Memogate -- the real issue for Big Media

The blogging community, some call it the “blogosphere”, is at the heart of the latest US news scandal involving 60 Minutes, a CBS News show well respected for its journalism and Dan Rather, the 60 Minutes anchor.

The growing argument between traditional media (radio, TV and print) and the “We Media” (bloggers and wiki users) has never before been so clearly laid out for the public to see, but it worries me that most are missing the point.

CBS used documents, purporting to be Bush’s military service record, to raise questions about the exact nature of his involvement with the US military. A group of bloggers almost immediately questioned the “typewritten” document as a result of its relatively new appearance—and, as it has turned out, the documents were later revealed to be forgeries.

The importance of the fact that bloggers, specifically, were the first to question the quality of the evidence CBS put forward is secondary. What is most important is that the discussions in the blogosphere continue, whereas CBS would prefer to have the story disappear.

Let’s take a step back to 1984—before the web and blogging—and consider what would have happened in the same scenario: 

The challenge to the authenticity of the documents would have needed to have come from another traditional media organisation to have gained the same momentum—at that time there was no publishing medium available to the general public on the same scale as the World Wide Web.

If an individual attempted to discredit CBS, or create enough noise for the media organisation to take notice, the general public would have automatically been dubious. Let’s face it, 60 Minutes and Dan Rather, known for their excellent journalism vs. an upset “Republican sympathiser” would have been an unfair contest.

So, let’s say that another journalist at another big media organisation got hold of the story and breaks it on a level where CBS find themselves forced to scrutinise the documents more carefully and, finally, admits to the public that they made a mistake.

The scandal would die down relatively quickly because of the very way big media works. TV news, newspapers and radio all have one common formatting constraint—space and time. As a result, follow-up stories need to be particularly newsworthy in order to get into headline news.

So CBS would have kept reasonably quiet about the incident and other big media would lose interest soon thereafter. And in the days before blogging and the WWW, if big media weren’t covering a story it may as well never have happened, from the perspective of the general public anyway.

Back to 2004 and the sticks and stones are flying. Last Saturday Tom Brockaw and Peter Jennings, both big media anchors, referred to the blogger attacks on Dan Rather as a “political jihad”. In response, the founder of a web site called www.boycottCBS.com, Michael Paranzino, said: “We will not be cowed into silence by Mr Brokaw’s intemperate remarks. Is it any wonder the networks have been haemorrhaging viewers for years? They just don’t get it.” 

I think big media get it loud and clear. They want the noise to stop but are realising that they can no longer control what people have on their daily news agenda. Bloggers consume more media from more different sources than most people expect.

The format of blogging and understanding world events from blogs requires that you have a critical mind and recognise something that makes sense from something that doesn’t. Blogging is like being an armchair-editor with a printing press that never runs out of ink.

While I was writing this story, for instance, I was posting bits of it to my own blog (//blogspot.mg.co.za/?q=blog/4) and soliciting comments from readers. The community ethic amongst bloggers is precisely what makes blogging so dangerous to media organisations that are centralised and closed to the public in so many ways that count. 

The lesson big media can learn: use blogging as part of your own tools for testing the value, authenticity and credibility of information before going live, not after.

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