Blogs > Liberty and Power > Liberty, Power, and Knowledge: The Tale of the CBS Memos

Aug 8, 2005 1:06 pm

Liberty, Power, and Knowledge: The Tale of the CBS Memos

I want to weigh in with some thoughts about the whole National Guard documents/CBS forgery issue. This story has consumed me for the last two days. I'm far less interested in the whole question of what Bush and/or Kerry did or didn't do during the Vietnam Era than I am about what this particular incident has to say about liberty and power. I'm also assuming that everyone has some cursory knowledge of the whole issue. If not, the best places to go for summaries are Instapundit or Powerline. Let me also say that I am completely convinced that these documents, or at least 2 of them, are forgeries. If I'm wrong, this little essay's going to look pretty stupid, but I'm willing to take that chance. Let me also say that it doesn't matter to me where they came from and how they got to CBS. What I care about is how these memos got on the air and what the near-instant demolition of them by the blogs and "new media" means socially. And as I've argued before in this space, I have no love for the incumbent, so my point is not to destroy Kerry or support Bush. Finally, people will call this "blogosphere triumphalism" but so be it.

With that said, it seems to me that this incident is a triumph of liberty over power. For years, we've heard from both Right and Left that the "Big Media" are a problem. Each group thinks they are the handmaiden of the other group. What both appear to agree on is that they are near-all powerful entities who are growing unchecked like some electromagnetic cancer upon the land. The Left has long had the small alternative press, which tried to counter the power of the Big Guys, but with limited success, and it had academia. The Right, since the 80s anyway, has had the think-tank world (which I've always viewed as the alternative university for libertarians and conservatives who perceived themselves, perhaps wrongly, as being closed out of academic by what they saw as leftist power). However it had no real media of its own (Jim and Tammy Faye don't count) until the advent of the Internet. There's a reason the earliest and most well-known blogs lean conservative or libertarian: there was a latent demand for their services.

The net finally reduced the cost of publishing to near zero, at least on the margin, and radically democratized the knowledge production industry, especially investigative reporting. By eliminating both political (think broadcast licenses) barriers to entry and the huge start up costs of publishing, the Internet widened the sphere of liberty for those who wished to be producers of information. The result, as we've seen so clearly the last 48 hours, is that the strength of Big Media power has been radically reduced. Average Americans, with their knowledge of typewriters, military procedure, or fairly obscure terms like "kerning," were able to compete with, and effectively neutralize, one of the most powerful organizations on the planet. The Internet has demonstrated itself to be one of the most powerful (yes, powerful), power-checking institutions ever. By opening up the lines of communication to nearly everyone, it has forced us to rely on actual arguments, facts, history, and evidence precisely because the intensity of competition and the value of reputation is so high. The work that was done in demonstrating, at least to my satisfaction, the forging of those documents is a tribute to the power of truth that comes from liberty. There's no "trust me, I'm <Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Walter Cronkite>", rather you're only as good as your arguments and evidence and your experts (and the persuasiveness of the latter can also be determined with a quick Google search).

None of this should be surprising to those of us raised on Hayek. After all, this is nothing more than the intellectual version of "Competition as a Discovery Procedure." Or better yet, it is Michael Polanyi's work on "The Republic of Science" transferred to current events. Even in the blogosphere, the commentary has talked about the "distributed intelligence" of the Net, or "open source journalism," or even the "hive mind" (a bit too Borg-ish for my taste, but it makes the point). The Hayekian lesson is that it is through the ability to enter the market and compete that knowledge gets created and made socially available to others. Just as in economic competition, where the process will tend to allocate resources better than alternative processes, so in the competition to produce news does the process tend to produce the best approximation to "truth." Markets are in that way examples of liberty defeating power. The very openness and competitiveness of markets makes any momentary hold on power tenuous, requiring that those who possess it continually act affirmatively (e.g. innovating, serving consumers well) to keep it. CBS and other Big Media simply have never had to face this sort of environment before and have become sloppy as a result.

I should add here one or two comments on how this all might have happened. I don't believe that CBS or others exhibit deliberate, conscious bias against conservatives. I don't believe (although it could be true) that Dan Rather said "I need to destroy Bush, so I'll take shortcuts to try to do so." Instead, as others have argued, the problem is more bias-induced laziness. Assuming CBS was duped and not complicit, I'm sure they saw these memos as fitting their priors about Bush and political issues more generally and simply didn't see any reason to investigate further because the memos, in some sense, just had to be true. All the head-scratching about why it took 12 hours for the blogosphere to see the obviously shoddy forging job while CBS missed it can be explained by the differences in behavior induced by both different political priors and the differening perceptions of the rules of the game held by bloggers and Big Media. Political priors will frame what sorts of things require "investigation" and what sorts do not. The competition generated by the advent of the Internet has widened the range of things deemed to be worthy of investigation (on all sides: think of the ways in which blogs have attempted to undermine the case for the War in Iraq). In addition, when one sees oneself in an environment of competition, as bloggers do, one cannot afford to be lazy and everyone has to start checking their premises. This is not, as this recent piece argued, an attempt to police people's politics. Rather it is competition doing what it does best: holding everyone accountable to the "constitutional rules" of the Republic of Science. And as good Hayekians know, when the rules are right and access is open, the truth will out.

Finally, I appeal to my friends on the Left to take the right lesson from this whole event. Again, this is a triumph of democracy, liberty, and the common person over some of the most powerful institutions in America. That aspect of this event, again assuming the memos are forged, should be cause for celebration on the Left. It's possible that this could further doom the Kerry campaign, but don't let that obscure the sunshine. To all who argue that monopolized unchecked corporate power is a problem, the outing of CBS, and the advent of the new media on the Internet more generally, should be a cause for celebration. More power to the people and all of that. The way in which competition takes advantage of distributed knowledge and mobilizes it through the rules and procedures of the competitive process is the key to toppling power, whether economic, political, or intellectual. It works in markets just as well as it works in the world of the new media. I'm sorry if you don't like the particulars, but if you call yourself a person of the Left, this is a moment you should have been waiting for. Orwell just got that whole technology and power thing ass-backwards. The democratization of knowledge production and the ability of one person with a computer to check the power of the major social institutions is here, and it is the technology of the telescreen that brought it to us.

Left, Right, Libertarian, or whatever, liberty has once again defeated power by redestributing it back to the people.

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Nathan Machula - 9/13/2004

This is a non-issue. There would be no reason for him to be tested for cholera unless he had been to an area where it was prevalent. All military members are not immunized for every possible disease. Currently, smallpox and anthrax vaccines are only given prior to deploying to Southwest Asia, Korea, or similar areas of operation.

Alastair Mackay - 9/13/2004

To follow up, here is a link to a computer typographer's site that rapidly and convincingly demonstrates that the Rather memos are forgeries.

There has been a lot of activity on the Internet recently concerning the forged CBS documents. I do not even dignify this statement with the traditional weasel-word “alleged”, because it takes approximately 30 seconds for anyone who is knowledgeable in the history of electronic document production to recognize this whole collection is certainly a forgery, and approximately five minutes to prove to anyone technically competent that the documents are a forgery.

Alastair Mackay - 9/12/2004

Jonathan Dresner wrote (9/11, 1:44am):

>The compentent historians' counter-attack against Michelle Malkin has been sustained and substantial, but hasn't managed to reach but a small fraction of what her broadcast appearances and book sales have reached.

But Horwitz' point re: Liberty and Power wasn't that Truth can triumph effortlessly and promptly, but as the result of competitive processes. Do the competent historians truly have cause to fear that Malkin's shoddy version will become the New Dogma of the classroom and the history book? As Timothy Burke has pointed out elsewhere on HNN, members of the "Committee for Fairness" can do a lot to make their message more 'competitive' (e.g. lose the Appeal To Authority). If they invest as much effort in debunking Malkin as the bloggers have in outing CBS, the results are likely to be similar.

>If they are forgeries (and I have not seen the documents nor have an opinion...

Um...Horwitz supplied the get-started hyperlinks. The fraud is so blatant at so many levels that a provisional judgement is easily arrived at. An illustration of Horwitz' point that people can--if they want to--use the resources of the Web to efficiently arrive at an informed opinion.

Steven Horwitz - 9/12/2004

Wow. Thanks Evan for those very interesting (and complimentary!) comments. I think you are right on as well.

David A Wagar - 9/12/2004

The whole power to the people thing (with which I wholeheartedly agree) only works if the people are prepared to make use of that newfound power. Blogs, and the Internet in general, may make obtaining accurate information without the filter of media high-priests available, but unless people are interested and motivated enough that information will remain distributed only among people who care.

The vast majority of my friends, acquaintances, and family just won't bother to use the free time they have to obtain this sort of information. I still hear "Farenheit 9/11" described as entertainment by coworkers (whether agreed or not as to Moore's message, it certainly is not "entertainment" in the sense that the word is normally used).

Knowledge is available in good books, but unless the book is opened it is worthless. Each hour spent in front of the television is one hour less that could have been spent otherwise. Our popular culture does not, currently, promote the attainment of knowledge as beneficial. Style, hipness, and giggles are valued.

A sheathed sword will not cut.

Byron Matthews - 9/12/2004

Steven Horwitz wrote: "Orwell just got that whole technology and power thing ass-backwards. The democratization of knowledge production and the ability of one person with a computer to check the power of the major social institutions is here, and it is the technology of the telescreen that brought it to us."

I remember that Peter Huber, in his book 'Orwell's Revenge' (Free Press, 1994) said exactly that:

From Publishers Weekly: In George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, the telescreen-which spies on its captive audience members and fills their minds with propaganda-is the instrument that makes possible the totalitarian state's absolute control. Huber believes Orwell was fundamentally wrong in assuming that electronic media would facilitate mind control. On the contrary, he argues, today's telecommunications world-spanning cable television, personal computer networks, cellular phones and so forth-offers a multiplicity of choices in information and fosters the exchange of ideas.

Kirkus: Huber argues that the convergence of information and communication technologies Orwell foresaw in his ``telescreen,'' far from condemning society to the grim panoptic coercion of the Party, are by their nature driven toward the creation of markets in information and services that will inevitably elude the grasp of centralizing authority and ultimately topple it…

Evan Lowell Maxwell - 9/12/2004

StevenHorwitz has a shrewd set of insights into the media-power game and its effect on public perceptions. The bloggers brought exceptional technical expertise and historical insight into play almost immediately after the CBS broadcast. In truth, traditional media outlets seized on the speed of the response as a clear (but mistaken) sign that the bloggers were fools or plants. (CF, the Los Angeles times Sunday piece on the flap, plus the ABC and NPR efforts to debunk the early blog attackers.)

As a 20-year veteran of the trench warfare that is daily journalism, I take a rather unholy delight in seeing the power of the WWW used to bring so-called investigative journalists up short, when they appear to have taken short-cuts to the story as they expected it to be. In that vein, Horwitz is absolutely right when he says the documents were readily accepted at CBS because they confirmed what CBS believed it already knew. Newsroom herd mentality is a pernicious thing.

In this case, it was debunked by the combined wisdom of the web, led by several diverse kinds of minds: lawyers used to confronting and examining the testimony of "expert" witnesses; military veterans who said the form of the memos and their context seemed phony or contrived; computer people who knew what to look for when examining documents.

Now we have CBS all but confirming the Horwitz analysis by saying that the issue of documents forgery was not even material, since the rest of the story has not been challenged. Lay aside the fact that that "rest of the story" was not startling news. Lay aside that the sources of much of it (Politician Barnes) had and still has a vested interest in the political content of his recollections. Lay aside the fact that there is at least some suggestion the whole thing came to CBS from the DNC. Lay all that aside, and what do you have? You have a story that desperately needs the documents. Without those documents, the story collapses into a partisan characterization which may have some truth but certainly lacks the dramatic impact of the 60 Minutes piece.

Talk to any art forger. He or she will tell you that the most successful forgeries are those that fill in a missing gap in some artist's ouevre. The experts/authenticators who specialize in a particular artist become the forger's most willing ally. They snap such pieces up and validate them in a heart beat. And I'm fairly sure that's what happened here.

The remaining question is this: Will the mainstream media let the flap die? Will the rest of the bigs do what the Washington Post did today: a piece on how the questions about Bush's national guard service are still alive, even if the documents are false or at least suspect. Or will somebody still dig in and advance the story.

If there's no follow-through from the media, I'd suggest that a good historial plunge in. This is a vital moment and a real chance to explore how we know what we know and why we believe who we believe.

Evan Maxwell
Anacortes, WA

richard sean mcenroe - 9/12/2004


Matt Barganier - 9/11/2004

Jonathan Dresner - 9/11/2004

As someone who has been part of the contention with Big Media regarding Malkin, I am inclined to agree. But....

There is still the problem of size: the vast majority of influential bloggers now occupy the space once taken up with small/medium newspapers and local news reporters (back when they really investigated and reported), but many bloggers are very small-scale, more like newsletters than newspapers. The compentent historians' counter-attack against Michelle Malkin has been sustained and substantial, but hasn't managed to reach but a small fraction of what her broadcast appearances and book sales have reached.

If they are forgeries (and I have not seen the documents nor have an opinion, except to say that if someone forged them with a contemporary word processor and printed them out and CBS didn't notice that they were not, in fact, typed (which is pretty obvious, as I recall) then 60 minutes deserves to be demoted to 58) then they are pretty bad ones (who forges historical documents on modern instruments? haven't these people ever seen a con-caper movie?), and the likelihood that someone would have caught them before/without the blogosphere is pretty strong.

And we have to also subtract points for the ability of the internet to create, propogate and sustain urban legends, falsehoods, etc., which is still very, very substantial.