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Memo stirs old vs. new media war

WITH THE revelation that CBS News aired what appear to be forged memos as part of its "60 Minutes II" story on President Bush's Vietnam-era National Guard service, the "memogate" story shifted from Bush vs. Kerry to old media vs. new media. Hours after the show aired, questions about the authenticity of the memos, purportedly written by Bush's then-superior officer Jerry Killian in 1973, surfaced on right-of-center blogs (short for "weblogs"). By the next day, those questions were also being posed by the mainstream media such as The Washington Post and ABC News.

A defining moment in the Battle of the Media came when former CBS News executive Jonathan Klein said in a television appearance defending the story, "You couldn't have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing."

To many denizens of the blogosphere, this comment exemplified the arrogance, elitism, and cluelessness of the "old media." And let's face it, the bloggers had every reason to gloat when, shortly after Klein's statement, new information surfaced suggesting that those vaunted checks and balances at CBS News had failed rather miserably in this case. According to a report at the ABC News website, some of the experts CBS consulted prior to airing the story warned the producers that they had doubts about the documents' authenticity.

This is hardly the first time the "old media" have suffered a black eye in recent years. Journalists at some of the most esteemed print publications -- Jayson Blair at The New York Times, Pulitzer Prize finalist Jack Kelley at USA Today, Stephen Glass at The New Republic -- have been exposed as fabricators. Dateline NBC has been caught rigging a truck for a crash test to simulate the desired results.

Right now, the bloggers are in an understandably self-congratulatory mood. The Internet, they argue, has led to a true democratization of the media, toppling the old elites; the competition from other pajama-clad guys and gals provides plenty of checks and balances.

Yet a few words of caution are in order. First, as veteran blogger Glenn Reynolds of points out at the Tech Central Station website, the "big media" still do virtually all of the actual news-gathering; a lone wolf with a home computer and a strong opinion simply doesn't have the resources to compete in that arena. In that sense, the blogosphere feeds off the mainstream media -- though it often provides excellent commentary, analysis, and fact-checking. Reynolds believes the relationship between "new" and "old" media is symbiotic more than adversarial.

Second, media hoaxes and forgeries have been exposed before the Internet. (Remember the "Hitler diaries" published in 1983?) Assuming that the Killian memos are indeed fake, it's quite likely that the forgeries would have been exposed even without the intrepid bloggers, though later rather than sooner.

Third, while competition is a wonderful thing, a firestorm in the blogosphere can generate more heat -- and smoke -- than light. As I tried to follow the early debate on the CBS memos, I was utterly confused by the cacophony of agenda-driven charges and countercharges, insults, and clashing pronouncements by self-styled experts whose credentials had to be taken on faith. The pro-Bush blogs shrieked that the incriminating documents were obvious computer-created fakes; the anti-Bush blogs shrieked that, beyond any doubt, typewriters capable of producing these memos were available in the 1970s. No offense to the upstart blogs, but what finally settled my doubts was reporting by mainstream media such as ABC News and The Washington Post.

This is not to say that the mainstream media are or were agenda-free. While conservative charges of liberal media bias have often been exaggerated, most people working in the establishment media do share certain politically liberal assumptions that probably affect, however unconsciously, their decision to give credence to particular experts or facts.

In the past, the danger was that the "big media" with their unspoken biases could exert too much unchecked and unbalanced influence over public opinion. Today, the danger is that some people will choke on the overabundance of facts and interpretations, while others will withdraw into a comfortable niche, exposing themselves only to journalism that feeds their prejudices.

Even if the CBS memos are conclusively exposed as forgeries, many readers of left-wing blogs will continue to believe they are real -- just as many of their counterparts on the right would continue to question the documents' authenticity if the shoe were on the other foot.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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