Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Is 'Rathergate' a Watershed Moment for U.S. Media?

Is 'Rathergate' a Watershed Moment for U.S. Media?
Mon Sep 20, 2004 07:55 PM ET
By Arthur Spiegelman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Internet bloggers have drawn blood and American journalism may never be the same.

To hear some press experts tell it, CBS's admission on Monday that it was duped into using questionable documents about President Bush's National Guard service during the Vietnam War was a watershed moment brought on by a small army of Internet-based commentators known as bloggers.

Their insistence, from the moment that CBS aired its report almost two weeks ago, that the documents were fake turned the question into a national issue ending with Rather, CBS and the American media establishment in a state of deep embarrassment.

Orville Schell, dean of the school of journalism at the University of California in Berkeley, said CBS's admission of error after days of stonewalling was "a landmark moment for the balance between the blogosphere and mainstream media."

Bloggers were the first to challenge the authenticity of the documents and the first to publish detailed examinations of the evidence by dozens of self-declared experts, some of them with Republican party ties.

"The credibility of the media has taken another hit, especially when you consider the story is not Dan Rather but President Bush's service in the National Guard," Schell said.

That latter story -- that said George W. Bush ducked military service in Vietnam by entering the Guard and then getting special treatment thanks to his powerful father -- has been lost in the welter of complaints about the CBS story.

It was not the first time that bloggers have stuck.

Often working anonymously, bloggers have fanned the flames of controversies ranging from whether Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry deserved his Vietnam medals to whether Republican Trent Lott should remain a Senate leader after praising a segregationist.

Schell and former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan, among others, say there is a media revolution under way.

Writing in this week's Time magazine, Sullivan said, "The Web has done one revolutionary thing to journalism. It has made the price of entry into the media market minimal. In days gone by, you needed a small fortune to start up a simple magazine or newspaper. Now you need a laptop and a modem."

Steven Miller, who teaches broadcast journalism at New Jersey's Rutgers University, said CBS fell victim to the economics and cut throat competition in television news.

"Unfortunately, the truth seems to be taking a back seat to ratings, and this time, CBS got caught up in it," Miller told Reuters.

But Tom Goldstein, former dean of Columbia University's School of Journalism, dismissed the notion that CBS's dilemma was a sign that American journalism has become more sloppy in recent years.

Instead, Goldstein said Rather's report was another example of bad things happening to good news organizations. "They had the best in the business on it, and they got duped and there but for the grace of God go you and I."

Independent network news analyst Andrew Tyndall, publisher of the daily Tyndall Report, said the apparent forgery of the memos alone does not necessarily discredit the substance of Rather's overall story on Bush's service record.

But Goldstein, Miller and Tyndall all questioned CBS News' judgment in going with Rather's report in the first place, even if the documents had turned out to be authentic.

"It's another WMD, another weapon of mass distraction. That's what this whole campaign has turned out to be," Miller said, adding that "somebody out there is trying to keep this running." (additional reporting by Steve Gorman)