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Friday, February 16, 2007
Blogging 201: Investigative Blogging

Investigative blogging can be very difficult and time-consuming, but it can also pay off in recognition around the blogosphere and in the mainstream media as well.

How can you do some investigative blogging? Well, you have to start off with a story that doesn't seem right in some way. For example, consider the Christmas in Cambodia tale that John Kerry often regaled audiences with. Back in May of 2004, Kitty discovered the story in a sidebar to a longer article, and posted it to Kerry Haters:

Vietnam Vet Kerry Told Senate He Saw Military Action in Cambodia
By J. Michael Waller
Did decorated Vietnam War veteran John F. Kerry see military action in Cambodia? He says nothing about it on the campaign trail, but he stated it as fact on the floor of the U.S. Senate on March 27, 1986. In that speech, Kerry accused President Ronald Reagan of leading the United States into another Vietnam in Central America, accusing the administration of Nixon-like duplicity and saying that he should recognize it because of his Vietnam experience.

Kerry told his colleagues he was on Navy duty in Cambodia at a time when President Richard M. Nixon lied to the public and said that there were no U.S. forces in that country. He even took enemy fire. In his words, "I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia. I remember what it was like to be shot at by Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians, and have the president of the United States telling the American people that I was not there; the troops were not in Cambodia. I have that memory which is seared - seared - in me."

Now I looked at that story and something just smelled rotten. It had the aroma of one of those after dinner anecdotes that have been polished over the years, too convenient by half for the point that Kerry wanted to make about Reagan and Nicaragua.

A big part of having a nose for a phony story consists of expertise in your subject. For example, I broke a story a few weeks ago on a 9-11 conspiracy theory panel. I have been covering these conspiracy theories for awhile now over at Screw Loose Change. I noticed that the panel listed mostly members with whom I was familiar--people like Bob Bowman, Steven Jones, Kevin Barrett, etc., but there was one guy who was unfamiliar: Eric D. Williams. So I did some digging on him and quickly discovered that he had recently written a "book" called The Puzzle of Auschwitz, which he claimed was a look into what was true about the Holocaust, and what was a myth. It was not hard to see that this was Holocaust Denial, which may not be a crime in the US, but is certainly distasteful. That made it a minor story, but then I did a little more digging and discovered that Williams was not just another speaker at the conference; he was the conference director. That made it a really big story, potentially devastating to anybody who was foolish enough to attend.

Another example was the Jack Abramoff story. As Abramoff's crimes became apparent, the media (accurately) reported that the scandal did not cut solely against the Republicans; many Democrats had also accepted funds from the tribes he represented. Then the American Prospect trumpeted a story which claimed that this was not true, that the Abramoff tribes had dramatically curtailed their funding to Democrats once he took over. Many liberal bloggers picked up the meme, as did Paul Krugman.

Once again, the story seemed a little too convenient by half and my suspicions were aroused. Another big hint: in order to believe the American Prospect's claim, you had to believe that the mainstream media was helping out the Republicans by portraying this as a bipartisan scandal.

Some story has aroused your suspicion. Now what? You've got to start digging. Obviously there are plenty of internet resources, but it is important not to limit yourself to stuff you can find on the web. In the Christmas in Cambodia story, I went to the library and borrowed a copy of Tour of Duty, Douglas Brinkley's hagiography of John Kerry's Vietnam service. I was stunned as I read the section on Christmas of 1968 to realize that Brinkley had John Kerry about 55 miles from the Cambodian border.

Now I knew I had a story. But almost as important, I had something nobody else on the web had; a couple paragraphs that I transcribed from the book. This non-web content was linked endlessly by bloggers discussing the Christmas in Cambodia story when it hit the mainstream media in early August of 2004.

If you do not have web-exclusive content, then people will commonly bypass you to link directly to the source. Yes, sometimes you will get a "hat tip" link, but that's nowhere near as valuable as a "here's the evidence" link.

Another way to generate web-exclusive content is to do significant work on a story. In the Abramoff example, I spent hours (probably 10 total) putting together spreadsheets to analyze the contributions from his tribes before, during, and after his tenure as their lobbyist. I copied those spreadsheets and placed them on my blog and voila, I had web-exclusive content.

Now, you've got a story and you've got some content that other bloggers will need to cover the story, how do you break it? Well, first you have to compose your post. Second you need to publicize it in the blogging community. Most bloggers of any size will be happy to listen to pitches for stories, but it has to be something they're interested in. Part of your expertise in your subject matter is knowing which big bloggers like your topics, and how to pitch it to them as individuals.

In the case of the Abramoff story, I knew Donald Luskin loves anything that discredits Paul Krugman, so I pitched it to him. This had huge benefits, as Luskin writes regularly for the National Review Online and was also able to push for a retraction from the New York Times (to which they eventually agreed). In the case of the Holocaust Denier Eric D. Williams, I approached an mainstream media reporter who had written occasionally about the 9-11 crackpots and presented him with the scoop. Since Dylan Avery (the creator of Loose Change) was scheduled to be at the conference (he has since bowed out), I sent the story to Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs, which had posted a few stories on Avery in the past (apparently Dylan had been an occasional pest commenter on LGF years earlier). Hot Air had been kind enough to cover a few of our stories at Screw Loose Change, so I sent it to Allahpundit as well. If I'd been thinking I would have pitched it to Instapundit along the lines of "this is how blogs and mainstream media are working together to break a story".

Kudos to David Kyle from the CPR Chatroom for suggesting this post.

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Cited for Breaking the Christmas in Cambodia story (at Kerry Haters):

Hugh Hewitt: KerryHaters was on this story a long time ago. How could the elite media not have asked these questions before now?

Ankle-Biting Pundits: Our friends Pat and Kitty at Kerry Haters deserve the blog equivalent of a Pulitzer for their coverage of Kerry's intricate web of lies regarding Vietnam.

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What If the Rest of the Fantastic Four Were Peaceniks?

Lefty Bloggers on Gay Witchhunt (linked by 16 blogs including Instapundit)

Kitty Myers Breaks Christmas in Cambodia

Brainster Shows Brinkley Says No Christmas in Cambodia

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Power Ratings Explained

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