Bloggers broke the story of Rathergate

Jon Lauck

Jon Lauck

Since our last discussion about the rise of blogs and the erosion of the mainstream media (MSM, in blogosphere-speak), much has happened.

John Hinderaker, a Watertown native and now a blogger in Minneapolis, made some major news on his blog Powerline.

After Dan Rather reported on 60 Minutes about some memos from the early 1970s which purported to show that President Bush was derelict in his National Guard duties, Hinderaker and other bloggers went to work.

They began to wonder if these bombshell memos were forgeries.

One of the early giveaways was the fact that the font on the memos seemed too contemporary. And the fact that the “th” after certain numbers was superscripted, which very few typewriters – let alone National Guard typewriters – in the early 1970s could do.

Some bloggers designed a blinking exhibit showing the 1970s memos transposed over a similar document created by a word processor.

The alleged memos and the new documents were identical.

Then the dam burst.

First, the widow and son of the National Guardsman who was allegedly the author of the “memos” said there was no way he could or would have written them.

Then the officer’s secretary came forward and said the “memos” were forgeries. Then other major media outlets began to hire document experts who concluded that the “memos” were forgeries.

Then CBS’ own expert, who had a background in typewriter repair, backed off and said he only vouched for the signatures and not for the authenticity of the documents.

In the early stages of the scandal, Dan Rather and CBS dug in their heels and said they were standing by their story.

However, when major institutional forces like the Washington Post and the L.A. Times started whacking CBS, it began a furious internal debate over how to handle the growing scandal.

The irony of CBS and 60 Minutes hunkering down and hiding from the press after so many decades of sending out camera crews to harass some poor sap who was the subject of one of their stories was rich in indeed.

Finally, Rather made a Nixonian comment about how “mistakes were made,” but that they were made in good faith.

But not according to several experts who have now come forward to say that they explicitly warned CBS before it ran the story that the documents were highly questionable.

Instead of listening to the naysaying experts, CBS went with its original source, who said the documents were real (until he recanted later) and ran its story.

Now it’s being reported that the source of the “memos” had dealings with both CBS and the Kerry campaign, which CBS knew about and helped arrange, giving a more sinister tint to the network’s actions.

Whatever the details are that finally emerge, I agree with the media critic Jeff Jarvis who recently wrote:

“It’s bigger than Dan Rather. It’s bigger than CBS. It’s about journalism and Big Media and their relationship with the citizenry and democracy. It’s about sharing authority with the people.”


Whether it’s CBS News or the Argus Leader, citizens need to realize that much of the information they absorb is pre-selected for them by a narrow band of elite opinion-makers. That’s not how democracy is supposed to work.

The Rather scandal should remind us of that once again.

Jon Lauck is an SDSU history professor and a blogger. You can visit his blog at