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Truth or Dare


September 20, 2004

There are many versions of truth when it comes to politics. The Democrats have their version, which naturally differs from the version the Republicans put forward. There is the media perspective on what is true, which over time has become viewed as less credible by the population at large (and has driven many young people in particular to view Leno, Letterman, and the Daily Show as their most reliable source of information). It used to be that people didn’t think that something was real, or true, unless they held it in their hands. More and more, people are becoming satisfied finding the truth about something online.

I don’t know the answer to the question: “What is Truth?” But I am fascinated by all the different ways politicians tell the truth, voters seek it out, and the media purports to know it. In many case, the web now plays a key role in expanding, reinforcing, and even debunking what everyone consider to be true. Here are two examples:

PART I: Truth Be Damned

FactCheck.org is a website funded by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Run by a former CNN anchor, Brooks Jackson, the group analyzes the accuracy of political advertising and posts their findings on the web. FactCheck.org reports more than 35,000 subscribers to its e-newsletter. And it has become a tool that the media uses regularly to seed its coverage. Wired Magazine writes:

FactCheck.org's original mission was to provide a service to small and medium-size news organizations that didn't have the resources to check the facts presented in political ads. However, its reach went much further. Many mainstream media outlets rely on the group's research in their own political coverage…
The service that FactCheck.org provides is not revolutionary. In most cases the web site links to original source materials so readers can review the evidence behind claims first hand and make up their own mind. Both the Bush and Kerry campaigns have use FactCheck.org as evidence in claims that the other was lying. And more and more, journalists use it to add detail to their coverage.

I, for one, have been the beneficiary of their work. When conservative news service WorldNet Daily claimed that Teresa Heinz Kerry's Foundation supported radical groups, some of which have links to terrorists, I took this claim to task in a column for National Journal’s The Hotline. I wrote:

…According to Joseph Farah's G2 Bulletin (a subscription based service of World Net Daily ) those groups are getting funding from a foundation chaired by Teresa Heinz Kerry.” The link is not as tight as you think: THK’s foundation has given money to The Tides Foundation . Tides provides grants to nonprofits working for social change, among them, United for Peace and Justice Coalition. UPJC is organizing a peaceful demonstration with 250,000 people on the Sunday before the GOP Convention. Some of the participating groups -- The Ruckus Society, American Friends Service Committee (who put the 900 pairs of boots outside the Fleet Center to protest the war during last month’s Democratic Convention), and MADRE -- chief among them, have other plans. So it goes THK to Tides to UJPC to civil disobedience. We’ll have a quiz later. (August 19, 2004)

Shortly after publication, I received the following e-mail comment from Joseph Farah, the CEO of World Net Daily:

I can see why you work for free.

Your facts regarding our report on Teresa Heinz Kerry and the Ruckus Society are dead wrong.

As the original story states, Teresa Heinz Kerry's foundation has contributed millions to the Tides Center, which not only funds the Ruckus Society directly but even provides office space in its San Francisco facility for the extremist anarchist organization currently training for disruptions at the GOP convention.

Is that a hard chain to follow for you?

I continued to exchange pleasantries with Mr. Farah over email for the next day-and-a-half. He contended I wasn’t reading the proper materials; I was convinced I had done my homework. And in fact I had -- I had read all of the e-mails, articles, and other source materials, and searched through the annual reports of the Tides Center and Heinz Endowments. My analysis was correct -- FactCheck.org backed me up. They wrote:

Bogus e-mail messages claim she's given millions to "radical" groups, some linked to terrorists, and located Heinz factories overseas. Both claims are false.

This kind of information is valuable to journalists, quasi-journalists (as a blogger, I put myself in that category), and average citizens alike. Most of us aren’t policy experts, and few of the policy experts I know spend their time running around clearing up confusion about claims that politicians make in their ads. So without tools like FactCheck.org, or the services that put forward information about the issues of our elections (Open Secrets, Project Vote Smart for example), many of us would be left in the dark. The increasingly popularity of these sights reinforces their need. Brooks Jackson adds:

…it shows a hunger for what we try to be: a nonpartisan, non-ideological resource that tries to sort things out in (an) understandable fashion. We try to call them like we see them.

What does the future hold for FactCheck.org? Until the election, FactCheck.org will continue to analyze the veracity of political ads. It will also provide analysis of the presidential debates. After that, it’s not clear whether the Annenberg Center will continue to fund FactCheck.org, but Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg School, said she would like to devote more resources so it could check the accuracy of political rumors circulating on the web. I think that would be an excellent idea.


PART II: Release the bloggers!

By now you have almost certainly heard about document-gate, Air National Guard-Gate, Rather-gate, or whatever you want to call it. Basically, Dan Rather reported on “60 Minutes'' that newly unearthed documents confirmed that the Bush family applied pressure to Texas Air National Guard Commanders to give special treatment to George W. Depending on who you ask, the documents that Rather was referencing are either fake and the claims are a fraud, fake but the claims are real, the documents are real and they only reinforce what critics have been claiming about the President’s military service, or some other option I can’t figure out.

What is known is that the documents surfaced very late in a hotly-contested Presidential campaign and under somewhat questionable circumstances. No matter, CBS went ahead and reported their findings on national television.

Release the bloggers! The first post reportedly came 19 minutes after the broadcast began, when TankerKC, a poster on FreeRepublic.com noted that the documents were "not in the style that we used when I came into the USAF…" Less than four hours later, an as-yet unidentified poster on the same site, who goes by the handle ‘Buckhead’ concluded the documents contained spacing and typographical constructions that were impossible to make using electric typewriters available in 1973, and thus, the documents had been drafted on a modern-day word processor rather than a typewriter. A group of conservative bloggers led by John Hinderaker (Powerline), William Ardolino (INDC Journal), Charles Johnson (Little Green Footballs), and “Allah” (Allah In the House) picked it up from there.

[NOTE: The New York Sun interviewed three of the four bloggers and published a timeline of how the events unfolded. The LA Times had a conversation via e-mail with Buckhead.]

It didn’t take long for the effort to gain momentum. Individually, these blogs are probably viewed by hundreds, perhaps thousands of people on a daily basis. But together, and with the full force of the conservative blogging community behind them (the Drudge Report, and RedState -- which helped launch RatherGate for example) creating an echo chamber for the charges, the intensity began to grow.

Fast forward two weeks… the debate over the Bush’s military service record continues, the memos seem to have been discredited, and Dan Rather’s quest to become the ‘most trusted man in news’ has taken a serious blow. The conservative bloggers are taking a victory lap.

Dan Gillmor thinks the bloggers are taking too much credit:

…while doubts about the memo's authenticity were first raised on the Internet, some of the self-congratulatory online chest-thumping is overdone. Why? The traditional media would not have ignored the issue. Certainly by now, big newspapers and broadcasters would have been asking deservedly tough questions of a dismayingly recalcitrant CBS.

Some argue that the role of the bloggers has now been more clearly defined, and that bloggers doing their own investigative research can help to present the truth, which mainstream media long ago overlooked in the name of ratings. Moreover, the media now has another watchdog, a quality control meter that forces them to think, and verify, before they speak. Perhaps, but keep in mind that most bloggers write with a bias, or specific agenda. Their promotion of an issue is often self-serving and not objective – which, whether you agree or not that they reach this standard, is the role traditional media is offering.

For a long time, whether or not the blogosphere was promoting the truth, or its heavily-partisan interpretation of a story, wasn’t really a major factor. The audience simply wasn’t that large nor influential. But that has changed, and blogs are now competitive with cable news, at least online:

Over the past thirty-one days, the ten most trafficked political blogs, Dailykos, Instapundit, Atrios, Josh Marshall, Little Green Footballs, Wonkette, Political Animal, Teagan Goddard, Captain's Quarters and Real Clear Politics (listed in no particular order), totaled just over 28,000,000 unique visits. This compares favorably to the website traffic of the three 24/7 cable news networks: FoxNews.com had 5.7 million unique users in May, compared with 22.3 million for CNN.com and 21.1 million for MSNBC.com

Particularly amazing is that Dailykos, with around 7 million unique visits over the past 31 days, now has a higher monthly website traffic than Fox News.

Maybe a better metaphor is the blogger-as-canary-in-the-mineshaft, sniffing out stories before they are stories (as was the case in the case of Trent Lott, and his comments at a birthday party for Strom Thurmond that ultimately cost him his leadership position in the US Senate). Bloggers are certainly more nimble than journalists, and can do much of the legwork that big media budgets won’t allow for anymore. There are plenty of times when bloggers get the story wrong, and amplify bad information (one blogger reported on the final night of the GOP convention that Osama Bin Laden had been captured, which at last check, still was not true – conspiracy theories aside). Clearly, there is more than enough evidence that even with standards, and editors, and producers, and lawyers, and big budgets, the traditional media still gets things wrong as well.

I think we are far from settling on any one model for presenting the truth about politics online. Media is being pushed off its pedestal, or least being forced to share it with quasi-journalistic bloggers. And groups like FactCheck.org are hopefully keeping everyone in check, including the politicians who have worked for decades to try and manipulate how media presents their issues. In an era when political participation continues to decline, the reputation of the media has been tarnished, and complex issues of war, globalization, and freedom define our daily life, voters should value this give-and-take of information, and better yet, take some initiative to wade through the information themselves and define their own truth.


Comments (2):


thanks brian - this is one of the most lucid and well-written summaries of this quickly unfolding stories that i've seen anywhere

i have to agree with toward gillmore on the question of whether or not the blogs saved the day in this case. despite the decline in quality, i think the public and media's obsession with this presidential race would have been enough to get to the bottom of memo-gate.

it's still a good excercise for us to go through, and a clear reminder of how the notion of accountability is changing with thousands of new citizen journalists coming online each day

Sep 21, 2004 12:46:33 AM      Posted by silbatron.


Charles Johnson of littlegreenfootballs.com was the first to actually type up the letters in Microsoft "Word" with the default settings using the New Type Roman font and thus to discover that when you laid the one memo over the other, they were not just similar but EXACTLY the same, even with word-wrap and proportional spacing employed. How could you do that with a monospaced typeface in 1972? It wouldn't be possible. Johnson drove the technical stake into the heart of this story; Powerline and the other bloggers had the details of the actual story of how it happened. It remains now to pin down the culprits and get them to admit it. It's easier to prove the memos false technically, than it will be to get the guilty parties to fess up.

Sep 22, 2004 9:24:22 PM      Posted by foreign devil on lgf.




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