‘Rathergate’ transforms one-way broadcast journalism

The firestorm over whether documents used in a "60 Minutes II" report alleging the president disobeyed an order while a member of the Texas Air National Guard is a visible indication that a major shift has occurred in broadcast journalism.

It’s the latest sign that technology in the hands of ordinary people is transforming societal power structures that large institutions, including broadcast journalism, have come to expect as the norm.

Just ask any police officer what effect video cameras in the hands of the public have had over the past 15 years in how suspects are treated, and it becomes clear that technology changes institutions.

For decades, public feedback to broadcast news has been impotent — not for lack of effort on the part of news viewers, but for a lack of effective means. They could write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper to complain or pick up the phone and call the broadcaster. They could ask the broadcaster to correct the error or hope a reporter from another station or newspaper would correct the record. Or, if they were really ambitious and had the financial wherewithal, they could challenge the broadcaster’s license with the FCC.

But none of these prescriptions can hold a candle to the new feedback loop established via the Web, where ordinary people can question, debate and challenge the reporting they see, read and hear.

The Internet bloggers, who within hours of the "60 Minutes II" report were raising questions about the authenticity of the documents based on typographical peculiarities of computer programs versus 1970s vintage typewriters, in less than two weeks had fed a debate that ultimately led to a retraction of sorts from CBS.

One lesson CBS — and by extension everyone in broadcast journalism — can take away from what’s come to be known as ‘Rathergate’ is clear and simple. Not only do broadcasters have an “Eye on America,” America has its eye on broadcasters, and with the reach and influence of the Web, it has an effective megaphone with which to respond.

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