News consumers of America owe a debt of gratitude to Jonathan Klein. Really.
Yesterday, NB's Noel Sheppard noted the ignominious end of Klein's nearly six-year term as head of CNN/US.
If there is an example of anyone who has overseen a bigger audience decline and loss of competitive position and survived so long, I don't know who he or she is. Fox News, which first passed CNN in total viewers in January 2002 (interesting how this basic factoid is not at Fox's Wiki entry), now routinely trounces CNN and CNN Headline combined by a factor of 1.5 to 1 or more. On Thursday, Fox's primetime audience of 574,000 was 75% greater than the CNN pair's combined total of 329,000.
But before he arrived at CNN to do his damage, Klein inadvertently did the nation a service.
Klein's accidental good deed took place during the Rathergate controversy in 2004. The "story" was that President George W. Bush had somehow received favorable treatment as a member of the Texas Air National Guard in the 1970s. A commenter at FreeRepublic questioned the legitimacy of story-related documents he was seeing on a CBS "60 Minutes" segment, and it snowballed from there. Ultimately, Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs reproduced exact replicas of the documents involved in Microsoft Word using technology that could not conceivably have been accessible to the controversy's players on typewriters existing at the time, proving beyond any reasonable doubt that the crew at "60 Minutes," including producer Mary Mapes and host Dan Rather, had either been duped or were knowingly promoting falsehoods. In the meantime, a swarm of center-right blogs found a wide range of other evidence poking other holes in the story and questioning the motivations of many who were pushing it.
The episode quickly ended the CBS career of Mapes, and eventually led to Rather's departure from the network.
It's an important moment, because you 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 what he thinks.
Klein was right of course, but not in the way he thought. The guys in pajamas were right, and CBS, despite its "multiple layers of checks and balances," was wrong.
Klein's appearance brought further visibility to an already-growing blogosphere, helping to spur further interest in alternative media, thus accelerating its growth. To name just one example: In August 2005, the Media Research Center started NewsBusters.org with the help of Matt Sheffield, who had been running RatherBiased.com. Without doubt, something like NewsBusters would have eventually appeared, but it's pretty clear that the Rathergate episode, Klein's arrogant and embarrassing statement, and other blogospheric debunkings of establishment media stories during the 2004 presidential campaign hastened NB's arrival. There's also little doubt that what happened in the fall of 2004 inspired thousands of others to try their hands at blogging. Many of them, to Jonathan Klein's sure chagrin, have since become key alternative media contributors.
That's why today, as I blog (in street clothes), I say to Mr. Klein: "Thanks, big guy. We couldn't have done it as quickly without you."
P.S. It's also interesting that Mr. Klein's "Pajamas Moment" is "somehow" not present at his Wiki entry.
Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.