Charles Johnson could tell there was something wrong with the news photo the minute he saw it. Something about the three plumes of black smoke rising over the buildings -- smoke just doesn’t curl that way, pirouetting in unison. It was, he wrote Saturday, “blatant evidence of manipulation.”
He was right on target.
The Reuters photo showing the aftermath of an Israeli airstrike on Beirut was doctored. The British-based news service acknowledged as much Sunday, withdrawing that picture and another doctored image, of an Israeli jet, that were taken by freelance photographer Adnan Hajj. The agency subsequently severed its ties with the Lebanese photographer and purged its files of his work.
The exposure of the doctored airstrike photo was a coup for Johnson and his 4-year-old political blog, Little Green Footballs. Make that a second coup, of sorts.
In September 2004, not long after “60 Minutes II” seemed to offer damning revelations about President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard, Johnson was at the forefront of bloggers who raised questions about the CBS report. (Johnson used the Microsoft Word program to retype the memos used in the report and found that his computer could reproduce the same typefaces and line breaks that Dan Rather had said were produced by a manual typewriter in the mid-1970s.)
The incident became a debacle for the network and contributed to Rather’s retirement from the “CBS Evening News” anchor chair.
Little Green Football’s “Reutersgate” and “Rathergate” scalps share a key characteristic: They stem from Johnson’s skepticism of, if not outright hostility toward, the mainstream news media (or as some LGF visitors like to refer to them, “the lamestream media”).
In Johnson’s view, the news media haven’t adequately sounded the alarm about threats to Western societies posed by radical Islamic groups -- something he says he seeks to redress through his politically conservative blog.
“My main take is that political correctness has kept a lot of the hard truth from being spread by the mainstream media,” said Johnson, 53, a professional musician in Los Angeles who spends most of his time maintaining his blog.
“The vast, vast majority of Muslims want to get along and live a comfortable life just like everyone else,” he said. “But the mainstream media shies away from showing the public the real face of Islamic extremism. They don’t want to offend.”
“And they are influenced by some strong advocacy groups that are funded by Middle Eastern countries,” he continued, “which are actively engaging with the mainstream media to promote a point of view.”
Johnson -- who said he was tipped to the doctored airstrike image by a reader he knows only as “Mike” -- has been winning converts since he turned Little Green Footballs from a how-to Web design site into a political blog (littlegreenfootballs.com/weblog) after the Sept. 11 attacks. (He refuses to explain what the quirky name means.)
He estimates that he gets about 100,000 unique visitors daily (Reutersgate has tripled the traffic in the past few days), making LGF one of the more popular sites in the blogosphere. And many of the visitors have opinions to share; as of Tuesday, the site surpassed 3 million posted comments since its founding.
Not everyone is a fan. Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil-rights organization often vilified on Johnson’s blog, calls LGF “a vicious, anti-Muslim hate site ... that has unfortunately become popular.”
Like many politically themed blogs, Little Green Footballs doesn’t always traffic in subtlety and nuance. Dissenting points of view often are dismissed as “idiotarian” or “LLL” (for “loony liberal left”), and Islam is mockingly referred to as “RoP,” meaning “religion of peace.”
Hooper said the Reuters incident is unfortunate in itself, but says such sites as Little Green Footballs use such lapses “as a club against the entire mainstream media.”
“Their line is basically that if one freelance photographer alters a photo, then everything Israel does must be justified,” Hooper said. “Or if one of the sentences that Dan Rather once uttered wasn’t correct, then the media is corrupt and Dan Rather’s whole career is rotten to the core.”
The FBI, according to Hooper, recently investigated several threats of physical harm against Muslims posted by Little Green Footballs readers.
Johnson acknowledges the investigation but says Hooper’s organization initiated the complaints to try to stifle free speech on his blog. And Johnson names the Council on American-Islamic Relations as one of the groups he’s referring to when he talks about the undue influence of Arab-funded organizations on American society and the media.
“I’m not pretending I’m giving equal time to both sides,” Johnson said. “But I do think what I’m advocating, and what I believe in, is the right side.”