Blogs Have Their Day

How three amateur journalists dethroned an icon and turned the mainstream media upside down, all without quitting their day jobs

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Before this year, blogs kept a relatively modest profile, and the mainstream media could comfortably treat them like amateur productions that could never compete with real news organizations. Sure, there was a little noise when Howard Dean raised some money by blogging, but hey, he's the exception that proves the rule, right? But there were signs that blogs were on the rise. In 2002 liberal bloggers like Joshua Micah Marshall of talkingpointsmemo.com played a key role in the push for Trent Lott's resignation as Senate majority leader. Then in April of this year, an Arizona-based blogger named Russ Kick used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain photos of American military coffins coming back from the Middle East. He posted the pictures on his blog, the Memory Hole thememoryhole.org) and the next day they were on the front pages of newspapers around the world. This summer bloggers were invited to cover the political conventions, and they did so with gusto.

Which brings us to the morning of Sept. 9, 2004. In his usual early-morning media sweep, Johnson noticed that CBS's website was carrying an online version of a 60 Minutes story from the night before, about some new documents relating to President Bush's service in the National Guard. Johnson thought the memos looked odd--they fit too neatly with an advertising campaign that he knew the Democratic National Committee would be unveiling shortly, attacking Bush's service record. So he wrote a few paragraphs about it, sprinkling in references to a site called freerepublic.com where another conservative lawyer, Harry MacDougald (a.k.a. Buckhead), had been arguing that the memos must be forgeries. Johnson titled his post "The 61st Minute," put it up online and headed off to work. The time was 7:51 a.m.

When he arrived at his office half an hour later, there were 50 e-mails in his In box from readers offering further arguments and evidence disputing the CBS documents' authenticity. Johnson sifted through the comments and added some of them to his original post. This created a feedback loop. The more comments he posted, the more e-mail he got, which he then posted, generating even more e-mail, and so on. The process turbocharged itself. In all, he updated the post 15 or 20 times over the course of that day. The sheer speed and volume of the information surge made Johnson nervous. He was desperately trying to stay on top of the flood of data pouring in over the transom to make sure he wasn't going off on a crazy tangent. "We worked so hard over 21/2 years to build up an audience of serious readers," he says. "I thought, 'Am I out of my mind to be doing this? We're so far out on a limb.' I kept reading, looking for something from CBS, looking for the other side of the story. I looked at liberal sites that were contrary, but there was no information there."

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