. They should be saying to themselves, "If you can't beat em, join em."

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18. draconis on September 21, 2004 01:56 AM writes...

I somehow doubt that the era of mainstream media has come to an end. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that that it has reached a turning point--please remember, there was a time when radio was supposed to end mainstream media. Then it was television, then cable, then satellites. I suspect that in the end, the mainstream will simply change its method of doing business. The question is not "Is this the end of the mainstream media?" Rather, the question is "What form will the mainstream media take twenty years from now?"

Face it people--the Mainstream media (or MSM, because I am getting tired of giving enough respect to anything to type it out) is an institution, and if there is one thing institutions are good at, it is surviving. The survival of the MSM is assured, but its form is not.

I would have to assume, since I am not privy to the thoughts of the mainstream executives, that within five years or so, some of the bigger blogs will start to be incorporated into the MSM, either as sources of information, fact-checkers, or even simply as competing coverage services. It is already starting to happen now, as the article clearly demonstrates--how long before the process completes?

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19. Kurt on October 11, 2004 07:02 AM writes...

Draconis, you are correct. I overstated when I said the era of MSM is over. I should have said that the MSM's self-perceived monopoly on news and information is over. They must now look over their shoulder whenever presenting their version of the “news.” CBS just got hit by a Mac truck, and is still dazed and confused as to how a bunch of guys in pajamas and bunny slippers could have been the folks at the wheel. It is stunning.

I must admit that I am a member of the MSM in my full time work. And even I missed out on the Bloger phenomenon until I clicked a link supplied by The Drudge Report regarding the forged documents. I am hooked and now check about a dozen Blogs per day. The cross-fact checking is amazing. A new information era has dawned.

I fully agree when you say that the MSM will have to incorporate Blogs into their organizations. No other choice. Blogs cannot be ignored, sidelined or considered a fringe element.

The brilliant columnist from put it best:

The death cry of snob journalism
Michelle Malkin

September 15, 2004
Dan Rather, Professional Journalist, and CBS News, Professional News Network, want us to keep believing that they are the ordained purveyors of truth. They are the mature and responsible mavens of media ethics. They are the information gatekeepers with unparalleled judgment, dedicated to the high principles of The Craft of Journalism, unwavering in their crusade for the public interest.
As the saying goes in the blogosphere: Bwah-hah-hah.
With a click of the mouse and easy-to-use Web log software, Internet-savvy citizens across America and around the world are relentlessly unmasking the frauds of snob journalism as never before. The wall between the self-anointed press protectorate and the unwashed masses has crumbled.
Rather and The Suits face crushing evidence that CBS relied on bogus military documents in a recent "60 Minutes II" hit piece challenging President Bush's National Guard service. Questions about the documents' authenticity were first raised last week on the indispensible conservative Internet forum,, then amplified and supplemented by the intrepid independent bloggers of Powerline, Little Green Footballs, INDC Journal and Allahpundit.
Rather and his geriatric empire are combating these powerfully persuasive blogs with anemic smears and sneers. And they are losing so very, very badly that they can't keep on top of their own spin.
Rather recklessly suggests that the bloggers who broke the story are disciplined "partisan political operatives," presumably affiliated with the Bush campaign and/or Republican National Convention. Former CBS news executive Jonathan Klein, on the other hand, suggests that the bloggers are loose cannons and amateur yahoos. The blogger, Klein told Fox News, is a "guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing" without acceptable journalistic credentials or a genuine commitment to "checks and balances."
It's no surprise, of course, that the conspiratorial, central-planning mindset of the mainstream media kingpins conjures up a top-down plot where there is none and where none could ever be orchestrated even if the Bush White House wanted one. Bloggers take orders from no one. But with that irresistible platter of publishing freedom comes a tall glass of responsibility. For serious blogging pundits and news-gatherers and discussion board operators, cyber-cred is everything. Mainstream media anthropologists often attach the adjective "free-wheeling" to the blogger culture -- ignoring the flip side of the brutally quick-fixing and 24/7 fact-checking nature of the medium.
What is amazing is that Rather would shamelessly traffic in such paranoid nonsense against conservative-leaning bloggers, without a shred of substantiation, in the middle of his own disastrous journalistic hurricane -- and on the heels of CNN's recent disclosure that two of its most prominent talk show co-hosts, Paul Begala and James Carville, have been hired as official consultants to the Kerry presidential campaign but will remain in their current positions at the network.
About these proven Democratic "partisan political operatives," Rather has made no comment on CBS.
As for Klein, his pajama put-down will go down in media history as the death cry of snob journalism.
With amusement, I have watched my colleagues in the Old Media fight every democratizing and choice-enhancing trend during the dozen years I've spent in the information business. They scoffed at Rush Limbaugh as a flash in the pan (and have searched in vain for a commercially viable liberal counterpart for the last 15 years). They sneered at The Drudge Report (then bookmarked his site for hourly reading). They sniped at Fox News (then ripped off every one of Roger Ailes' innovations). They laughed at Regnery Publishing (then snatched up its editors and formed New York knock-offs). They mocked the insurgent New York Post (as their own circulation figures and ad sales tanked). And now, in final desperation, they trash the blogging revolution as an irresponsible pajama party for unprofessional hobbyists (even as they launch their own corporate-scrubbed versions to exhibit their "edginess").
Faced with an unstoppable onslaught of competitive traffic, Dan Rather and the great pretenders in Trusted Journalism have only one choice for survival: Yield.

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