As I watched the postings pile up and saw the words quickly become more hateful, it dawned on me that I was present at the birth of a political jihad, a movement conceived in radical conservative back rooms, given life in cyberspace, and growing by the minute. It fed on political anger and the deep-seated belief that CBS News was a longtime liberal stronghold out to get the president.
This bias on the part of some viewers had been around for decades. These were people who hadn't forgiven Edward R. Murrow for taking on Joseph McCarthy, people who still referred to CBS as the "Communist Broadcasting System."
That was something a man in rural Texas actually said to me not long after I started at CBS in 1989, when I approached him and asked if he would do a quick interview on a new boom in oil drilling.
"CBS?" he sneered. "Don't you mean the Communist Broadcasting System"? I was dumbfounded.
To these people, there was no such thing as unbiased mainstream reporting, certainly not when it came to criticism of the president, no matter how tepid. To them, there was FOX News and everything else -- and everything else was liberal and unfair.
All the producers and researchers who'd worked on our story were hunched over computers, reading everything they could find. It was not good. We marveled at the just-plain-wrong assertions about superscript or proportional spacing and the overwhelming certainty the bloggers brought to their analysis.
One element of the attack was not at all surprising: the savaging of former Texas lieutenant governor Ben Barnes. He had predicted an all-out assault on his reputation and he had been right, in spades.
While Barnes had never discussed publicly his assistance in getting the president into the Texas Air National Guard, over the years he had often hinted that he'd had a hand in it. He would drop into conversation that a Bush family friend had asked him to help out "young George." Barnes had told people in countless private settings that he remembered being asked to make a phone call on Bush's behalf. But while Barnes would confirm everything off the record and had even testified to it under oath in a convoluted Texas snake pit of a lawsuit involving the state lottery, he had never before sat down, answered questions, and told the story in front of God and a television audience and everybody. Now, he had.
I could see that conservative Web sites were linking to a dossier on Barnes compiled by Republican operatives. It was a devastatingly one-sided account of Barnes's past financial troubles and long-ago political scrapes, along with ancient accusations about Barnes when he had been a Democratic leader in Texas politics.
Barnes had remained an active Democrat all his life and now was working as a fund-raiser for John Kerry as well as a full-time lobbyist in Washington. He'd told Dan Rather and me that if he did the interview with us he could essentially lose his lobbying business. In Washington, D.C., where influence is measured in access, having doors slammed in your face could be the death knell for a lobbyist.