Bloggers drive hoax probe into Bush memos

The Net is home to leagues of amateur detectives, who question the veracity of the Bush Air National Guard memos publicized by CBS.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
3 min read
Forget the political conventions.

When history books are written, bloggers' real contribution to the 2004 election may well turn out to be in providing leagues of amateur sleuths to fact-check political controversy.

For the last 24 hours, the Internet has been abuzz with bloggers' claims that the memos about President Bush's time in the National Air Guard publicized by CBS were actually a hoax. Keepers of online journals around the country have been analyzing the memos in excruciating detail, comparing the notes' typography to the technical specifications of early 1970s typewriters.

The result? It's too early to say whether the bloggers calling "hoax" have won the day. But they have certainly helped drive questions about the veracity of CBS's "60 Minutes II" report on Wednesday night to the highest levels of the major media, and in so doing have helped shape what could be one of the most explosive--or simply weirdest--stories of the political season.

"Blogs have been characterized as places where people just go to mouth off, but what this brings out is the ability of blogs to actually help report a story," said Paul Grabowitz, professor of new media at the University of California at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.

The incident could help legitimize the role that blogs and other nonprofessional online writers are already playing in the everyday business of news reporting.

Even traditional reporters working online have had to struggle to win credibility over the past decade. But nontraditional sources such as blogs--which run the gamut from high-school journal entries to war reporting from Iraq--have often had an even harder time being taken seriously.

The Drudge Report was one of the first to break into the consciousness of the mainstream media, largely by scooping the stories of old media publications before they hit the street. The report's publication of Monica Lewinsky's name before Newsweek ran its story on the Clinton affair catapulted the report and Lewinsky into national headlines.

But unlike the report's writer, Matt Drudge, bloggers rarely call themselves journalists. Many focus as heavily on community and discussion as on original reporting. From this can come startling insight and well-reasoned analysis, or on-the-spot news posted faster than most news outlets can manage.

The Bush memo story has shown the Internet's broader power of linking thousands of readers together, as much as it has demonstrated the intrinsic power of blogs themselves.

Not long after CBS aired its story on "60 Minutes II," dealing with memos that allegedly showed President Bush's Texas National Guard superiors raising questions about his service, a pseudonymous message board posting on the conservative FreeRepublic.com Web site called the documents a hoax.

This kind of rhetoric is common on that site's message boards, but the author asserted that the typewriter font used in the CBS memos was anachronistic and would not have come into common use until after the alleged date of the memos.

Thursday morning, while most news services were still catching up to the CBS story, Minneapolis attorney Scott Johnson posted a link to the FreeRepublic claim on his conservative-leaning Power Line blog. The item sparked an eruption of e-mail from readers, ranging from former military officers to an IBM typewriter repairman, many doing detailed, expert-sounding analysis of the memos' typography. Johnson posted excerpts from the messages, most of which said the memos were likely to have been forgeries.

Other conservative bloggers chimed in, posting comparisons to Microsoft Word printouts that they said looked virtually identical. Liberal bloggers spoke up too, working to dismantle the skeptics' claims.

Ultimately the Drudge Report linked to Johnson's site. The resulting traffic took Power Line temporarily offline, but helped raise the typographical questions to a national level.

The national media has found other reasons to question the CBS story. But the issues raised by the bloggers have now been prominently featured in publications including The New York Times and the Washington Post.

"I feel a little bit overwhelmed," Power Line's Johnson said Friday. "I still feel like we're in the eye of a hurricane."