Harry ‘Buckhead’ MacDougald: The Interview
For my college studies I decided to try and get a grip on the old-media-shakin’, internet-quakin’ event that was Rathergate. During my research I got help from various members of the place where it all started: Conservative online forum Free Republic. Amongst the various ‘freepers’ I spoke to was the prime instigator himself, Buckhead, aka Harry Macdougald, Atlanta lawyer and major fan of the English Soccer Premier League! Later on I was honoured to be allowed to interview Mr MacDougald . . . read on for a profile of a real ‘Net Legend’:
He speaks in the slow drawl you’d expect of an Atlanta resident and has the impeccable manners associated with the US South. But make no mistake, when riled, 48-year-old Harry MacDougald will pin you down with a fierce debating style finely honed over his 21 years as a civil litigator. Just ask US broadcasting giant CBS.
On the night of 8 September 2004 just two months before the presidential elections — CBS’ primetime investigative show 60 Minutes Wednesday aired internal memos which the show’s presenter, Dan Rather, claimed were proof a young George W. Bush had exhibited a less than perfect war record in 1972 while serving in the Texas Air National Guard.
After the programme finished CBS uploaded copies of the documents to their website for the world to see. A staunch Republican and sceptical of 60 Minutes’ claims, MacDougald downloaded the PDFs for a closer look. He instantly noticed something about the fonts that didn’t quite gel, so while the New York-based 60 Minutes team went home for the night congratulating itself on a job well done, MacDougald logged on to Conservative forum freerepublic.com under his online moniker of Buckhead (an Atlanta suburb) and the rest is history:
“. . . every single one of these memos is in a proportionally spaced font. In 1972 people used typewriters for this sort of thing, and typewriters used monospaced fonts. I am saying these documents are forgeries. This should be pursued aggressively.” Post #47, freerepublic.com
Pursued it certainly was. The story soon snowballed from freerepublic, onto other blog sites and then into the realm of talk radio before it was picked up â€“ not without a certain amount of Schadenfreude it must be said â€“ by rival networks. The resulting ‘blogswarm’ was an epochal moment in the internet’s short history.
For 12 days CBS stood firm behind 60 Minutes and the show’s producer Mary Mapes, before conceding they could not authenticate the documents. After an internal investigation, Mapes and three colleagues were unceremoniously sacked and an apology was aired. Dan Rather eventually retired from CBS in July 2006.
Very few blogswarms have had such a clearly identifiable source and media activity over Buckhead’s identity was frenzied until a clever journalist worked it out from clues in the forum.
MacDougald is modest about his role however, insisting if he hadn’t done it someone else would and refutes those who say that his typographical savvy is so specialist he must have been a plant:
“The premise was that it was a particularly arcane bit of knowledge; the domain of experts. The premise is false. Anybody in my age cohort who worked during the transition from typewriters to word processing had the basic information at hand. There are millions of people who had the information in order to draw the same conclusion. It was pure coincidence that it happened to be me.”
In an ironic twist, once MacDougald’s identity was out, the tables were turned. How did it feel being on the receiving end of press flak?
“I had to endure a great deal of speculation that I was a part of a Karl Rove plot, which was false and crazy. My employer treated me very shabbily and was, in my view, extremely stupid. I nearly lost my job. One of my regrets is that I did not tell my firm to go f themselves. I was very, very close and held back for reasons I don’t regard as very courageous: I didn’t have enough money in the bank; I have a wife and two kids depending on me, a mortgage, car payments, etc. It rankles still.”
MacDougald has since moved to a new company but still continues to participate in Republican web forums such as freerepublic and powerline. In the polarised world of US politics these sites, along with left-leaning rivals like dailykos, play an increasingly influential role.
I’m wary of branding MacDougald part of Hillary Clinton’s â€œvast right-wing conspiracy, so it’s with some trepidation that I suggest that the red-half of the blogosphere, backed up by talk radio, has the advantage over the blue. MacDougald is remarkably candid and feels it’s simply a reflection of market forces:
“That’s right. There’s an audience for the viewpoints expressed on talk radio and in the centre right blogosphere and clearly there’s an audience for the centre left but it’s significantly smaller. Look at a 5-year chart on the stock price for the New York Times. They’re going steadily downhill. These all reflect where the market is compared to where the centre-left viewpoint is. There are not enough people out there that agree with them and that’s why they’re not doing well.”
Judging a media company’s credibility by its stock value may seem odd to public service broadcasters but it sure is telling. Later on I make a quick visit to an online stock site and punch in ‘NYT’; sure enough the 5-year chart begins with a gentle decline but soon careers away like a ski slope. From the steepness of the decline I reckon it’s probably a black.
It’s a pessimistic view indeed, but what does MacDougald think of non-commercial broadcasters such the BBC?
“The Beeb is monolithically liberal, and unremittedly hostile to Blair’s policy in Iraq and to the policies of President Bush. You could argue that proves they are free from political influence, but the fact of the matter is that governance of the BBC, though isolated to some extent from No. 10, is nevertheless a government institution. As such, its policies and practices are by definition political in nature”, MacDougald contends.
I want to remind MacDougald that two recent independent reviews have found the BBC’s impartiality not wanting, but the conversation swiftly moves on to the Hutton report. MacDougald agrees with its findings but is vehemently against the whole process.
“I think what the Hutton enquiry did was beneficial in the sense that it caught out some very bad conduct on the part of the BBC. The down side is that it was the government doing the investigating. Hutton was a political inquiry ordered by the legislative branch of government. In the US there could never be a government investigation of that scale and to that level of detail into the reportorial and editorial judgments of a news gathering organization. Now, every time somebody at the BBC considers doing a hit piece on the Prime Minister, they have to worry about the next Hutton.”
It’s a view that may resonate with many who feel that when it came to Hutton, the government appointed its own referee.
MacDougald does however, have praise for the way CBS News operates in highly autonomous groups. Despite his profession, when it comes to press freedom he sees the threat of legal action as something far more insiduous for a free press than the threat of accountability, even if, as one CBS executive put it, the accountability is delivered by a â€œguy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing.”
“I think if a journalist has to have all of their reporting vetted by a bunch of pusillanimous lawyers then it’s going to be tremendously diluted and made bland and unappealing”, MacDougald says.
And what of Mary Mapes, the award-winning producer who continues to insist the memos are authentic, does MacDougald have any sympathy?
“If she were more contrite I would. It’s sad to see somebody sort of wreck themselves on a construct which is so clearly false. If CBS had come out the next day and said ‘Oops! We goofed’, she’d still be working there.”
And when it comes to Rather himself, MacDougald just chuckles, “I hope he’s enjoying his retirement as much as we are.”