Internet Scandals, Numbers 4-1
4. The China Syndrome
Several Net giants found themselves on the wrong side of "the Great Firewall" last year as they caught heat for cutting deals with China's Communist regime. Google, for one, announced a new Chinese version of its search engine that is censored by the Beijing government. Search for controversial topics like Falun Gong, and the results will look quite different depending on which side of the Pacific you're on.
But Google declined to roll out Chinese versions of Blogger or Gmail, hoping to avoid the scandal that Yahoo brought upon itself when it turned over subscriber e-mail to the Chinese authorities, an action that resulted in the arrests of three dissidents. In late 2005, Microsoft voluntarily removed the blog of an outspoken Chinese journalist from MSN Spaces. Cisco has also come under fire for selling China the equipment to carefully filter Internet access for its 132 million Netizens. Rather than get cut out of the world's largest emerging market, these firms decided to hold their noses and take the money.
3. Dan Rather Bids a Font Farewell
They were supposed to be the smoking gun the Bush Administration was desperate to conceal: four documents, dating from the early 1970s, that allegedly proved that powerful friends of our current president pulled strings to keep him out of Vietnam and put him into the National Guard. But shortly after 60 Minutes host Dan Rather revealed the documents' existence in September 2004, the gun blew up in his face. Conservative blogs Free Republic, Little Green Footballs, and Power Line questioned the authenticity of the documents--specifically, whether a 1970s-era typewriter could produce the superscript th and curly apostrophes found in the four memos.
Instead of focusing on where W actually was when he was supposed to be serving with the National Guard in 1972, political bloggers immersed themselves in the arcana of typewriter fonts--and the mainstream media followed suit. Twelve days after airing the segment, Dan Rather publicly apologized for the story, saying he could not vouch for the documents' authenticity. A few months later, he quietly left CBS--with the inevitable "gate" permanently appended to his name.
2. A Real Page Turner
The "overly friendly" interest that Representative Mark Foley (R-Florida) had in young male congressional pages wasn't really news to Washington, D.C.'s inner circle. But it took the Net--and ABC reporter Brian Ross--to expose Foley's predilections to the world.
When ABC published the transcripts of Foley's explicit text messages with an underage volunteer last September, not even the slickest Beltway spinmeister could shrug them off as benign. Foley's disgrace may not have brought about the Republican electoral debacle last November, but it didn't help his or his party's cause.
1. Monica-gate and Whitewater
On January 17, 1998, Matt Drudge broke the news that White House intern Monica Lewinsky was having an affair with President Bill Clinton. The story appeared on his Web site, the Drudge Report, and quickly turned into one of the biggest scandals in our nation's history--and established the Internet as a news source to be reckoned with.
The Lewinsky scandal put the Internet on hyperalert, drawing its attention to an ongoing and arguably bigger scandal called Whitewater. Without the influence of the Net, Whitewater might have been remembered as an endless investigation into obscure Arkansas real estate deals; instead it gathered a great deal of attention. Meanwhile, the related Independent Counsel investigation eventually led to the impeachment of our 42nd president.
The Net-wide distribution of the Starr Report in September 1998 was a fitting coda to the Clintonian soap opera. Along the way we all learned more than most of us wanted to know about blue dresses, cigars, thongs, and "that woman." But what's more scandalous: Frat boy sex shenanigans in the Oval Office? Or spending $40 million of taxpayer money for 445 pages of sordid details?