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scott johnson

Alongside John Hinderaker, Johnson is one half of the lawyer-blogging duo who started Power Line, a conservative political blog based in Minneapolis. In 2004, Johnson posted on his site his suspicion that documents used to discredit the president's National Guard career in a segment by Dan Rather on 60 Minutes II had been fabricated. Expert analysis supported Johnson's theory, and Rather and 60 Minutes II retracted the story amid a hail of accusations of liberal media bias. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Aug. 26, 2006.

So why did you start Power Line?

Well, John [Hinderaker] and I had been writing together -- op-eds, articles for magazines, longer research articles -- for about 10 years, as a sideline to our legal practice, something we did as a hobby on the side for fun. We'd had a ball doing it. Of the two of us, I was the one who spent most of the time trying to get our articles placed and working within the constraints of the length and the editorial interest that would limit what we could publish. One of the things that really attracted me to the medium of the Internet and having our own site was the ability to publish without limitations of length and without editorial supervision -- and also the immediacy. ...

Were you sort of like a tech head before that, an Internet early adopter?

Not at all. I would say that John dragged me along kicking and screaming. He called me up that Memorial Day weekend of 2002 to say he'd started a site and invited me to contribute to it in the way that I had as part of a writing team with him over the preceding years. I wasn't too sure what we would be communicating on the site, but it was all new to me. Fortunately my oldest daughter was home at the time and helped me get into the template that John had set up for us. ...

And then how did you take to it? What was it like exploring this new environment at first?

Well, the great thing about writing for newspapers and magazines is that you have a built-in audience. Somebody else has done the hard work of building up distribution and a readership. So although I love the freedom of the Internet for continuing our ventures in writing, building up an audience was a challenge. There's no question that for the first several months we were essentially communicating with our immediate family. ... [We] had some lucky breaks with respect to recognition and people sending readers to our site. That really gave us the kind of encouragement that's necessary to keep going.

Well, what was the first sort of lucky break that you got to bump you off that?

One of the motivations for me in contributing to the site has been a sometimes friendly but mostly adversarial relationship with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which really dominates the news market here in the Upper Midwest. I had done research and had conversations over the years with the gentleman who's head of polling for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and in my view, the head of polling for the Star Tribune had seemed to lean Democratic in a way that wasn't borne out with the final election results over the years. ...

“The mainstream media are aware of folks like us out there looking over their shoulders, who may be able to embarrass them, call them to account, ask them to answer questions that if they don't would lead to a silence that would speak for itself in a way that wasn't the case in years past.”

I started writing about that on our site in a way that nobody else was. ... There was a talk show radio host, Hugh Hewitt, whose attention was directed to our site by a mutual friend. ... I almost drove off the road the first time I heard him talking about us and our site, because we hadn't had that kind of recognition before. I would say he kept up with us. He had us on as guests that fall. He came out here and did a local segment of his show on the Saturday before the election -- because he thought Minnesota was so central to the upcoming results -- that John and I participated in for a couple hours that morning. So that was really the first big break and recognition and kind of shot in the arm that made us think that we weren't deluded in thinking that we had something worthwhile going on the site. ...

Of course your most famous bump-up in recognition came during the 2004 election. Can you just lay out the story for us? What happened the day after the CBS report aired? How did you hear about this? Did you see the actual report?

I had been following the news coverage of the Democratic and Republican campaigns that week following the Republican Convention, which we had covered through John's attendance at the Republican Convention. I thought he'd done a tremendous job and had some things on offer on the site that weren't available elsewhere. ... Wednesday morning, Sept. 8, The Boston Globe reported a story of new documents with respect to President Bush's Air National Guard service that had just been released by the Pentagon, pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request. ...

I read The Boston Globe story very carefully and saw that although it was reported in terms that suggested that there was something scandalous perhaps about the withholding of these documents or their recent release, they were absolutely consistent with everything else that had been released about President Bush's Air National Guard service to the effect that he had served honorably and well in his capacity as a pilot for the Texas Air National Guard. So I wrote about that on the morning of Sept. 8.

On the morning of Sept. 9, I took a look again at The Boston Globe and saw they had a story about some more new documents that had supposedly been discovered by CBS and covered in the course of a 60 Minutes II story that had been broadcast the night before. The Globe story noted that the CBS story was available online and the documents had been posted, so I went to the CBS story and read that, ... and I opened up each of those documents and read them.

Unlike the documents which had been previously released about President Bush's Air National Guard service, including the ones that had just been reported the day before in the Globe, these documents seemed to suggest that there was something dishonorable about President Bush's National Guard service and suggested that he disobeyed a direct order from a commanding officer to show up for a physical. That was the one that really I paused over and read and reread several times that morning. What I did was, as I had done the morning before, I ... started writing this on our site. I noted the availability of the CBS story on the CBS site. I noted that the documents were available for inspection in the CBS version of the story that was online.

Before I posted that on our site, I took a look at our e-mail, and there was an e-mail from a reader that quoted comment number 47 to a "Free Republic" thread on the CBS 60 Minutes version of the story. The quote was to the effect that these documents aren't typewritten; they're word-processed; this is an obvious fraud; someone should really look into this. I had no idea whether that was true or not, but it seemed interesting, and the circumstantial evidence regarding the discovery of these documents seemed suspicious to me in the sense that they supposedly came from the personal file of President Bush's commanding officer, and yet they didn't seem to have been released by his family, the commanding officer's family, Col. [Jerry] Killian's family. On the contrary, they were released by a confidential source. The commanding officer had died 10 years before, but somehow these documents mysteriously disappeared. …

I called that post "The 61st Minute," thinking that there might be more to the 60 Minutes story than had been broadcast the night before, hit the "Post" button on our site at 7:50 a.m. the morning of Sept. 9, and went to work. …

By the time I got to work, there were about 50 e-mails [about the post]. They offered information of all kinds that was based on kind of arcane expert knowledge, either with respect to military protocol or IBM typefaces or the like, and almost all of which suggested that those documents were, in fact, fraudulent. …

As the day went on, there was substantial information developed by other bloggers, ... interviewing forensic document examiners and the like, almost all of which seemed to suggest that those documents were a complete and utter fraud, although CBS began the stonewall that it continued for the following 12 days. ...

This [revelation about the documents] wasn't fact-checked or reported in the conventional sense. There were several people, and Power Line was sort of the hub.

Right. One of the really interesting things about the exposure of that CBS story, the fraudulence of that story, was the collaborative nature of the venture. It wasn't only a collaboration among us and other blogs; it was a collaboration among the blogs and readers of the blogs, ... and it really illustrated something about the power of the medium that it could draw on the expertise of so many people over such a short period of time, directing their attention and their knowledge on a discrete question, which seemed capable of being answered within several hours.

The first question I had that day was, are we far out on the end of a limb that's going to be sawed [off]? Are we going to lose whatever credibility we'd built up in the previous several years working on the site? The question I had later that morning is, how many times has CBS done this before and gotten away with it? ...

And then Dan Rather ends up leaving CBS, retiring probably earlier than he wanted to, many would say resigning in disgrace. How did you feel about that?

I don't think we ever mentioned the name Dan Rather during the day that we were writing about this, and I hadn't watched the CBS Evening News for 20 years at the time that this was all occurring. I was aware that Dan Rather was somebody whom I thought was a liberal, who had made his name as a proud adversary of President Nixon during the Watergate scandal, but I really wasn't interested in him as a person or a figure one way or the other. I have no animus to him.

I really dislike the fact that he hasn't owned up to the wrong he participated in with that story. Since he left CBS News, he seems to be suggesting that those documents may be authentic after all, and he's part of the crowd that keeps saying even if they were fake, they were fake but accurate. So I don't respect him for the things he has said since that story, since he left CBS News, but I bear no animus to him at all. I really don't think much about him one way or the other. ...

What would have happened, do you think, with this story if there had been no Power Line, no Internet, no alternative way for information and skeptical inquiry to happen?

I thought that the most significant event in the election of 2004 was the emergence of the Swift Boat Vets, and that the Internet allowed them to be heard in a way that they would not have been heard in previous years; and that in fact, when they emerged, the mainstream media tried to ignore them. But as word got out on the Internet and elsewhere about their message and after their book was published in August, some serious notice was taken of them. ...

I think that the "Rathergate" story was small, a small wind to the president's back, and that it turned the attention off a purported Bush scandal and turned it on CBS News for two weeks at a critical time in the campaign when the Democratic National Committee and John Kerry intended to be attacking President Bush's Air National Guard record in a way that simply became impossible as that story crumbled.

So the Internet seemed to have a pretty profound effect on the 2004 election.

That's my take. ...

For a lot of people out there, it seemed like [Rathergate] was [evidence], finally, of a solid case of liberal bias. How did you take it? ...

Well, of course I tended to be suspicious, because I thought that the reporters and producers and Dan Rather himself were liberal and desired John Kerry to win and President Bush to lose. So I would say I looked at the story with a gimlet eye to begin with. I thought that they were pretty fair stand-ins for the rest of their colleagues in the mainstream media in that respect. ... I think [CBS's 250-page report on the incident is] a tremendous illustration of the forces at work in these huge media organizations like CBS, NBC, ABC, The New York Times and The Washington Post that has been aired in a way that we never see otherwise as a result of the exposure of the story.

Do you think before the degree of scrutiny the Internet affords, they were getting away with that sort of stuff?

... I strongly suspect that in days of yore, before the development of the Internet as a means for the dissemination and circulation of information, that mainstream media organizations have gotten away with fabricated, bogus, false stories many times and not been called to account. ...

Something else that's kind of interesting is that CBS was vulnerable because of the Internet. What would have happened if they had not posted that document on their Web site?

That's really a great question. What would have happened to CBS had they themselves not made the evidence on which their story was based available to others who use the Internet, like us? I think nothing would have happened. The story would have stood. I don't think the folks who run the Internet function at CBS participated in the fraud. I think that CBS, at that level, was operating in good faith. They themselves made the evidence available with which they were hung, so to speak, and I certainly credit them for having done that. ...

I want to read a James Madison quote; obviously it's written a long time ago. I'm curious if you think it's still true. "To the press alone, checkered as it is with abuses, the world's indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression."

What Madison says is indicative of Madison's respect for the press as a function of the importance that the medium of pamphleteering had served in the Revolutionary era for fomenting the spirit of liberty, inducing Americans to put their lives on the line and fight for their sovereignty during the Revolutionary War. I am totally sympathetic with the spirit of that. I think the spirit of what Madison refers to as the press in that, and alluding to the pamphleteering that occurred during the Revolutionary War, is on display on the Internet more than it is in the organs of the mainstream media nowadays. But I think that the freedom to speak is very valuable, and although it can be abused, it's a very important right.

The press was pretty ugly in his day as well.

The fact that the press was partisan and wild and outrageous during the Revolutionary era, during the era in which the Constitution was ratified, was not only true then; it really is the tradition of the American press up until the Progressive Era, essentially yesterday. The press was always partisan.

One of my favorite books is the Lincoln-Douglas debates as reported in the partisan Illinois newspapers, where the book reports the Democrats' version of Lincoln's speeches during the debates, and the book includes the Republican versions of Douglas' speeches during the debates, and they differ from the ones that have otherwise come down through history. You can see from that the partisan tradition in the press that has been masked over by the development of a professional class, and the journalistic sense that they're participants in some kind of a priesthood that sets them apart from the rest of the country and makes them a kind of transnational elite, separate and apart from the citizens of the United States. ...

Is objectivity possible?

... I think that the criterion is fairness. It is certainly possible for people writing about public affairs to be fair. I hold myself to that standard, and I hold those of us who write for the site to that standard. Are we being fair?

What does fair mean? At the least, with respect to questions of public policy, it means do you accurately represent the views of people who disagree with you? And when you criticize them, are you criticizing something that is an accurate account of the views that you oppose? In that sense, I think it's certainly possible to be fair, if not objective. That's what I look for in journalists. Are they giving me enough information for me to make up my own mind, or are they trying to make up my mind for me?

Fairness allows a reader to make up his or her own mind. That's what I try to do when I'm writing on our site by linking to other people whose work I may be disagreeing with or that I may be offering in support of my own views: make it possible for readers to look over my shoulder and disagree with me if I'm wrong, or call me to account if I'm being unfair. ...

Has the mainstream media improved at all over this scrutiny?

The mainstream media are aware of folks like us out there looking over their shoulders, who may be able to embarrass them, call them to account, ask them to answer questions that if they don't would lead to a silence that would speak for itself in a way that wasn't the case in years past. There is slightly more of a dialogue that has the possibility of being constructive. We've had constructive encounters via the Internet with reporters and editors. But in reading the newspapers, which I do, like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, I'm struck by how little has changed. ...

What was your reaction when The New York Times published the story about the NSA surveillance program?

The New York Times disclosed the existence of the National Security Agency enemy eavesdropping program on Dec. 16, 2005, and I read it that morning. ... It seemed to me that the program was probably a very valuable program to protect the United States; that it had served that purpose; that it probably had something to do with the fact that we haven't been attacked for five years in the United States since 9/11. ...

I did research for the next several weeks, wrote about it on our site, came to the conclusion that the Times itself was subject to a highly special provision of the espionage laws: Section 798 of the espionage laws that protects classified communications intelligence, which seemed to be exactly what this was. [There] didn't seem to be any doubt about that. I thought it highly likely that the Times itself had violated that statute, and I was struck by the fact that the Times itself never mentioned that for four or six or eight weeks after that story that it might be in legal jeopardy. Other media organizations seemed not interested in that story.

I began writing to encourage the government to enforce the espionage laws. I thought the Times had seriously damaged the national security of the United States, and I wanted the government to do something about it. ...

[Has the mainstream media seriously evaluated the legality of the Times publishing the NSA wiretapping story?]

... If you want a serious analysis, you have to go to [civil liberties lawyer Harvey] Silverglate and the Boston Phoenix, to Power Line, or the column I wrote on this subject for The Weekly Standard, which is available online on The Weekly Standard Web site, or Gabriel Schoenfeld's Commentary article, which is available online, "Did the New York Times Violate the Espionage Act?" ...

Do you think ... that was it wrong for [New York Times reporter] Judith Miller to defy the prosecutor [Patrick Fitzgerald] and go to jail?

Reporters shouldn't make promises they can't keep, so I would ask them to keep in mind the fact that they are citizens and that they don't have, at least as a matter of constitutional law, the right to withhold information in a criminal investigation or under subpoena in some other investigation. I thought that the whole [Valerie] Plame prosecution was probably misguided. The New York Times had called [for], had demanded the appointment of that special prosecutor, and it seemed to me another instance of the pursuit of an issue in a completely misguided way coming back to bite the source. ...

Why do you think that it seems like the mainstream media is just not getting it in terms of reporting in a time of war? This balance between the public's right to know and the national security -- what do you think is behind this disconnect?

... I think that journalists at the highest level of the profession seem to be members of what they think of as a transnational elite. ... [They seem to have] kind of the mind-set of folks who don't think of themselves in a professional capacity as citizens of the United States, think they have some special status. [They] don't really think we're at war, don't really think their lives are at stake or the lives of their family, or have let their hostility to the Bush administration overcome what would otherwise be reasonable concerns about what they're doing. ...

Do you think it was wrong for the Post and the Times to publish the Pentagon Papers?

The Nixon administration sought an injunction against the publication of those papers without putting in any evidence of the damage that would be done to national security by their publication. And given the fact that there was no such evidence offered in support of the request that the newspapers be enjoined from publishing those papers, I think the Court did the right thing and just decided this case correctly.

It's interesting in retrospect, when you go back and read that case, that they seem to suggest, the justices do, that if the government could make a case that the national security was endangered by the publication of that story that it might under some circumstances be appropriate for the publication of a story to be enjoined, but that the government hadn't come close in that case. And I agree with that. ...

Where do you see Power Line in particular and blogs in general in 10 years?

The Internet has gone through so many generations so rapidly. And as a 50-something lawyer really outside the world of the Internet, I hesitate to say anything about what might be the case in 10 years.

All I can say is that we have had a lot of fun doing what we've been doing on the site, which ... I know we've tried to do seriously and in a constructive way over the past four-plus years. I hope we're able to continue making some contribution to public policy analysis and the public debate in 10 years. Whether that will be through the Internet and through Power Line, I just don't know. I don't have a good sense of that at all.

I hope we can take advantage of whatever opportunities there are available for folks outside the fraternity of professional journalists that the site has offered us over the past four years to contribute whatever we have to offer to the public debate. But I have no idea what that will be. …

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posted feb. 27, 2007

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