September 16, 2004
BLOG/POLITICS: Why CBS Matters
My law school classmate Orin Kerr comments on the CBS frenzy:
[L]et me see if I understand things correctly. A presidential election is less than two months away, and there is a war going on right now in Iraq. The war in Iraq raises profound questions about United States policy with regard to the Muslim world for decades to come. But instead of debating the war that is going on right now, we're debating the war records of the two candidates from more than three decades ago. Wait, no, that's too direct: we're debating one network's story about one candidate's war record from three decades ago. Wait, maybe that's too direct, too: we're debating the fonts on different typewriters that may or may not have been used to write a memo that led to a story about one candidate's war record from three decades ago. Yeah, that's pretty much it.
C'mon, folks: don't we have more important things to blog about?
Dan Drezner concurs. I see their point about the extent of the coverage, but:
(1) Most of us have blogged many angles of the Iraq war to death, especially the justifications for the war in the first place.
(2) Getting a good picture of the facts on the ground to blog about the war's continuing progress can be quite frustrating for the U.S.-based civilian observer. Part of the problem is that we are so heavily dependent on the media to give us an accurate picture of what is going on.
In that context, the fact that one of the three major networks - in a story immediately disseminated by many other media outlets (including on the front page of numerous newspapers) - is being exposed for having used forged documents, perhaps knowingly and almost certainly recklessly, in pursuit of what looks like a partisan and/or personal vendetta against the president, is tremendously important. The problems being revealed go to the heart of CBS' newsgathering and editorial decisionmaking practices, which in turn affects the credibility of the news we rely on to interpret so many other stories.
In a way, then, this is about the Iraq war. It's about everything.
(3) I'll add a third point: I can blog until I'm blue in the face about the Iraq war, as we all have, without doing much to change the world. But as with the Trent Lott story, the blogosphere has actually affected the course of this story. That's where the emphasis comes from - bloggers are always going to be most attracted to the stories on which they can actually have some impact or uncover some new facts.
(Of course, for some websites, this story is their sole reason for being).
The discussion over the CBS memos has nothing to do with the presidential election, although CBS obviously wants it to be. The discussion is over a respected media institution presenting forged documents and then trying to hide behind technicalities.
If CBS came out last week and said "Sorry, our fault", the whole discussion would be over. Remember, for the most part, it's the cover-up that kills you. Ask Nixon, Martha Stewart, Clinton, etc.
I think there's some truth to the argument, because I think I've seen a lot more blogging about fonts and typewriters and spacing then about CBS' journalistic practices. Then again, there's so little information out there about how CBS got the 'memos' and made their decisions, so it's a lot easier to comment on the detailed sides of it. (It's also entirely possible that I'm reading the wrong blogs.)
As an aside, I had to laugh at Scott McClellan's statement that "the timing" of this made it clear that it was orchestrated by the Kerry campaign. What timing, Scott? In 2004? By that standard (and never mind the other evidence), it's clear that the SBV's attacks were orchestrated by the Bush campaign. Somehow, I don't think Mr. McLellan would agree with that.
The Press is the only constitutionaly protected private industry. The point is that a very influential member of that industry is abusing its priviledge by a fraud to influence the election of a president, the most powerful position in the world today. This IS a big deal.