TCS Daily

The Year Of Blogging Dangerously

By Edward B. Driscoll - December 27, 2004 12:00 AM

For those of us Webloggers who track the media the way that sports fans follow the NFL, 2004 will be remembered as the year the mask not only slipped, it completely came off the mainstream media. Newspapers and television networks were happy -- almost gleeful -- to toss their previously vaunted claims of objectivity into the dumpster, to help defeat a president that, almost to a man, they despised.

Fortunately, the Blogosphere was there fight to back. Coming of age on and immediately after 9/11, there were numerous bloggers who watched with a combination of horror and glee at what we saw happening to the media in 2004.

It was horrific because most bloggers actually want to see a well-functioning press: one that reports the news fairly, and offers a wide range of opinions. And ideally, doesn't mix reporting and editorializing in the same story.

On the other hand, we were gleeful, at having so many stories to debunk and so much context to fill-in.

So...from the home office in San Jose, California, allow me to present, via my 1972 IBM Selectric and my jammies, the top ten events that ricocheted through the Blogosphere in 2004. They're presented in order of importance, not chronologically; no doubt, you'd assemble a very different list; but I trust you'll agree with at least some of these choices.

10. The Passion Versus Fahrenheit 9/11: The release of The Passion of the Christ in late January, and the extreme polarization of the reviews its received was an early sign that the Red State/Blue State divide would only get worse this year.

That feeling was echoed when the other shoe dropped: Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which received glowing notices -- many of which came from the same critics who despised The Passion. Lots of bloggers (including myself) posted about both films, but it took a blogger with a site called Beautiful Atrocities to simply put 22 reviews side by side to allow readers to see how liberal critics view a "red state film" compared to a "blue state film".

9. Winter Soldier: John Kerry became the presumptive nominee of front-loaded Democratic primary season in late January, largely because he had voted for the war in Iraq; because Iowa Democrats believed the former Vietnam vet was a moderate-to-hawkish liberal; and that his war hero background would be a useful cudgel against a president who served stateside in the Air National Guard.

The media was more than willing to play along with this: during the period in 2003 when Kerry was merely one of a pack of potential Democratic nominees who were chasing the prize, the press wrote several warts-and-all stories, at least about his Boston Brahmin nature.

But once he got the nomination, it was strict radio silence up until the election was over.

Fortunately, several Bloggers and members of new and anti-establishment media were willing to take up the slack. Perhaps the first was National Review's Mackubin Thomas Owens, who quoted Kerry's damning Winter Soldier speech to the Senate from 1971 in a January 27th piece. On February 17th, radio man Hugh Hewitt broadcast an audio recording of it and posted a PDF transcription. Then, as a precursor to the Swift Boat Veterans' Website, went online. In April, Tom McGuire from a Weblog called Just One Minute carefully examined Kerry's military records and noticed something that didn't seem to interest the media: Kerry was still a member of the Navy Reserves when he made his speech where he denounced his fellow sailors and soldiers to the world. All of this placed any macho fratboy hijinks a young Dubya might have conceivably pulled whilst in the Texas Air National Guard into a significantly different context.

8. Iraq Then And Now: In June, former Vice President Al Gore declared:

"Beginning very soon after the attacks of 9/11, President Bush made a decision to start mentioning Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in the same breath in a cynical mantra designed to fuse them together as one in the public's mind."

The Power Line Weblog responded by reminding readers that in the early 1990s, Al Gore chastised President Bush's father for being too soft on Hussein. Meanwhile, other bloggers tracked down the numerous newspaper articles from the 1990s, which praised President Clinton for attacking Iraq...and even discussed a connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam. As Peter Bull famously quipped in Dr. Strangelove, our source was the New York Times. And Newsweek, and NPR, and CNN and The Guardian...

7. Den Beste's Fall Preview: The summer of 2004 felt long and dark for many of President Bush's supporters, as numerous charges raised by the press, Hollywood, and Democrats all went seemingly answered.

It was in this negative atmosphere that Steven Den Beste wrote an essay that he posted on July 21st, where he wrote:

"I don't know exactly when the Republican campaign will finally get serious. It doesn't seem likely they'll wait until October, so my best guess is it will be in September some time.

"And I am pretty confident that when they do really get serious, the consequences for the Kerry campaign will be catastrophic. After the November election, a lot of people are going to wonder why it was that anyone ever thought that Kerry had a substantial chance of winning.

"And part of the reason it's going to go so badly for Kerry is that there is very careful low-level preparation going on."

The Republican Convention began on August 30th, and one by one, prominent politicians from all over the political spectrum, each sang President Bush's praises. Just as General Motors doesn't introduce its new line-up until the fall, President Bush and Karl Rove kicked off the fall campaign with an explosive start.

6. The Exit Polls: On Election Tuesday, depending on whom you want to believe, either the networks or the Kerry camp released mid-afternoon polling data to several extremely prominent Websites, including Matt Drudge on the right, and Anna Marie Cox's Wonkette Weblog on the left. The result added even more of a roller coaster quality to an already manic day, leaving Kerry voters temporarily euphoric, and Bush supporters in a state of sullen disillusionment.

After the election, the legacy media tried to use those polls to discredit the same bloggers that they previously built-up, particularly Ana Marie Cox's Wonkette site. But as Blogger N.Z. Bear noted, Wonkette carefully indicated that all those poll numbers come with "grains of salt. Huge tablespoons of salt", and reminded her readers they still had time to vote. As Bear wrote:

"Other than simply publishing the poll numbers under a banner which screamed 'PACK OF LIES', what more could possibly be expected to warn readers that the information they were receiving had not been fact-checked to death and should be viewed as potentially suspect?"

5. Political Conventions: Because both parties' political conventions are heavily preplanned and scripted, not much breaking news happens at them any more for Bloggers to report. But because the cable networks had hours of coverage to fill, they interviewed several bloggers who had been allowed to attend each convention. And blogging began to inch ever closer towards becoming a household word.

4. Campaign Violence: While the Websites of individual newspapers and TV stations posted stories about break-ins and campaign violence, few seemed able to put the pieces together and notice that the vast, vast majority of violence was directed from the left to the right, as shootings, break-ins, and even "spontaneous" riots occurred in numerous GOP headquarters across the country. In October, Frank Martin noticed that it smacked of desperation tactics: a campaign that's sure of victory usually battens down the hatches and runs a tight ship (to mix maritime metaphors). The prior month, Nashville-based Bill Hobbs assembled a section on his blog that tracked all of voter fraud, as soon stories were spotted occurring. He ended up with over 60 entries in a month and a half.

3. The New York Times Announces It's Liberal: On Sunday, July 25th, Daniel Okrent, the Ombudsman of the New York Times wrote an op-ed titled, "Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?", to which he replied in the next sentence, "Of course it is".

It's surprising that Okrent's admission announcement hasn't reverberated as strongly as RatherGate has. As Bernard Goldberg wrote in Arrogance, the Times' reporting influences not just what is reported in other papers, but what stories air on TV as well. Many, many TV news stories begin as Times articles, which networks simply hand to their reporters and say, "craft a story out of this". The Times admitting they're biased is the rest of media admitting they're biased as well. Although these days, that's a topic they're less and less reticent to discuss.

2. Christmas in Cambodia: While the Kerry Campaign managed to pull itself together in the fall to come within a three million votes (and 34 electoral votes) of winning the election, out of the starting gate after the Democratic convention, it was a very wobbly machine. Its first stop, on July 31st, a photo-op at a New York State Wendy's, was brilliantly documented by Mark Steyn, who noted that the real food came not from the hamburger chain that the late Dave Thomas started in the critical swing state of Ohio, but from a nearby yacht club!

At the Wendy's however, Kerry, the ex-Navy man who had only just "reported for duty" at the Democratic convention, received a frosty reception from a pair of Marines who were also dining there.

This meeting foreshadowed two of the most under-reported elements of the campaign: the respect and admiration of much of the military for their current commander and chief, and the loathing of Kerry by many of his former "band of brothers" from Vietnam.

The Swift Boat Vets' ad campaign and their book, Unfit For Command was a certified new media phenomenon. Bootstrapping their ad campaign through contributions solicited via their Website, their first commercial was relegated to late night spots on Podunk TV stations. Nobody saw it.

But actually, everybody saw it: via the Internet. Glenn Reynolds linked to it, and a reader called it "the most devastating political ad I have ever seen -- bar none".

August for Kerry went into freefall the next day with "Christmas in Cambodia". Via Unfit For Command, Hugh Hewitt read a passage from the Senate record from March 27, 1986, in which Senator Kerry noted:

"I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia. I remember what it was like to be shot at by the Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians, and have the president of the United States telling the American people that I was not there; the troops were not in Cambodia. I have that memory which is seared -- seared -- in me."

This story had more holes in it than a swift boat hull full of AK-47 hits. Using his digital camera, Glenn Reynolds simply went to his university's library and took a photo of the Senate record in question, and uploaded it. Even more damning, Reynolds scanned a passage from a 1979 Boston Herald story that sounded like Kerry's Christmas in Cambodia story took life after Kerry saw Apocalypse Now, and its similar plot. Kerry and his handlers started backpedaling, and fast.

Camp Kerry was so spooked by all of these developments that they waited until nearly the end of August for his only appearance that allowed televised Q&A: with comedian Jon Stewart; and even that didn't go well.

1. RatherGate: This is the big one Elizabeth! The Bush Air National Guard story was rehashed seemingly endlessly back in February. When it was announced that the low rated mid-week 60 Minutes II would be doing yet another piece on the subject on September 8th, most on the right simply rolled their eyes and said, "again"??

But the night that the story ran, CBS also put online some of the documents that they acquired to try to make their case. Members of the popular Free Republic forum noticed that those documents looked...odd. Like something that was done last week on Microsoft Word rather (excuse the pun) than on the typewriters that a 1972 Texas Air National Guard base would have. Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs created a blinking gif showing the CBS document in question flashing in sequence with a version he created in Word. And lots of people simply opened their copies of Word 2000 and tried it for themselves.

The result of all this was that on November 23rd, Dan Rather announced he was retiring in March (ironically from his much more visible nightly news anchor position-not his 60 Minutes II gig that caused all hell to break loose) one year shy of his 25th anniversary as anchorman at CBS.

It wouldn't have happened without the Blogosphere (pajama-clad or not), which began the year wondering about the biases of the mainstream media, and ended it in a position to supplant them as leading opinion makers.

...And that's the way it is. Well, from one fellow's perspective, at least.


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