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November 12, 2004
Don't Blame The Medium For The Message

The New York Times reports on the flurry of post-election conspiracy theories and, somewhat conveniently, leaves the blame at the doorstep of the blogosphere. Tom Zeller notes the proliferation of assertions that the 2004 Presidential election was somehow stolen from John Kerry in Florida and Ohio and determines that the paranoia springs from freedom of speech:

In the space of seven days, an online market of dark ideas surrounding last week's presidential election took root and multiplied.

But while the widely read universe of Web logs was often blamed for the swift propagation of faulty analyses, the blogosphere, as it has come to be known, spread the rumors so fast that experts were soon able to debunk them, rather than allowing them to linger and feed conspiracy theories. Within days of the first rumors of a stolen election, in fact, the most popular theories were being proved wrong - though many were still reluctant to let them go. ...

"It becomes a snowball of hearsay," said Matthew Damschroder, the director of elections in Columbus, Ohio, where an electronic voting machine malfunctioned in one precinct and allotted some 4,000 votes to President Bush, kicking off its own flurry of Web speculation. That particular problem was unusual and remains unexplained, but it was caught and corrected, Mr. Damschroder said.

"Some from the traditional media have called for an explanation," he said, "but no one from these blogs has called and said, 'We want to know what really happened.' "

Whether that is the role of bloggers, Web posters and online pundits, however, is a matter of debate.

Who does Zeller reference while blaming the entire blogosphere for being a rumor mill? Those titans of the Internet --,, and The Daily Kos got a mention as a rumormonger, but other than that, Zeller's sample hardly represents the blogosphere as a whole. It's equivalent to saying that the newspaper industry is insane because of the Weekly World News.

The problem with the blogosphere isn't the blogosphere itself, it's individual blogs that indulge in paranoid conspiracy theories without doing some fact-checking. The blogosphere is merely the medium, and individual blogs build or destroy their credibility based on what they publish. Mainstream media sources operate the same way, although reports published there come with a certain level of built-in credibility with the amount of money spent in publication.

However, this year we have seen the mainstream media fail to vet their stories properly, notably CBS News' foisting of forged and fraudulent documents in the TANG report for 60 Minutes -- and CBS News partnered with the New York Times on that story. Zeller omits that notorious failure in his rundown on rumormongering. Nor do I see Zeller, in his zeal to fault the blogosphere for improper research and sourcing, mention how often his own paper reports items out of context (Al Qaqaa arms dump, for instance) or uses anonymous sourcing for exposes. Finally, while Zeller discusses how quickly experts debunked the stolen-election theories, he completely overlooks the fact that the blogosphere published these retorts -- and that the major blogs played a crucial role in squelching the rumors.

All in all, Zeller's analysis provides yet another Gray Lady potshot at her critics, and a poorly constructed one at that.

Addendum: Zeller does include this revealing quote from the Kerry campaign spokesman, David Wade, on their concern for the nation's well-being:

"I'd give my right arm for Internet rumors of a stolen election to be true," said David Wade, a spokesman for the Kerry campaign, "but blogging it doesn't make it so. We can change the future; we can't rewrite the past."

He doesn't wish that people would have voted for his candidate legitimately -- he wants the election to be fraudulent. I guess Kerry's campaign consisted of upper-case-D Democrats exclusively.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at November 12, 2004 12:38 PM

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