By Nick Nelson
The Sheffield family preferred CBS.
Years before 24-hour cable news channels emerged, the typical American family would choose from among the ?Big Three? ? ABC, NBC or CBS.
In the Sheffield home, it was Dan Rather?s stern drawl that provided the evening news. News was prominent in the Sheffield home, where at the dinner table each child was expected to share a current event in addition to finishing his or her vegetables.
As a boy in constant need of a respectable current event, Matthew Sheffield watched Rather with interest.
?It?s kind of interesting that American families have different news programs that they watch that their parents watch and the kinds start watching them too,? he said.
And so he watched, he listened, he trusted.
But as Matthew matured, he began to doubt. He began to sense a bias in the way Rather reported the news. Sheffields? frustration over what he saw as slanted reporting reached the tipping point during the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the late 1990s.
?Rather seemed to be almost bitterly campaigning against anyone who said there had been any wrongdoing on the part of the President,? Sheffield said.
He credits his brother Gregg with the idea of using the Internet to expose what both of them now considered deeply biased reporting. The brothers, both members of the Latter-day Saint church, worked off and on for about a year, like a pair of prosecuting attorneys boning up for an important trial.
In 2000, the pair presented their findings in the form of RatherBiased.com, a Web site dedicated to, in its creators words, ?documenting America?s most politicized journalist.?
?My goal in doing the site was to take the bias out of the program, to make them take the bias out of the news,? Sheffield said in a recent telephone interview. ?I think we?ve done to some degree.?
Sheffield, who recently graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in political science, said the site receives 30,000 to 50,000 visits on a typical day, but during what Sheffield called a ?big story? ? when Rather is making headlines instead of reporting them ? the site surpasses 2,000,000 visits a day.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the popularity of the site is how it fares in the search engine test.
?We?re the fist result when you type ?Dan Rather” in Google,” Sheffield said.
The brothers have been interviewed by major media organizations such as The Washington Post, New York magazine and most recently by MSNBC.
Sheffield said when he and his brother took the site offline for a time ? when Rather wasn?t generating much controversy ? several organizations and even a few journalists contacted him requesting that the site be put back on line.
Many major news organizations have credited RatherBiased.com and a similar site, FreeRepublic.com, with being the first to publish evidence that contradicted Rather?s now infamous Sept. 8 report about documents related to President George W. Bush?s National Guard service during the Vietnam War.
On the programs ?60 Minutes II? and ?60 Minutes Wednesday,? Rather presented decades-old memos that characterized a young George W. Bush as an irresponsible slouch of a Guardsman who only succeeded only because of his father?s influence as Governor.
Within hours of the CBS broadcast, experts in documents, inks and handwriting decried the documents as forgeries, using Internet blogs and message boards to publish their testimonies. In the months since the story aired, four CBS employees have been fired or asked to resign.
Rather was not fired or asked publicly to resign, but in the media firestorm that followed the controversial broadcast, he announced he would retire from ?CBS Evening News? sooner than expected. Rather said he will continue to report for ?60 Minutes.?
Tonight, 24 years to the day since he took over for Walter Cronkite in 1981, Dan Rather appear for the last time as anchor of ?CBS Evening News.?
CBS will air ?A Reporter Remembers,? a one-hour tribute to Rather. CBS executives have said that though the piece will chronicle Rather?s accomplishments as a journalist, it will not shy away from the controversy that prompted Rather?s retirement.
Carrie Sheffield, Matthew?s younger sister and a BYU senior majoring in print journalism, said she worked as the publicist for her brothers? site as a senior in high school.
Sheffield said her brothers still watch CBS, now more devoutly than ever.
?But now,? she explained, ?they watch it to see if Dan Rather is going to say something controversial.?
Anything suspect becomes fodder for the Web site, which recently added a new feature: a clock counting down to Rather?s retirement this evening.
The recent documents scandal, labeled in the media variously as ?Rathergate? and ?Memogate,? along with Rather?s subsequent retirement have drawn attention to blogs, message boards and other non-mainstream news sites.
In a visit in late December to BYU?s campus, New York Times Deputy Foreign Editor Ethan Bronner told a group of journalism students that these emerging media are ?the central challenge our industry faces.?
He said even news giants like the Times are wary of the growing popularity of non-mainstream news sites.
?We?re very worried about it,? Bonner said. ?It?s a major force in our lives today and we really don?t know what to do about it.?
Mason Konkle, a pre-dental major from Austin, Texas, said he founded ProvoPulse.com, a blog that receives about 850 visits per day, to pull together the knowledge of more than 30,000 BYU students into one place and to provide a forum ?where the readers are also the writers.?
Konkels said both blogs like his and the mainstream media serve an important function in society.
?Blogs create a check for the normal media channels we have,? he said. ?And without the mainstream media, the blogs would have nothing to write about.?
For Sheffield, the trend toward amateurs using the Internet to report news, often scooping the mainstream media as they do so, fulfills the medium?s democratic potential.
?The whole phenomenon of blogging has become more influential because it has fulfilled the original promise of the Internet of being the people?s press,? he said.