In the midst of Rathergate, and prior to CBS's reluctant admission they were pushing fabricated government memos as real, former CBS executive vice president Jonathan Klein sneered, "You couldn't have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances [on mainstream media] and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing." Klein's disparagement of guys writing in their pajamas was intended to put bloggers—the only folks questioning the authenticity of the memos at the time—in their place.
But it wasn't the bloggers who learned a lesson about their station in life—it was Klein, Rather and CBS. Walter Cronkite used to end his evening newscast saying, "And that's the way it is." In this case, bloggers and the Internet gave the mainstream media a fierce lesson in the way it is now.
Hours after Rather ran his report alleging "proof" George W. Bush was derelict in his National Guard duties, someone named "Buckhead" posted comments questioning the authenticity of Rather's documents (allegedly typed in 1972) on a blog. Buckhead noted the documents were typed in a font nonexistent for early '70s typewriters. When another blogger followed up and retyped the CBS memo in Microsoft Word, he found the Word type a perfect match—and the cat was out of the bag.
The Drudge Report picked up the thread less than 24 hours after Rather's broadcast with its headline "CBS Documents About Bush Might be Fake," which led to interest by more bloggers, the public and, eventually, the mainstream media. The bloggers figured out in a matter of hours what the much vaunted CBS News division would take another 12 days to acknowledge: The memos were a third-rate con job. And the rest, as they say, is history.
But what's also history is the monopoly a few powerful media once had on the news.
Almost 35 years ago, Lyndon Johnson said, "We have in this country two big television networks, NBC and CBS. We have two news magazines, Newsweek and Time. We have two wire services, AP and UPI. We have two pollsters, Gallup and Harris. We have two big newspapers, the Washington Post and the New York Times."
Thankfully, those days are over. Like the question, "Who's policing the police?" that arose before police oversight commissions were the norm, "Who's reporting on the reporters?" After all, there's a great deal of power and influence at your command when you decided who, what and how something will be covered—especially when that power is concentrated in just a few hands. Dan Rather and CBS proved definitively reporters are just as prone to error, ax-grinding and abuse of that power as anyone else—only who could really call them on it in the past?
Proving public skepticism of the mainstream media is very real, a recent Gallup Poll (released with the headline "Media Credibility Reaches Lowest Point in Three Decades) showed 55 percent of the public have little or no confidence in the mass media to "fully, accurately and fairly" report a story. In 1974, only 29 percent of the public felt that way.
What people have figured out (but not most media types) is that the press doesn't consistently treat all issues the same. They don't treat all individuals the same. They have their favorites and they have their scapegoats. They have their agendas.
But with the diffusion of news outlets in the country, from cable TV news, talk radio and alternative press—as well as the millions who go online to websites and blogs for news—those few all-powerful mediums Johnson described matter less and less.
You don't have to look very far to see the endgame for news outlets that don't get it. Twenty-five years ago the Albuquerque Tribune had a circulation approaching 50,000. However, while the city's population practically doubled, the Tribune's circulation nosedived to less than half that figure now. For all practical purposes, it's largely irrelevant.
The question the Old School needs to ask itself is, what's more important: continued indulgence of a smug sense of superiority (which ultimately proved Rather's downfall), or having an audience?
Rathergate was a final wakeup call. For years, the mainstream media has been put on notice by Internet bloggers. Screw up and someone will be there to blow the whistle. Miss a story and your Internet competitors will drive the coverage. We live in the Information Age and it is competitive.
Mark Twain once said you should "never start a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel." In this day and age, you don't need ink to set the record straight. You just need a computer and a modem. Although a pair of pajamas can come in handy, too.