Dan Rather's Wednesday night blockbuster story on documents purporting to discredit George Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard (TANG) during the Vietnam War looked to be just another in a long series of accusations and counter accusations in a nasty campaign season. That was until Post 47, by someone with the screen name "Buckhead" about three hours after the broadcast, questioned whether or not a memo whose type clearly had proportional spacing could have been created with technology available in 1973. What would eventually be proven, beyond any reasonable doubt, was that the document was produced on a computer, using Microsoft Word with all of its default settings.
By Thursday morning the Blogosphere exploded with spontaneous investigative reporting analyzing with surprising depth insight, and thoroughness every imaginable aspect of typefaces and typewriter capabilities from that era. Sites with unlikely names like PowerLineBlog and LittleGreenFootballs got credit for leading the charge - and were indeed on the forefront of the investigation - but it became a phenomenon that grew beyond either of them.
For most of the next several days, apperent inconsitencies between the text properties of the memos and the available technology at the time of their supposed creation were raised one after the other, too fast to keep up with. At the same time, the uncanny similarities to Microsoft Word default formatting were being repidly dopcumented. At some point on Friday, inconsistencies in not only the typefaces but in the contents were discovered. Inconsistent addresses, references to long retired players, and violations of the ridiculously anal document protocols the military is famous for were all documented.
These same blogs, and and others, produced objections to many of the assertions, and with blinding speed and efficiency, further investigation by an ever widening group of bloggers and commentors refuted many of them. But in a display of conscientious journalism the likes of which is rarely seen anymore in mainstream news, those objections that could not be refuted were acknowledged, and the evidence refuted by them discarded. What remained was a body of evidence that was not only massive, but had survived a daunting series of "internal" challenges.
The break, and the making of history, arrived by way of an ironic route. Sometime Thursday afternoon, Drudge linked to a Cybercast News article at the top of his page. The upstart "New Media" loose cannon, with only six years of credibility to his name, who had been railed against for those six years as out of control, with no checks and balances to reign him in, was now the stamp of credibility. The floodgates were open, and by that evening, it was competing with Hurrican Ivan and the 3rd anniversary of 9/11 on all the major news outlets, broadcast and cable.
On Friday evening, Dan Rather felt the pressure, and, in a surreal broadcast moment, aired a weak and desperate defense of his story. His defense ignored most of the evidence and continued to rely on discredited or disavowed expert and witness opinion. Rather offered as his own evidence what amounted to little more than a bald assertion that it has to be true.
As I write this, the controversy is raging. Almost nobody, with the exception of CBS and the Boston Globe, still contend the documents are not forgeries. This story now threatens to ruin one of the oldest and most respected news institutions in the country. It could be the epitaph for the revered successor to the legendary Walter Cronkite.
But that is not why it is history. For years, previously arcane typestting terms like "superscript", "kerning", and "Times New Roman" will be the buzzwords that bring back memories of the day the blogs rose up and left the three-letter-named giants of the Main Stream Media scrambling to keep up. It was a shock to the system that will change the world of news. If Monica's Dress was the beginning of the New Media, this could very well mark the beginning of the end for the Old Media. The Guys In Pajamas have made their mark on the media landscape, and it won't be forgotten.
UPDATE 4/17/05: Many of the links in the story above have disappeared or changed their content. Ah, wll, such is the nature of this new media. I hope the people involved have all archived their work for posterity.