Case in Point
Examining the website <www.littlegreenfootballs.com> shows the difficulties of applying book-based criteria while navigating the Web. The home page opens with a neon-green football bouncing on top of the logo “little green football” in the upper left hand corner. The right side of the page shows movie ads and songs that the visitor can listen to while browsing the page. The left side shows links to “Friends of Iraq,” a button indicating an award from the Washington Post, and pleas for donations to keep the site alive. Sprinkled throughout the site are links to national and international news stories as well as political commentary from the author/webmaster of the site and posts from people named Uncle Dirt-nap and Iron Fist, among others (see Figure 1).
The website is a blog, or Web log, which, as with many genres found on the Web, is extremely hard to define or even set up criteria to enable a definition because individuals have used technology to go in infinite directions. Modern blogs can trace their origin to Andrew Smales, a programmer who wanted to post his diary to the Web. In 1999, he developed technology (pitas.com) to make his goal easier and hoped to create an “online diary community”; however, as Selfe and Hawisher point out, “People exert their own powerful agency in, around, and through digital literacy, even though unintended consequences always accompany their actions” (p. 220). This technology enabled individuals more agency, and the number of blogs exploded from a few dozen prior to 1999 to countless millions today, giving rise to the term blogosphere. Nonetheless, some definitions can cover much of the genre, such as this one from the Columbia Journalism Review: “They are diaries and soapboxes, where people can post everything from daily minutiae to manifestoes to sophisticated political and cultural commentary and reporting” (Jensen, 2003). Or “personal websites operated by individuals who compile chronological lists of links to stuff that interests them, interspersed with information, editorializing and personal asides” (Winer, 2004).
When compared with print sources, one of the largest differences found in the Web can be found in personal voice. Whereas the alphabetic pitched a “weighty” objective voice, blogs often employ what the Chicago Tribune calls “pithy, sarcastic commentary.” The differences can be encapsulated by Mickey Kaus, a former eminent magazine author and author of a weighty tome on welfare reform, who gave up “alphabetic journalism” to start a political blog on Slate in 1999: “There were a thousand small ways [Kaus’s] voice changed; in print, he had been a full-paragraph guy who carefully backed up his claims, but on his blog he evolved into an exasperated Larry David basket case of self-doubt and indignation, harassed by a fake ‘editor’ of his own creation who broke in, midsentence, with parenthetical questions and accusations” (Klam, 2004).
Kaus blazed a trail that Littlegreenfootballs is following. And, even more incredible, the haphazard blog recently kicked sand onto one of the juggernauts of “old” journalism, CBS, and is now implicated in bringing about the early retirement of Dan Rather. The strange chain of events began when CBS aired a story on “Sixty Minutes II” purporting that National Guard commanders gave George W. Bush favorable treatment during the Vietnam War, but even before the television show ended that night, bloggers across the nation made posts doubting the veracity of the documents that had been used by the program to prove the accusation. Charles Johnson posted the following on Littlegreenfootballs:
I opened Microsoft Word, set the font to Microsoft’s Times New Roman, tabbed over to the default tab stop to enter the date “18 August 1973,” then typed the rest of the document purportedly from the personal records of the late Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian. And my Microsoft Word version, typed in 2004, is an exact match for the documents trumpeted by CBS News as “authentic.”
Johnson then followed his claim with both the original document and the one he produced, and except for typeface, they do appear identical (see Figure 2). Johnson was moved to do this by a post he read on another blog, that of a Web designer who is also a typograpy junkie. The designer pointed out that kerning didn’t exist when the memo was supposedly written in 1972. Littlegreenfootballs used this as the impetus to post the blog; people who then linked to the site spread the story until traditional media outlets eventually picked it up. (CBS eventually conducted an internal investigation and found the story was "flawed" <http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/01/10/national/main665727.shtml>.
CBS reacted to the accusations with the same coldness entrenched literacy adherents seem to employ when dealing with challenges to their domination. Longtime CBS correspondent Eric Engberg wrote an article titled “Blogging as Typing, not Journalism” and summed up all blogs in this manner: “The ability to transmit words, we learned during the Citizens Band radio fad of the 70’s, does not mean that any knowledge is being passed along” (see Figure 3). In effect, CBS felt the blogs were worthless because they did not fit into the reified, traditional criteria established in the academy for reliable sources (see Figure 4, a close-up of the visual CBS used on the story). Former CBS executive Jonathan Klein also complained to Fox News that "these bloggers have no checks and balances [. . . . ] (Y)ou couldn't have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing" (Kurtz, 2004).
Looking at the two parties of the so-called “Memogate” through the lens of Kapoun’s Web evaluation criteria magnifies the complexities facing Internet users (see Figure 1). Beginning with Accuracy, Kapoun’s first criterion, centers on who wrote it and the author’s qualifications. Charles Johnson is a lawyer from Minnesota, but his writing/reporting credentials are not listed on the site, hardly the solid criteria that would qualify him in Kapoun’s terms. As a browser, we don’t know whether Johnson is qualified to write political articles, and the purpose of the site is not readily apparent from the name or the content. Kapoun also talks about whether e-mail address or contact info is present as a component of authority. This is in some ways a first-generation criterion, because sites such as Littlegreenfootballs allow readers to post directly, so Johnson could see, respond, and answer without touching e-mail.
Kapoun’s second criterion, Authority, is also not present. The only thing smacking of credentials is the “Best Blogger of 2004 Washington Post” visual button on the left side of the page. The URL, <littlegreenfootballs.com>, not only sounds “unprofessional,” it is not the .edu or .gov domain that is listed as more credible in Kapoun’s criteria because .com represents a commercial venture, which is apparent based on the ads and donation requests.
The third criterion, Objectivity, is even more problematic. Provided the reader does not ignore visuals, the right wing bias of the site is clearly evident: ads for an anti-Michael Moore movie and links to pro-Iraq stories abound. Reading some of the posts will confirm the anti-democrat sentiment. But who exactly is Charles Johnson? Though no biographical info exists on the site, he has proclaimed himself in the ensuing media notoriety to be “a Republican activist who views Rather as an ‘intensely partisan liberal’ and [who] ‘quit listening to CBS News 20 years ago’" (Kurtz, 2004).
On the other hand, the Kapoun criterion that Johnson nails more than any book is Currency. Before “Sixty Minutes II” was even finished, Johnson had looked at other bloggers who decried the document’s originality and typed his version into the site to test his theory. He was also able to go back in and update when he could not answer a question about the superscript placement on the battalion number in “187th”: “(Update: I printed the document and the “th” & “rd” matches perfectly in the printed version. It’s a difference between screen and printer fonts)”. Here, Johnson has been able to exploit technological advances in the Web in the form of speed as well as the increased access, which, in turn, gave him access to more information and his readers increased access to him as well. We actually see his research process and can, in fact, participate in his research by posting comments.
Finally, the criterion of Coverage is not evident. There are numerous news links, so many, in fact, that it would take at least an hour to test all of them. Also, no citations are found in the blog, other than using the original “Sixty Minutes II” as a source. Most of the subsequent posts back up Johnson, such as an army typist active in that era who verified Johnson’s position with a first-hand account. The typist posts no real personal information, so her/his credibility is also at issue. Finally, there is no option for text-only and frames don’t exist, so it fails on that account.
In the end, Littlegreenfootballs only meets one of Kapoun’s criteria—Currency—so it cannot pass muster as a reliable source, especially since meeting all five criteria simply means you “may” have a valid website. On the other hand, <cbsnews.com> (see Figure 3) meets Kapoun’s criteria. Other than sharing an undesirable domain, the two sites couldn’t be more different. In the days after the story broke, CBS vehemently denied the blog accusations and stood by its sources. Their stories include bylines, a measure of authenticity, such as the one that related blogs to the CB radio fad: “Eric Engberg was a correspondent for CBS News in Washington prior to his retirement two years ago.” Except for pieces marked thusly and a few pointed statements here and there, the veneer of objectivity is found throughout the site. The links and sites are updated constantly and the coverage appears to be extensive. So if it meets Authority, Objectivity, Currency, and Coverage, it also meets Accuracy as laid out by Kapoun by the fact that who produced each piece is wholly evident, as is the purpose of the site and the qualifications of the authors. In the end, it would be considered a more reliable site, though people of many different partisan leanings would beg to differ.
The CBS/Littlegreenfootballs story hints at the daunting task of evaluating worth on the Web using book-based criteria, even on a blog that is overwhelmingly text-driven. Blogs are hard to sort and would never make it past Kapoun’s criteria, although, for certain, just as in the book world, there are entities that are wholly inadequate, false, vapid, and basically a waste of time. This illustrates once again the importance of the idea of flexibility that Charles Paine talks about when referring to what teachers should strive for in instructing students.
Shawn Apostel and Moe Folk, 2005