It’s polite to say that in a disaster, there are no winners, but in the case of media debacles, that’s plainly not true. New York Times editor Jonathan Landman emerged as a clear winner in the Jayson Blair debacle. Forbes’ Adam Penenberg practically built a career on unmasking Stephen Glass.
And in Memogate?
Meet Matthew and Greg Sheffield of RatherBiased.com.
Haven’t heard of it? You probably voted for Nader anyway. As everybody with an ax to grind with the media—which is pretty much half the country—knows, RatherBiased.com is a conservative media blog dedicated, as you might expect, to one and only one thing: trashing Dan Rather. It has subjected the beleaguered CBS anchor to four years of pummeling, cataloguing every hint of his “liberal tendencies” and every personal peccadillo. It is, to use the contemporary metric for what really matters, the first Website that Google pulls up if you search for “Dan Rather.”
Read by 70,000 to 200,000 people a day—500,000 at the height of the CBS document debacle in September—the site, run out of northern Virginia, by two brothers, 23-year-old Greg and 26-year-old Matthew, might be the most successful of the conservative blog sites, the vast wave of amateur media chaperones that were so instrumental in taking down CBS’s report. Of these, RatherBiased.com wasn’t the most dogged or influential in cataloguing CBS’s mistakes, but it is probably the one that in a golden age of media criticism most aptly captures the Zeitgeist.
Of RatherBiased.com’s two founders, Greg Sheffield is the more politically minded and conservative. “My main idea,” he says of starting the site, “was to be able to convince anybody of the power of Rather’s bias.” He is startlingly canny about the media, not merely talking fluently about CBS’s demographics but handicapping potential commentators for the post-Rather Evening News. Despite the obvious assumption one would make about the politics of a guy who runs a site devoted to cataloguing media bias, one would find that Matthew Sheffield has no easily categorizable politics, describing himself as a “liberal conservative” while seeming to grapple with the ordinary use of the words. In conversation, he can even be surprisingly generous and sympathetic to Rather himself, describing him as “a classic old, liberal Southerner” with strongly held and principled southern liberal Christianity. In fact, the strongest political conviction that the Sheffields can muster is a powerful contempt for the arrogance of the media. “The thing that bothers me about [CBS News],” Greg explains, “is the pretense that ‘we are so holy, we provide the absolute facts.’ ” “The idea that the press is the people’s representative—that’s the elitist attitude that has put off a lot of people,” argues Matt. “As journalists are disabused somewhat violently of this notion, journalists will [lose] their unduly high opinion of their trade.”
Having more or less won their battle and looking forward to Rather’s retirement from the Evening News, the Sheffields, of course, are in a privileged and difficult position because there is no future for RatherBiased.com without Dan Rather to kick around anymore. So what then happens to the Sheffields? It should surprise no one to know that they are planning, in fact, to become the professional media, soliciting commentators from both the left and the right to staff a new online publication. Says Matt, “[CBS] can’t fathom the idea that we’re not armor-wearing right-wing soldiers coming to break down their doors. They can’t fathom the idea that we’re just dissatisfied consumers.”
Uh, right. And the part about violently being disabused of your self-esteem. And the stuff about the arrogance of the press. And the 500,000-word catalogue of bizarre stories and dumb quotes from their star newsman.
It’s hard to know in advance, of course, if the Sheffields’ as-yet-unnamed site will really keep to the ideological center. Matt insists that it’ll avoid the issues that are transient—abortion, for instance—in favor of those that will really matter in the next hundred years—“cloning, cybernetics, artificial intelligence, digital rights management, and bias in general.” Put your money on that changing quickly: As sites like RatherBiased.com prove, if there’s a bull market for anything on the Net, it’s slash-and-burn political commentary.