Monday, September 13, 2004

“The major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur.” That observation by the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead came to mind this past week as I watched Dan Rather struggle violently like a proud old marlin caught on a hook by the young Internet fishermen. Twisting and turning, the great fish only drives the hook deeper in. Plunging and rising, it only exhausts itself while the exuberant Internet fishermen carefully manage the line and grab for the powerful hand hook with which they will end the great fish’s sea-life.

I like a good fish dinner, but I’ve never cared much for fishing, as I hate to see a noble creature in its death agony. Yet that is what we are observing. This week it is Dan Rather and CBS News, through their failed effort to prove the legitimacy of their forged Bush National Guard documents, who are being revealed as hapless, helpless victims of an anarchic, swarming, overwhelming Internet blog technology. Soon, other great news institutions inevitably will be revealed for their inadequate capacity to fully report the news.

As in all revolutions, first, the old order must be destroyed, then we will learn both the strengths and the shortcomings of the new order. We got a glimpse of the Internet blogger’s strength this past week.

For three-quarters of a century until last week, when CBS News had entered a fight it had been an unfair mismatch for its adversary. The credibility, research capacity and gatekeeping monopoly of CBS would overwhelm its victim. But last week it was breathtaking to see, moment by moment, the Internet blogger’s advantage.

CBS did what it always has done: It produced and broadcast a highly polished segment in which the argument was magisterially framed to its advantage, with the facts favorable to CBS cherry-picked for presentation while annoying contrary facts were ignored. Carefully edited prime-time-quality interviews of their supposedly authoritative expert witnesses were laid in. The whole package was opened, narrated and concluded with dignified contempt for their victim by their star asset, Uber-anchor Dan Rather. Enough said. Full stop. Next matter. Long live the King.

Then the bloggers went to work. From the four corners of humanity experts started deconstructing the “truth” that CBS had presented. Who knew that there are experts who specialize just in the history of IBM selectric typing balls, or the kerning capacity of computer printing (the carrying of the tail in the letter “y” under the space of the preceding letter, as in the word “my.” Typewriters can’t do it; computers can.)

As each of these experts added their information to one blog, other bloggers would monitor it, pass it on, add a new fact, reorganize the analysis, synthesize new information. If new information proved wrong, it was corrected by yet another expert in the blogosphere. Mistakes were cheerfully admitted and instantly corrected. People who had filled out such forms thirty years ago added their analysis. Both technical and historic information constantly came in — ever-increasing the fullness of understanding on the topic. It was like watching time-lapse photography of a cell dividing and growing. It was as if the very mechanism for establishing truth was a living, pulsating force.

CBS had one handwriting expert against the Internet blog’s legions of subspecialists. It was pathetic. CBS couldn’t possibly employ enough producers to identify each and every new specialist they needed, track them down, contact them and get their testimony — at 11 p.m. or 2 a.m. The bloggers couldn’t find them either. The blogger’s advantage is that the experts find the bloggers. There are just millions of smart people all over the world sitting at their computers, ready to join the quest. The bloggers themselves often add powerful analytical capacity to the process. It is like a reporter having a team of high-powered lawyers helping construct the strongest possible line of reasoning to their reports — paragraph by paragraph.

The Internet bloggers picked CBS’s story as clean as a school of piranhas would pick clean some poor water buffalo that wandered into their river.

The bloggers have had this capacity for a few years now. We had a pre-taste of it in the Trent Lott affair. But what has made the bloggers now a strategic component of national politics is that their readership now includes many senior reporters, editors and producers in the old media.

There are enough self-respecting old media journalists who simply cannot see the cornucopia of valid information on the Internet and then ignore it in their reporting.

So, instead of the bloggers only reaching their few million readers, they are reaching the larger mass public through the old media. The old media is becoming complicit in its own demise, just as some French aristocrats supported the revolution against their own ancient regime.

Count me a supporter of the revolution. But revolutions are messy affairs, where much of value is lost as well as gained.

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