Thursday, January 06, 2005

Brave new media, my ass

Remember how everyone was certain the blogosphere had blown Dan Rather out of the water by "proving" that the so-called "Killian memos" it displayed in its story on George W. Bush's military career were "fraudulent"? Wasn't that the basis for Time naming PowerLine "blog of the year"?

Not so fast, please. As Corey Pein explains in the latest Columbia Journalism Review, what those self-anointed "new journalists" of the blogosphere achieved was something well below even the crudest of journalistic standards in terms of getting to the truth of the matter. Mainly because their work was so bereft of factual basis:
But CBS's critics are guilty of many of the very same sins. First, much of the bloggers' vaunted fact-checking was seriously warped. Their driving assumptions were often drawn from flawed information or based on faulty logic. Personal attacks passed for analysis. Second, and worse, the reviled MSM often followed the bloggers' lead. As mainstream media critics of CBS piled on, rumors shaped the news and conventions of sourcing and skepticism fell by the wayside. Dan Rather is not alone on this one; respected journalists made mistakes all around.

Of special note is the way the memos were "debunked":
Haste explains the rapid spread of thinly supported theories and flawed critiques, which moved from partisan blogs to the nation’s television sets. For example, the morning after CBS's September 8 report, the conservative blog Little Green Footballs posted a do-it-yourself experiment that supposedly proved that the documents were produced on a computer. On September 11, a self-proclaimed typography expert, Joseph Newcomer, copied the experiment, and posted the results on his personal Web site. Little Green Footballs delighted in the "authoritative and definitive" validation, and posted a link to Newcomer's report on September 12. Two days later, Newcomer -- who was "100 percent" certain that the memos were forged -- figured high in a Washington Post report. The Post's mention of Newcomer came up that night on Fox, MSNBC, and CNN, and on September 15, he was a guest on Fox News's Hannity & Colmes.

Newcomer gave the press what it wanted: a definite answer. The problem is, his proof turns out to be far less than that. Newcomer's résumé -- boasting a Ph.D. in computer science and a role in creating electronic typesetting -- seemed impressive. His conclusions came out quickly, and were bold bordering on hyperbolic. The accompanying analysis was long and technical, discouraging close examination. Still, his method was simple to replicate, and the results were easy to understand:

Based on the fact that I was able, in less than five minutes . . . to type in the text of the 01-August-1972 memo into Microsoft Word and get a document so close that you can hold my document in front of the 'authentic' document and see virtually no errors, I can assert without any doubt (as have many others) that this document is a modern forgery. Any other position is indefensible.

Red flags wave here, or should have. Newcomer begins with the presumption that the documents are forgeries, and as evidence submits that he can create a very similar document on his computer. This proves nothing -- you could make a replica of almost any document using Word. Yet Newcomer's aggressive conclusion is based on this logical error.

Many of the typographic critiques were similarly flawed. Would-be gumshoes typed up documents on their computers and fooled around with the images in Photoshop until their creation matched the originals. Someone remembered something his ex-military uncle told him, others recalled the quirks of an IBM typewriter not seen for twenty years. There was little new evidence and lots of pure speculation. But the speculation framed the story for the working press.

Pein goes on to mention the case of Utah State professor David Hailey, who was sucked into the blog controversy because of journalistically irresponsible behavior on the part the right-wing blog WizBang (described in detail here and here). Hailey himself has now published a response to the controversy.

Of course, I've been saying all along that these self-proclaimed "new journalists" had better learn that they're going to have face the same reality that was part and parcel of the world of "old journalism": Credibility is the coin of the realm, and you won't have it very long if you don't engage in fact-checking and testing your pet theses. If PowerLine, Little Green Footballs, and WizBang represent the future of blogging, we might as well give up now.

In any event, the blue-ribbon panel investigating the CBS memos is supposed to release its report soon. Popcorn, anyone?

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