Sept. 17, 2004

The Barbershop and the Stock Exchange

Many of you may wonder how and why CBS let its reputation swirl into the sewer over bogus documents regarding President Bush’s National Guard record. The best way to explain it is by way of comparison — between the barbershop and the stock exchange.

First, let’s set the scene: CBS carried a sensational September 8th story on 60 Minutes II suggesting that George W. Bush shirked Air National Guard duties 32 years ago and wriggled into the Guard (as opposed to active duty in a service branch) by virtue of family connections.

Unfortunately, the report suffered from several problems: (1) the chief sources, at least as identified by CBS, were impeachable on multiple counts, (2) the documents used to verify the key points were patently fraudulent and (3) the back-up stories used to vindicate the reporting were more implausible than the original, bogus accounts.

Consider just one item, memos allegedly drafted by the president’s Texas Air National Guard commandant, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian. The documents could not have been produced in 1972, when Killian allegedly wrote them. The typographic features — type size, letter and line spacing, and the automatic use of “hyphenization and justification” — then were available only on state-of-the-art professional printing equipment, not IBM typewriters.

Moreover, Killian’s family and colleagues insist he had a high opinion of George W. Bush, and told of how the president tried repeatedly to enter the Palace Alert program, which would have sent him to Vietnam as a pilot. (He didn’t make the cut because he hadn’t logged enough flight hours). Tellingly, CBS didn’t interview the people who could confirm that crucial fact.

When three of the network’s four document experts declared that they either hadn’t attested to the legitimacy of the memos or had warned that documents raised “red flags,” Dan Rather & Co. adopted a bizarre fallback position. They cited testimony from a man who sold and serviced IBM typewriters. Meanwhile, the fourth document expert’s name appears nowhere on national rosters of document examiners, and his only known bit of expert testimony — that 29 signatures in a physical therapy case were not fraudulent — didn’t impress a jury. His side lost.

There’s much more, but you get the drift. The network went out of its way to ignore warning signs, and rushed to embrace the story. But why? Why risk the reputation of the nation’s most venerable newsgathering operation merely to retail a story that the president skipped a physical exam – in other words, that he, on one occasion, missed a chance to turn his head and cough? The answer is that the tale appealed to people who run the nation’s elite newsrooms and salons.

Mary Mapes, the producer in charge of the segment, spent five years chasing down the “Bush went AWOL” story, despite repeated dismissals of the allegations in publications not normally considered Republican strongholds, such as John F. Kennedy Jr.’s “George” magazine. The claims — skipping out on service; getting an honorable discharge despite failing to meet minimal service requirements — embody popular left-wing caricatures of George W. Bush as the Fraudulent Man: a guy whose life and livelihood hinge not on valor or excellence, but money and connections; a bonehead who chuckles his way through life while others struggle and toil; an imposter who stole an election from a brighter and better-trained man. Mapes pursued these tales doggedly, slashing her way through jungles of paperwork and thickets of bureaucracy.

Never mind that most Americans have long since abandoned the view of the president as an unreconstructed party animal. George W. Bush showed his mettle after September 11, 2001 by winning two ground wars and setting in motion the most sweeping and ambitious American foreign policy in American history.

CBS hounded the Bush-service story in ways it has not pursued allegations against John Kerry; in some ways it has become the respectable face of Michael Mooreism. While the president has carved out a place in history, for good or ill, his adversaries have gone bonkers — blaming him for every imaginable hardship and perfidy, with the possible exception of this year’s hurricanes. (A temporary exemption: Sooner or later, someone (Gore?) will blame it on global warming, and by extension, on G.W.B.)

This rage is as impotent as a young boy windmilling his fists angrily at a chuckling father, and it displays a certain gormless charm. The fury seems harmless and misguided, which is why many of us regard Al Gore not as a menace, but a sweet man gone mad, someone whose rantings merit a hug rather than a hearing.

And this is where the barbershop enters the picture. Think of CBS News as a fancified haircut parlor. Like a barbershop, it abounds in chatter. One-liners count as marbled wisdom; a good yarn always trumps a dull fact.

When tongues begin wagging near the barber pole, every conversant becomes a genius in the company of fellow intellectual titans, and everyone repeats as gospel what they first heard around the barber’s chair. There are no fools in the land of scissors and combs: the fools lurk outside.

That’s how it works with upper-crust media as well. Pick a left-wing cliché: the economy has collapsed; the world hates us; Bush stole the election; outsourcing has sucked away the lifeblood of American commerce; Americans thirst for government healthcare; Iraq is a quagmire, welfare isn’t. Now, open your local paper. How many do you see there today? Every day?

Establishmentarian journalism in the United States has become a redoubt not of flinty skepticism, but of conventional wisdom seasoned with contempt for commoners. The trade in this sense has barely progressed since the age of the quill pen and inkwell. Sure, we can broadcast images and send our voices through the void. But newspapers and established television networks still operate on the model of the medieval guild (which may be why the newspaper union is called the Newspaper Guild). Elders pass on techniques and prejudices, unchallenged, from generation to generation.

Contrast this with the Wild West of the New Media — talk radio, cable news and the Internet. These institutions operate on the model of a stock exchange. They are boisterous, energetic, and ravenous for information. They encourage and solicit new ways of thinking; they pounce on every advantage. Good ideas move swiftly; bad ideas die unmourned. And the pioneers love what they do.

These new media work in complementary ways. A weblog (commonly called a “blog”) is a site on which one or more people post information for all to see. It’s a trading floor for information and expertise. Once someone publicizes some tantalizing datum or development, experts flock to the site — and within minutes, thousands of people across the country are mulling over some provocative allegation or piece of news.

Blogs were primarily responsible for debunking the 60 Minutes story. Within hours of his original broadcast, a couple of websites, and, began raising questions about the authenticity of Rather’s papers. They pointed out that the CBS memorandums seemed to have been typed on a computer using Microsoft Word, which didn’t make its debut until the year after the documents’ alleged drafting. Soon, other experts joined the scrum: the documents also didn’t obey military protocols; they invoked nonexistent regulations; they misstated military policy; cited the interventions of a colonel who had retired 18 months before the date of a memorandum. And that’s just for starters.

Other writers joined the fray, and bloggers swiftly gathered an avalanche of contrary evidence, which quickly received a large public airing on talk radio and on cable TV. Eventually, the Washington Post and the New York Times (along with ABC and NBC) declared what bloggers first revealed: Rather had been duped.

The episode marked a turning point in the journalism business – the first time news collection itself encountered free-market competition. Networks learned the hard way that they no longer possess a monopoly on information, expertise, credibility or skepticism. Instead, the marketplace, where untold numbers of anonymous players swap information and compete to provide the best “product” (in this case, fact-checking), now serves as a vibrant newsgathering resource.

This is a good development, and exciting. It will produce a democratic revolution in journalism and punditry. But so far, the old media don’t understand. They still believe in a guild system, where credentials count and competition doesn’t. Thus, when “outsiders” presumed to correct the 60 Minutes report, CBS and Dan Rather gathered up their pride, Ozymandias-like, and insisted that while the facts might be suspect, the “thrust” had the stuff of truth.

But guess what? Thrust may work on rockets, but not in news. When it comes to the media, it’s time to abandon the barbershop and plunge into the brave new world of free-market journalism.

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