Détente With Mordor
Back in the really fun days of blogging, summer 2004, a bunch of folks typing on the Internet had a bone to pick with a particular network news division over a quartet of memos that had inspired a wee bit of controversy. At that time I wrote, "Sure, the Sauronic Big Eye of CBS is on the verge of being toppled by the Pajamahadeen…"
("Sauronic Big Eye" was a reference to the network's logo and the villain from "Lord of the Rings," and "pajamahadeen" was my attempt at an intimidating moniker based on former CBS executive Jonathan Klein's comment that the bloggers questioning the memos were just "a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas.")
At the time, the network had earned its comparison to a giant flaming embodiment of evil because of its stubborn refusal to acknowledge that it's memos allegedly from 1972 had a striking resemblance to Microsoft Word from 2004, as well as anchor Dan Rather's on-air dismissal of his critics as mere "partisan political operators." CBS ultimately admitted it could not verify the origin of the documents, and revealed that their source had misled the reporters on where he had obtained them.
It's about a year and a half later, and we've seen two differing trends in the antagonists in that fight. One is that CBS News has gotten a bit better and more responsible; and the other is that a significant portion of the blogosphere has, I humbly suggest, gone sour.
While it will be a long time before individuals forget the infamous memo report and trust CBS News again, the institution as a whole has taken concrete steps to perform better, a solid, detailed report of what went wrong by an outside review panel. Also, they have the Public Eye site that you're reading.
Furthermore, it looks like this ombudsman isn't merely a whitewashing exercise. In September 2005, when "60 Minutes" icon Mike Wallace appeared at a Brady Campaign fundraiser and imitated Charlton Heston, second-amendment rights advocates like my buddy Cam Edwards raised hell. And instead of dismissing the complaints as the whining of hicks or gun nuts, as I suspect many organizations would have done not too long ago, Vaughn Ververs asked CBS News executives and Wallace about it. He asked them to clarify the policy regarding reporters getting associated with one side of a political debate, and after watching a tape of the event, Ververs didn't equivocate. He acknowledged the unpleasant truth, stating "Wallace did make reference to the gun debate in a way that made him identifiable with one side of this issue." CBS executives said the issue would be reexamined if Wallace did a report dealing with firearms issues; he retired before addressing the issue in his reporting again.
This is progress.
And looking at the other side of the past Sauronic Eye vs. Pajamahadeen conflict, we notice that, perhaps more significantly, the blogs are not what they once were.
In the memo case, bloggers set about their task like amateur detectives, tracking down veterans of the Texas Air National Guard who were familiar with office protocol for memos and experts on 1970s typewriter technology, and looking into previous statements of the experts CBS had consulted, etc. Sure, many bloggers were angry - believing that Dan Rather and his crew had used phony documents to take a shot at President Bush at the height of a closely-fought presidential campaign - but the anger had to take a back seat to establishing the "case" – why the documents didn't appear genuine.
Today, there are still some blogs out there going out and doing reporting, or drawing on well-grounded experience in non-journalism fields or providing insightful analysis. But many, many more blogs are forsaking fact-gathering for the venting of straight-up, raw anger.
The blogosphere has always had heavily ideological conversational posting boards like Daily Kos and Eschaton on the left or FreeRepublic and LittleGreenFootballs on the right, where no holds are barred and no shot at the opposition is beyond the pale. On those sites, there's always a crowd of peers cheering you on, and reinforcing the perception that those who disagree with you are so wrong, mendacious, stupid or evil that no criticism is over the top or out of line.
Perhaps the most illustrative example of the changing tone on the blogs was the reaction to the release of Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carroll from her captors in Iraq. Before returning to the protection of U.S. forces, Carroll issued a statement full of praise for her captors. Her comments were odd and disturbing to say the least – but a surprisingly large chunk of the blogosphere reacted to the news with a torrent of scathing hatred.
Orrin Judd at the BrothersJudd.com declared that Carroll "may as well just come right out and say she was a willing participant." Debbie Schlussel labeled Carroll a "spoiled brat America-hater" and a commenter at RedState.com asserted, "she was anti-America [sic] when she went over there and I say the kidnapping was a put up deal from the get go."
Mind you, this is about a young woman who had been held hostage for three months, and who we had seen crying in video messages released by her kidnappers. Carroll disavowed the statement a day later, stating, "fearing retribution from my captors, I did not speak freely. Out of fear I said I wasn't threatened. In fact, I was threatened many times."
There was much ugliness on the right, but there was plenty of the same nastiness to go around on the left. Shortly after her initial remarks, John Podhoretz predicted on National Review Online's group blog The Corner that there would be a lot of talk about Stockholm Syndrome. Shortly thereafter, a contributor to the liberal blog ThinkProgress demanded an apology (presumptuously speaking for Carroll) and other commenters on that site wished for Podhoretz to get kidnapped himself, labeling him a "Reichwingnut" and so on.
No matter how much you may disagree with a network anchor, reporter or columnist, it's unheard of for a professional writer to say in published work, "I hope that guy gets kidnapped." Even on his worst day, it's unimaginable that Rather (or Bob Schieffer, or any new anchor) would label, on-air an opponent a "Reichwingnut." (Okay, maybe Bryant Gumbel. But when he called Robert Knight "a ****ing idiot," he at least thought he was off the air. ) Nor is any columnist likely to speculate in print that abducted prisoners are in cahoots with their captors, at least without evidence.
At their best, blogs can provide the mainstream media with competition, and pressure established organizations bring their A-game and put out their best work. But the MSM will have little reason to fear competition from blogs, if enough of them embrace the growing trend of denounce-with-spittle-flicking-fury-first-and-get-the-answers-later. Some readers new to the blogosphere will make distinctions between blogs; others will look at the high-profile worst of the lot and say, "to hell with them."
The Pajamahadeen have gone from fact-checking Dan Rather to speculating that Jill Carroll faked her tears on her hostage tape. This is not progress.