Some bloggers limit their `transparency'

2 critics of Rather, CBS not forthcoming on ties to conservative groups

September 19, 2004|By Howard Witt | Howard Witt,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

AUSTIN, Texas - Hundreds of thousands of readers know him simply as "Mike," the creator of rathergate.com, an Internet blog spearheading a petition drive demanding the resignation of CBS News anchor Dan Rather because of his alleged liberal biases.

But what the visitors to his blog, short for Web log, did not know when he launched it early last week was that "Mike" is Mike Krempasky, a 29-year-old Republican political operative from suburban Washington.

The conservative bloggers who ignited a frenzy this month over allegations that Rather relied on forged documents in a Sept. 8 60 Minutes broadcast questioning President Bush's Air National Guard service insist they are force-marching mainstream media into an era of transparency and accountability.

They extol the virtues of millions of ordinary citizens using blogs, a kind of personal Internet diary, to collectively check, vet and comment on everything they read in newspapers or watch on television.

But some bloggers aren't so eager to endure the same scrutiny of their backgrounds and motives.

"Blogs are supremely transparent," Krempasky said in a telephone interview. "With a very few exceptions, bloggers are real people that can be reached and talked to and held up to the light."

Nowhere on Krempasky's site, however, did he disclose that he is the political director for American Target Advertising Inc., a Virginia firm run by Richard A. Viguerie, the conservative strategist widely credited with inventing political direct mail and helping Ronald Reagan and numerous other Republicans get elected.

By Thursday, after an inquiry from the Chicago Tribune, Krempasky posted a message telling readers who he is, although he insisted that his blog is a personal endeavor not connected to his employer.

The episode was hardly isolated.

"Buckhead," the mysterious blogger on freerepublic.com who was among the first to raise questions about the authenticity of the documents within hours of Rather's broadcast, declined repeated requests from the Chicago Tribune and other media to reveal his identity.

But on Friday, the Los Angeles Times reported that "Buckhead" is Harry MacDougald, an Atlanta lawyer with ties to conservative Republican causes who helped draft the petition urging the Arkansas Supreme Court to disbar President Bill Clinton after the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Bloggers say the CBS case represents a watershed in the development of their young medium - the moment when several upstart conservative blogs challenged the credibility of one of America's oldest and most trusted broadcast news networks.

The controversy began shortly after Rather aired a report featuring several documents the program said were written in the early 1970s by Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, one of Bush's commanders in the Texas Air National Guard.

Bush's service record has come under scrutiny from Democrats, who charge that he received favorable treatment and skirted some of his obligations. The memos presented by CBS appeared to show Killian resisting pressure from a senior officer to "sugarcoat" Bush's performance evaluations.

Bloggers, led by "Buckhead," soon began questioning the authenticity of the documents shown by CBS, asserting that they contained proportionally spaced fonts, superscripts and other typesetting features that were not widely available on typewriters in the early 1970s.

One of the most stinging challenges came from Charles Johnson, a Los Angeles Web designer and musician who produces a blog with the name littlegreen footballs.com.

Johnson retyped one of the documents on his computer using the default settings in Microsoft Word, then superimposed it atop the image of the document released by CBS. The result was a near-perfect match.

"I downloaded them and opened them up, and I instantly knew this was not anything that had ever been typewritten," Johnson said. "Then I had the idea to type in my own version. The line spacing, the character spacing, the line breaks, the word wraps - every single thing was an exact duplicate from Microsoft Word in every respect."

Mainstream newspapers and broadcasters quickly picked up the bloggers' allegations and consulted forensic document experts, who weighed in with conflicting opinions over whether typewriters of the era could have produced the Killian memos.

By week's end, even Rather and CBS News had to concede that questions about the documents had to be pursued.

Nevertheless, many newspaper editors and TV directors are generally disdainful of bloggers.

"I've seen some criticism that bloggers are not edited, and that's true - we don't have traditional editors," said Johnson, the Los Angeles blogger. "But the more important point is that with a readership of several thousand at any moment, if I post something incorrect or debatable, I'll receive e-mail within minutes.

"I've actually got thousands of editors looking over my shoulder."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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