Do you ever feel like your every move is being watched?
Dan Rather certainly does. Earlier this month, he thought he had a major scoop -- new documents that called into question President Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard. It was the kind of investigative reporting that Rather built his reputation on; the kind that might change the course of the presidential campaign.
Except it wasn't.
Just hours after Rather's story appeared on "60 Minutes," blogs began to question the documents' authenticity. If the documents were supposed to have been typed in 1972, why did they look they had been typed on a computer using Microsoft Word? Why were some crucial details a little off? Why had they suddenly appeared after 30 years?
The questions seemed legitimate, but c'mon, you can't believe everything you read on the Internet! That was Rather's initial reaction as he repeatedly dismissed the critics as "partisan political operatives." Former CBS executive Jonathan Klein went even further in an interview on Fox News: "These bloggers have no checks and balances ... You couldn't have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances [at CBS News] and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing."
Yet ten days after the story first ran, and after every support for the story had crumbled, Dan Rather had to back down and apologize. He gave no credit to the blogs, but the scoreboard was clear: Guys in Pajamas 1, CBS News 0.
Rather wasn't the first Washington insider to be knocked from his pedestal by the ever-vigilant blogosphere. Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Howell Raines, the former editor in chief of The New York Times, were among other previous victims. Lott, for example, was forced to step down from his leadership post after bloggers kept calling attention to a racially insensitive joke that he had made.
This is new territory. In times past, the anchor of CBS News and the Senate Majority Leader were almost unassailable, at least for those without access. You might not like them, but what could you do, write a letter to the editor? With your own blog (or a juicy e-mail to a widely read blog), on the other hand, there is no limit to how much trouble you can make.
So what makes blogs so powerful? Speed, numbers and slightly (or much) looser standards.
Bloggers have the ability to break stories or spread rumors much more rapidly than the mainstream media. To update a Web site, after all, you just have to dash off some copy and click your mouse a few times -- there's no waiting for the ink to dry or the cameraman to arrive.
Blogs also harness the power of numbers. The bloggers that unraveled the forged CBS documents were not necessarily typewriter experts, but they had hundreds (or thousands) of readers who were: former military officers, former typewriter repairmen, guys with nothing better to do than examine fonts on a computer. This collective expertise is far more than a handful of journalists, reporters or producers could hope to assemble at a moment's notice.
Lastly, blogs have lower standards for what they publish. There is no blog-standards board or code of blog professionalism; CBS News has an entire book of guidelines (not that it helped them in this case). But that was always the trump card of the old media world -- you were supposed to be able to trust what was on the network news.
Now, bloggers are saying that you can't. But how do you know if you can trust them?
Maybe you shouldn't. Maybe you need to read enough news from enough different sources to make up your own mind. This is why Dan Rather and a host of other Washington insiders are so desperately trying to dismiss bloggers as "guys in pajamas" -- they've lost their monopoly on what the news is.
Here are links to some widely read political blogs:
Somewhere in the middle