CBS, forged documents, the Blogosphere and journalism

CBS and Dan Rather apologized today for broadcasting information about George W. Bush's record while in the national guard when, as it turns out, they could not verify the authenticity of that information. CBS purported to have documented evidence that Bush ignored some orders and shirked some duties. Turns out the documented evidence was forged and CBS — and Rather, in particular — were forced to acknowledge that fact.
This whole issue may, in the end, have something to do with who gets to be the next U.S. president. But many also believe it has something to do with this new thing called Participatory Journalism, a kind of journalism in which bloggers are leading the way.
Bloggers are taking credit for doing what CBS ought to have done, namely, examining the documents carefully to see if, in fact, the could be real. One of the telltale signs that the documents were forged, for example, were some of the fonts on the documents in question. Some font nut on the Web saw them and knew that the fonts on the document had not yet been invented when the document was allegedly created. Within minutes, this information ended up on a blog and everyone started asking more detailed questions about the memos. After that the whole house of cards came down.
But before some hail this as a watershed moment in so-called “bottom-up” journalism, read some wise words from some of the blogosphere's wisest and most widely read pundits. Here's Steven Johnson:

Think about the other major stories that broke in the last year or so involving misrepresentations or other abuses of power: the Plame Affair, Abu Ghraib, the whole missing-WMD madness. Did the bloggers contribute anything substantive to the reporting — to the facts, not the opinions — of those stories? No, because the central elements in those stories were not matters of typography; …. Until the blogosphere figures out a way to contribute to those kinds of stories — and not just ones where a knowledge of font trivia makes you a genuine expert — I think we'll still prove to be better at framing the news than making it ourselves.

Scott Rosenberg believes the event may have less to say about the power of the Internet than it has to say about the passing of an era:

What really hurts, for CBS and the rest of the networks' news operations, is that, at this late date in media history, trust is the only advantage the broadcast networks can claim. They no longer deliver the news faster than rivals, they certainly don't deliver it in more depth or from more viewpoints or with more style. Their only remaining edge has been a sort of generic, fossilized authority…..n the end, it feels fitting that “60 Minutes' ” vaunted TV news operation was taken in through its ignorance of the Selectric-to-software history of typography. The typed word — TV's achilles' heel!.

Jesse Walker, writing at Reason Online's site, takes this idea of the end of an era a bit further, and suggests the whole affair demonstrates the beginning of a new era, not one in which traditional Old Media is supplanted by New Media but one in which Old Media is transformed or merges with some elements of this New Media to create a new media ecosystem:

That's what is most fascinating about the elimination of media entry barriers, the rise of distributed journalism, and the new influx of reporting and commentary from outside the professional guild. The new outlets aren't displacing the old ones; they're transforming them. Slowly but noticeably, the old media are becoming faster, more transparent, more interactive—not because they want to be, but because they have to be. Competition is quickening the news cycle whether or not anyone wants to speed it up. Critics are examining how reporters do their jobs whether or not their prying eyes are welcome. And if a network or a newspaper doesn't respond to those criticisms—if it doesn't make itself more interactive—then its credibility takes a blow

Walker goes on to say:

…mainstream reporters … are gradually getting locked into an uneasy partnership with their amateur cousins online. It's not a voluntary relationship, and there are news professionals out there who will deny until their dying breath that it exists. It's more like the partnership between Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones. But it's real.

Dave Sifry is trying to put together a timeline of the blogosphere's effect on mainstream media.

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