When Beauty becomes the beast

Another significant event that webloggers have participated on is the discovery that documents used on a CBS 60 Minutes were most likely fake. These documents were purported to be written by a young George Bush’s commanding officer, where he complains about having to bow to pressure and give Bush preferential treatment.

Webloggers went into full cry immediately, primarily focusing on the font used in the papers, saying that it couldn’t possibly be from a typewriter of that time — it looked more like the work of a recent Word document, instead.

Unlike the Lott event, the CBS Documents Event is still fresh, and I believe it was PowerLine that cast the first doubt on the veracity of the documents, as did other webloggers, as noted in this NY Sun article.

(Note, it may have been Little Green Footballs, according to this story.)

Also unlike Lott, there is some contention that the instigation into the investigation of the documents was derived primarily from weblogger focus. Articles also appeared almost immediately about the documents, such as this article at CNN. (Like the Trott event, we hope to get a page up at the wiki listing all relevant weblog posts and articles.)

Almost from the start CBS had to defend itself, and eventually retract their support of the documents, and Dan Rather, who led the story, acknowledged that they had made a mistake, and apologized.

The whole event was over in a little over two weeks, but while it lasted it became a firestorm within weblogging, dominating discussions so much that it was difficult to find sites that weren’t weighing in with an opinion.

Still, as Rather had apologized, and CBS had issued a retraction, what other course was there to follow? It would seem that people would have to decide if they wanted to trust CBS News, or Rather, but mistakes do happen and even professional journalists have been known to stumble a time or two. Still, what was wrong was corrected.

But the issue didn’t die out. Now that webloggers had prevented dubious material being accepted as fact the assumption might be that the topic had run its course, but this wasn’t so. Now the webloggers focused on punitive actions against CBS, generally, and Rather specifically–calling for him to be fired. It’s here when weblogging moved from prevention to punishment; from Beauty to the Beast.

Roger L. Simon was one who called for the firing of Rather saying:

Currently Drudge is reporting: Rather, who anchored the segment presenting new information on the president’s military service, will personally correct the record on-air, if need be, the source explained from New York.

What a pathetic response. Even with a correction, can you imagine ever trusting a word out of Rather’s mouth again? Can you imagine respecting CBS, “Sixty Minutes”?

Not me. If Rather does not resign, those institutions will wither with their anchorman.

The term Rathergate was coined to talk about Dan Rather’s error and what the webloggers perceived was to be a CBS company cover-up. The Blog Herald considers something like this site to represent the promis of weblogging. A weblog was created from it, to urge people to write to the advertisers and let them know that they should pull their ad money from the station. Others started sing-a-longs mocking the term and Rather and CBS News. Most, though, just called for vengence. Fire Rather, eliminate CBS readership.

Tthe anger wasn’t just confined to Rather and CBS. When a Professor at a Utah university wrote a paper about how the documents could be legitimate, he came under fire from webloggers who began to see in him a part of the Conspiracy, whatever the Conspiracy was. They didn’t just discredit his writing; they discredited him, trying to get him fired. When he edited his document, they pointed to this as an example of his duplicity; him being unaware of weblogger’s almost manic obsession with never editing material after posted (an obsession not adhered to by yours truly, by the way).

Eventually a new scandal came along, and the webloggers have moved on to other topics, where far too many swarm on issues, like bees on particularly juicy flowers. This leaves us now in a room full of tattered yellow tape, trying to decide if that pulped matter on the floor is the remains of Dan Rather, or just the remains of so many tossed rotten tomatoes.

We’re also left with questions, such as why did webloggers feel compelled to continue the clamor against CBS once the company admitted its error, and apologized for it, as well as broadcasting a correction?

Many would say because we all have a moral right to ensure that the press knows that we’re always there, fact checking them, and that the free and biased ride they’ve been on is over. Others would say that the punishment of Rather did not fit his crime of broadcasting fake material critical of George Bush so close to an election.

But there is an element of links and power to this story; that many jumped on the Rathergate bandwagon because that’s where the buzz was, and like blood attracting sharks, webloggers, particularly political webloggers, are attracted to buzz. The more buzz, the more links, and the more power a weblogger obtains — we only have to look at PowerLine’s swift rise in the ego lists to see the combined effect of a hot issue and careful handling. This explains continuing with the story as long as possible–not just to exact retribution, but also to extract the maximum amount of links and power from the story as possible, before moving on to something new.

Many people point to the webloggers involvement in exposing the CBS Documents as fraud, as an example of one of our finer moments, and there is some justification for this pride. But there’s also more than a little about this affair that should make all of us pause; to take stock of the power of the link, the danger of a mob, and remember old sayings about ultimate power corrupting ultimately.

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