TCS Daily

From Getting Borked to Getting Blogged

By Joshua Livestro - October 29, 2004 12:00 AM

In October 1987, after Robert Bork's candidacy for the Supreme Court was rejected by the Democratic majority in the Senate, a new political turn of phrase entered the dictionary: "getting borked." It referred to the venomous politically motivated attacks on Bork's record that left his candidacy in ruins. As the recent borking of the Italian candidate for the European Commission, Rocco Buttiglione showed, a candidate about to be borked can forget about getting a fair hearing.

The past few months have seen the birth of another new political expression: "getting blogged." Unlike getting borked, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the merits of the case, getting blogged is all about cold, hard facts. As the mainstream media have found to their cost, any story that isn't factually correct will be torn apart before you can say "blogosphere."

The first big case of a person or organisation "getting blogged" was that of Republican Senate Majority leader Trent Lott. At the centre were Lott's seemingly innocent remarks in praise of South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential bid. The story wasn't a blogosphere exclusive. In fact, it was first covered by ABC News and the Washington Post. But as the authors of a Harvard Kennedy School study called "'Big Media' meets the 'Bloggers'" explained, if it hadn't been for the investigative efforts of a number of bloggers, the story would never have taken off in the way that it did. While the mainstream media seemed ready to drop it, bloggers were busy immersing themselves in the history of Thurmond's Dixiecrat campaign. They quickly discovered that at the heart of it was a desire to maintain the segregationist status quo in the Deep South. Once the mainstream media started to view Lott's remarks in this new context provided by the blogosphere, his fate was sealed.

Lott's story is not, however, a typical example of 'getting blogged.' Usually, the victim is not a public office holder but the mainstream media itself. A good example of that was provided a few months ago by the CBS show Sixty Minutes II. On September 8, the network broadcast a documentary claiming newly discovered memos demonstrated that George Bush had gone AWOL while serving in the Texas National Guard. Within minutes of the broadcast, a swarm of bloggers descended on the story, picking holes in it left, right and centre. In a universe where fonts are more important than oxygen, someone was bound to notice that the memos supposedly produced by Lt. Col. Jerry Killian in the early seventies were set in Times New Roman, a standard Microsoft Word typeface that was only introduced several years after Killian's death. Once this first incongruity was spotted, it took the blogosphere only a couple of days to destroy the entire story. By September 10, the mainstream media was already writing the obituary of Sixty Minutes anchorman Dan Rather. One despairing television news editor dismissed the blogosphere as "guys sitting in their living rooms in their pyjamas." But when the dust settled, the guys in their pyjamas had scored a major victory against one of the mainstream media's most revered organisations.

Of course, of the estimated three million bloggers worldwide, the vast majority will never engage in deconstructing a newscast or article. Most blogs only contain personal information about the bloggers themselves. Many others are devoted to subjects that have nothing to do with public affairs. But the few thousand blogs that do focus on politics are a force to be reckoned with. In a recent New York Times Magazine article, Matthew Klam explained the essential contribution bloggers provide: "They may lack maturity, discipline, offices and the facade of journalistic ethics. But they have zeroed in on what counts: they challenge authority, they challenge facts, they challenge us to read and decide for ourselves what is going on in our own country." ('Fear and laptops on the campaign trail,' October 10, 2004).

Or indeed elsewhere, as the Times is now finding out to its cost. In an attempt to liven up the final week of the Presidential race, it published a story about 380 tons of heavy explosives sealed by IAEA inspectors in the months before the war. The Times suggested that negligence on the part of American authorities had led to these explosives being stolen from the al Qa Qaa site south of Baghdad. The Internet army of rapid rebuttal specialists went to work on it immediately. The same day the story hit the news stands, the web had already made up its mind. This was nothing but a rehash of an old new story dating back to early April 2003. Bloggers provided their readers with links to a large number of articles and newscasts discussing inspections of the Al Qa Qaa site by American troops on April 4, 2003 (almost a week before the fall of Saddam on April 9). These inspections revealed that none of the material left under IAEA seal by UN inspectors on March 9 was still at the site early April.

Once the bloggers had established that there was no truth in the claim that these dangerous explosives had been lost in the chaos of the first few days after the collapse of Saddam's regime, attention quickly turned to the motives of the Times in running a story that was demonstrably untrue. In that process, the blogosphere's search lights also fell -- once again -- on CBS, which rather foolishly admitted that it had contemplated running the same story as a pre-election bombshell. It's doubtful that even the bloggers would have been able to defuse it at such short notice. As it is, it wasn't the White House but the Times and CBS that came out of this episode with their credibility in tatters. It's an important lesson to all mainstream media outlets. Don't let a good story get in the way of the facts, because the bloggers will find out soon enough. And once they're done blogging you, you'll be left smelling of Qa Qaa for a long, long time.


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