September 11, 2004
Weekend Notes With "Forgery" Swirling in the Air
By Monday morning, we should know a great deal more about whether CBS News peddled forged documents as the real thing in its recent investigation of President Bush's National Guard Service. Here are some quick thoughts-- not about the charges, which seem serious to me, but about the general atmosphere and what's at stake if this turns into a political scandal.
Four things to stick in the front of your mind:
- It completely elevates the episode and charges it with political and cultural tension that the anchorman, Dan Rather, presented the CBS report Wednesday Night accusing Bush of disappearing from Guard duty. If Sixty Minutes had presented a damaging story of that kind at the height of an election campaign and it turned out to be based on forged documents, that would itself be a crisis. But it was Dan Rather on Sixty Minutes, and it is now Rather on the hook if the documents are fake. (Indeed, Rather told the Los Angeles Times, “I’m of the school, my name is on it, I’m responsible.”) That brings in Rather’s celebrity, the corporate iconography in which an anchorman is always involved, the succession drama at CBS News now that Rather is 72 years old, and the enormous venom out there for Rather, who is seen on the Right as a man of many political sins. Thus, PowerLine wrote: “This would appear to signal the end of Rather’s career. If the documents are ultimately accepted as forgeries, which seems inevitable to us, he can’t survive.” All of which means this is not just a scandal, but a cultural theatre for it, and that’s different.
- At some point attention will shift to the confluence of events in the news media, in publishing, and in politics that made for “Guard week” this week— to all the things that appeared within days of each other. Forces behind that confluence will be brought to light. As ABC’s The Note said Friday, “Republicans can rightly ask about the confluence of all the DNC, outside group, and media focus on revisiting the Guard story.”
- Right inside the door of the CBS scandal there is a Dirty Tricks scandal waiting to come to light. If the documents turn out to be fakes, the question will immediately become: who dealt them to CBS? Perhaps that explains this: “Longtime Democratic strategist Pat Caddell said Friday that if documents aired by CBS newsman Dan Rather Wednesday night turn out to be forged, as alleged by experts, the presidential race ‘is over. It would be the end of the race,’ Caddell told Fox News Live. ‘It would be the end of the race,’ he repeated.”
- This story is bursting open what was called the “undercard” in the earlier scandal story to which “Guard week” is a reply of sorts— the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and their charges about John Kerry’s military service. There, according to blogger Belmont Club, the big beef was between Kerry and the Swift Vets. But an undercard, fascinating in its own right, featured Mainstream Media vs Kid Internet. “The reigning champion, the Mainstream Media, has been forced against all odds to accept the challenge of an upstart over the coverage of the Swiftvets controversy.” (See the original post by Wretchard at Belmont Club, and my take here.) Now that undercard has become the main event. The Note put it this way: “It is interesting to Note that the right (Drudge, Fox, right-leaning blogs, others) led the way in pointing out the questions we have all been asking — and they were onto the questions, with remarkable detail, relatively soon after the documents were made public.” Pay attention to The Note’s chronology (Sep. 10th edition), showing how the blogs argued into plausibility the “forgery” thesis. Contrast that with the Boston Globe’s account, which barely mentions those who “led the way,” according to ABC News. More conflicts—Globe’s reporting vs. ABC’s— are here.
John Podhoretz of the New York Post sees a “populist revolution against the so- called mainstream media” in the events of the last few days. “Yesterday, the citizen journalists who produce blogs on the Internet — and their engaged readers — engaged in the wholesale exposure of what appears to be a presidential-year dirty trick against George W. Bush.” Or against CBS.
Roger L. Simon apparently feels that Rather (or someone working for him) almost got away with the equivalent of electoral fraud. But the bloggers stopped it. Thus: “when you think of what Rather could have done, uncriticized by bloggers (working, unlike him, virtually for nothing), it’s blood curdling.” His view includes this prediction: “…if Rather and his colleagues don’t apologize fully and soon, I imagine a mass movement to boycott CBS News (not their sponsors - it’s not their fault) for promulgating forgeries during a presidential campaign would be forthcoming.”
I found it interesting that Stirling Newberry of BOP News, who identifies Left, is not only convinced there’s a credibility crisis for CBS (“the simple truth is that the equipment that existed in 1972 would not have produced this output…”) but also for the “left blogsphere,” which “should be ashamed of itself for backing off of demanding what we will need to demand the next time Bush pulls a secret plan to save social security out of his nether regions.”
Newberry’s point is: a principled Left would not leap to defend Dan Rather and CBS because it likes the consequences of their reporting on Bush’s National Guard years. Instead, demand what we need to see before the public can again have confidence in the report Rather aired Wednesday night.
For those in the Big Picture market, the smartest thing I have seen written so far on the events in question is again by Belmont Club:
The traditional news model is collapsing. It suffers from two defects. The “news object” can no longer be given sealed attributes in newspaper backrooms. The days when the press was the news object foundry are dying. Second, the news industry is suffering from its lack of analytic cells, which are standard equipment in intellgence shops. Editors do some analysis but their focus is diluted by their attention to style and the craft of writing. The blogosphere and other actors, now connected over the Internet, are filling in for the missing analytic function. And although the news networks still generate, via their reporters, the bulk of primary news, they generate a pitiful amount of competent analysis.
Overheard in the comments here (Lee Kane): “Trouble is Bouffard is now on the blogs saying that the Globe mischaracterized his comments and that he is more suspicious of the documents than ever: but no mass media outlet is of course picking that up.”
In other words, in mass media land, the scandal is over and the forgery suspicions put to rest. I don’t think bloggers alone can put enough pressure on CBS to release their originals or reveal their provenance. The scandal may well remain in blog land and, in the mists of time and fog of war, ultimately end up as an “urban legend” and anyone who believes it will be thought a right-wing crackpot.
I don’t buy that, myself.
Posted by Jay Rosen at September 11, 2004 2:17 AM
What seems most odd to me is CBS News' response to this matter so far. Is this how a news organization should respond to criticism? One can imagine ignoring criticisms if they were entirely frivolous, but that doesn't appear to be the case here.
So far, Dan Rather (and by extension the entire CBS News organization, which has fully stood by Rather and the story) has essentially implied that the criticisms are not to be trusted because they come from partisan political operatives and news competitors. However, there are many on both sides of the politic aisle who agree the charges are serious and I'm not sure what Rather means to accomplish by dissing the Washington Post and New York Times. This seems the height of arrogance. Is this how journalists should respond to valid criticism of their work?
Was it an appropriate response by Rather to say that questions about the documents miss the larger questions his report raised? Rather seems to be claiming that the potential falsity of the documents is unimportant in the larger context of his entire report. Is this a valid claim?
Rather has claimed that the criticisms aren't "definitive" and if they become "definitive" that is when they will acknowledge them. What the heck sort of news standard is this? Does CBS News only report stories that are "definitive"?
Why has CBS News acted more like a politician responding to criticism than a news organization after the truth? When the questions were raised by reporters from distinguished news organization, CBS did not immediately name the expert (or experts) who authenticated the documents. According to the one they have now named, he has been asked not to give media interviews by CBS News. What is up with that? Is that appropriate journalism?
CBS has publically criticized its critics by saying they don't have access to the same quality of documents that CBS does. Ok, fine, so why hasn't CBS released as high a quality reproduction of the documents as they are able? How much of a burden would that be? It is only four documents. Given what we've seen from the degraded copies that have been released, there is no evidence of their provenance, so it doesn't seem as if higher quality copies would burn the source or anything. At the very least, shouldn't CBS News explain why they are unwilling to provide higher quality copies?
Is CBS News stonewalling criticism? It seems to me that they are. Journalists often complain about stonewalling politicians, corporate executives, etc. Perhaps they should adhere to the same standards they expect of others.
I'm still uncertain about how this case will turn out. However, I've read elsewhere that the claims that such typewriters were uncommon at the time have been pretty much debunked. See dailykos for example.
What's the PressThink going to be if it turns out all the forgery claims were baseless? Then we've got a bunch of Republican bloggers who questioned CBS and turned out to be all wet, and a bunch of other bloggers (including PressThink?) who apparently believed them because they liked the meta-story. "Blogger catches traditional media lying" and "computers are way more advanced than primitive typewriters" are irresistable memes to many bloggers, even Democratic ones.
So, point in favor of traditional media? Well, on the other hand, other bloggers questioned the typography claims, and the debate continues. So the blogosphere is working out this issue in its own way, and we may yet get to the bottom of it. (But no amount of theorising will do that - it's only going to happen by digging into the details.)
The real question, I think, is whether we'll reach any consensus, or whether the Republican bloggers will continue to insist it's a forgery while the Democratic bloggers insist that it's not. I'm still hopeful that enough evidence will come out and people will educate themselves enough that we will get to some sort of conclusion, at least among non-conspiracy theorists.
I'm less hopeful about your average undecided voter. For them, there will probably always be a cloud of uncertainty around this issue, regardless of whether the folks who are paying attention figure it out. Both CBS and the Kerry campaign have something to lose if that happens.
For the traditional media, if they want to avoid getting questioned in this way, they're going to have to start putting more details online. Publishing the evidence along with a primer on typography and how the documents were authenticated might not stop partisans from insisting they're fakes, but it would do a lot to prevent other bloggers from repeating such claims.
To elaborate on my view of the press aspect:
If Dan Rather dives into a shark-pit with red meat smeared on his chest and no armor, and then gets mauled, my thinking is that the big question is why he dived into the shark-pit with red meat smeared on his chest and no armor. NOT, which particular shark got him first, and does that mean we are in a new era of evolution (no offense meant here to the smaller sharks which swam fast and got him very quickly, before the slower Great Whites could get their teeth into him).
Now, one can answer this question by saying "Well, Dan Rather is just a senile idiot. Humans are OldThink. Sharks Rule!". I find this unsatisfying, as I just don't believe he's a senile idiot. If someone hates Dan Rather and/or loves sharks, they of course might like this explanation.
Variant: "Dan Rather thought he was invulnerable. He thought his buddies would immediately pull him out of the pool". But again, he's been dealing with sharks for decades. This is basically still he's-an-idiot.
Again, the rules of professional journalism are that most stories do not require accuracy, merely a modicum of verisimilitude, and the targets can be blow-off. But this one, this incident, was something which required both checking and was against a target which could check.
So I believe the blog boosterism is downright harmful to thinking. It's basically just endlessly repeated "We're sooooo smart. They're sooooo stupid. Aren't we new? Aren't they old? It just goes to show how they're stupid (monolithic authoritarian elitists ... ) and we're smart (emergent distributed regular-people ...)."
I don't think that line of "reasoning" gets one anywhere in terms of understanding.
And I will never be popular because I'm not echoing it :-)
Actually, I find some reassurance for the MSM in this.
I have spoken on this subject several times here on Jay's blog. Regulars, and Jay, please forgive anything you find repetitive. I do add new thoughts, new to me anyway, if you care to follow.
The investigative capabilities of Internet Kid are fairly impressive. They, the bloggers, are a form of distributed intelligence. This form, similar to the internet itself, flows freely around obstacles that a more centralized approach would find a barrier. I suggest that straight comparisons between the traditional media and the bloggers is going to present difficulties. Contempt such as pajama-clad (the Kid), or over-simplification such as biased (the MSM,) are a part of these difficulties.
The basic tests and purpose of coverage in the traditional media are being tested severely. The tests, which Jay puts in a formal operational terms, I state as Credibility of Source; Prima Facie proof of Assertion(s ;) and Intent.
The Kid has little care for coverage issues, however, their readers come because they so choose. The act of reading or viewing traditional media may also be called an act of choice; however, the publicly imposed expectations of compliance to standards are different from those of the Kid.
The traditional media, as a collective, seem to have stakes in the stories above that of dissemination of accurate information. Similar to some on this blog, the intent of the story outweighs the importance of accuracy and credibility.
I said I find some hope for the traditional media in all of the coverage of the purported forgeries.
The Kid has found, in this instance, cause for concern in three areas:
1) Content: The Date - the pressuring officer spoken of in the August memo had retired a year and a half prior to the date of the memo. The CYA - the widow and the son both state that this is not a behavior (writing CYA memos) of the deceased purported author.
2) Format: Military format, acronym use, and language are not appropriate for the author or the place. One could say that this is just for file so it didn't need to be, but then why take the extraordinary effort required to center and superscript? Finally, the paper size is wrong for the time/place.
3) Typography: Curly Quotes; Superscript; diminished size of superscript; proportional spacing; and finally letter-by-letter compression based on what else was on the line to give best fit to the line (kerning.)
The traditional media, notably not CBS or Boston Globe, have made Herculean efforts in a short period of time to present and address these somewhat complex subjects.
Additionally, the traditional media have, through their traditional strength - the personal interview - have discovered, and covered, the development that Hodges was misled by CBS in that they told him the document was hand-written; and Robert Strong who told them that while Selectrics were available, he doubted that the particular unit had any. Remember: it requires not just a selectric, but a "Composer" model, and with additional type-balls (for superscript, proportional type, and curly quotes) - which even then can't do 'kerning.'
In other words, the traditional media, with exceptions, have been following, investigating - in their own way, and covering.
I was not confident that would happen.
The forward interest in this: the resolution of the forgery investigation; the fallout in media terms; the implication in political terms; and if necessary – additional investigation on the perpetrator and connections.
Wow. There is information in this comments thread that is even more uninformed than the stuff I'm reading at Little Green Footballs.
Every current and former secretary over 50 who's commented on this has said exactly the same thing: the IBM Selectric could have created these memos. I had one, and they are correct. And if anyone still had one in the garage, you would have seen samples by now. But it should be enough that there are authentic Bush documents online that show the use of special superscripted characters (not identical, but definitely a special key or typeball character).
More to the point, I spent 1988-1993 doing military conversion projects, taking DD-214s and other original documents and contemporaneous copies and turning them into civilian resumes. Twenty years and out, so these guys all went in from 1968-1973. None of the packages had consistent typefaces, and many documents that had been frequently updated had as many as 5-6 different kinds of typewriter copy.
But the Guard packages were the most nonstandard of all. Weekend warriors, remember? I'm still trying to find out what Killian's civilian job was (or if he was full-time Guard), but it was obvious that Guard packages had often been filled out off base, probably at a civilian office. Back then, as I guy who could type, I was considered unusual. Killian probably had someone else type them, and to my eye the two "questionable" documents sure look like the kind of thing I would have done back then on my Selectric.
As to this Composer argument, I've never heard of such a machine. I don't doubt its existence, but it's being presented as the "only" typewriter that could have done this memo, which is untrue. The IBM Selectric II with changeable typeballs was, in all likelihood, the typewriter used. And it was very common in the early '70s.
I cannot tell you the documents are not forgeries, but there is absolutely no information presented in this thread that makes a reasonable case for fraud. Anyone who claims they can say forgery based on copies of the original clearly is not an expert. And anyone who buys the ridiculous MS Word theory doesn't know know anything about typesetting. It is a laughable claim that no typesetter would ever make and countless sites have already debunked it, one with a clever animated GIF.
Sorry to barge in shooting my mouth off, but all I know is what I've seen with my own eyes, and I suspect I've worked with a lot more Guard documents from this time period than anyone else posting on this topic. There is nothing suspicious about these documents based on my first-hand experience. And, unlike actual military personnel who dealt with their own base's protocols, I have seen documents from all over the country and overseas, and know that the much vaunted military standardization was not the case. Even page sizes varied, let alone typefaces.
Nothing I have said makes these memos real, but the burden of proof should be on the people claiming forgery, and so far they're not even close to a convincing case. I think it would be much more honest to say that many on the right recognize that to accept these documents would be tantamount to admitting that George Bush has lied to them. And that's the issue here.
And until they're resolved to your satisfaction, it's guilty until proven innocent?
Here's a new "smoking gun" from LGF. Do you think these two alternating memos look the same? The copy effect makes it hard to really compare, but several letters are noticeably different.
Hugh Hewitt cites the following manual as some kind of proof, but sadly it lacks a copyright date: http://www.ibmcomposer.org/docs/Selectric%20Composer%20Operations%20Manual.pdf
Still, this manual for the Composer uses a similar font, and has examples of perfectly centered justified type. In fact, the justified type seems to be the only real difference between the Composer and Selectric. Given the lengthy and complicated instructions for justifying type, I suspect that was the major component in the large price difference. Oddly, although the manual is for the celebrated "Composer", the typeball looks identical to the one used on the Selectric II that I owned, and most of the standard features sound like the typewriter I had in Iowa. Since the keys were on the typeball (or element as IBM called it), this would suggest anything a Composer could type, a Selectric II could type as well. In fact, the manual states "Single-Element typing was introducted with the IBM "Selectric" Typewriter, and the came concept is fundamental to the IBM "Selectric" Composer.
If the Composer elements were, as they appear, interchangeable with Selectric II elements, then anything the Composer could type could be typed on the Selectric, especially a simple memo.
I can understand your wanting to see the element that produced this memo. So would I. But so far, no amount of research has been able to let me find out how many different typeballs were made by IBM. let alone what was on them. The only thing that is absolutely clear is that IBM created elements that had superscripts, and they had a Times New Roman element. Did they update the TNR ball to include superscripts? I don't know. Do you?
It's easy to ask questions, but obviously it's proving hard to get those answers. Still, I would think it wise to refrain from crying forgery since the technology to do such a memo obviously existed at that time.
Guilty until proven innocent? Is this a court of law? Should I simply accept the authority of CBS and Dan Rather? Should I not expect them to adhere to standards of transparency and openness?
There are legitimate questions about the authenticity of the documents. At the very least, if CBS expects that we should accept the documents as authentic, it is reasonable to expect them to provide more information about the documents and why CBS considers them authentic. At this point, I am not asking CBS to reveal any sources. However, I fail to see why CBS cannot reveal the name of all the experts who examined the documents and why CBS has asked the one they did name not to speak with the media. Furthermore, CBS has said they have access to more accurate versions of the document. Why shouldn't they make those copies available to independent experts? Is this too much of a burden? Are these unreasonable requests? If CBS doesn't provide this information, am I not permitted to question why?
Yes, I've seen those "smoking guns." The CBS memos and the modern version from MS Word are remarkably similar in may respects, suspiciously so. Are the identical? That cannot be proven given the poor quality of the CBS memos. Neither, however, can it be shown that they did not both originate from MS Word. Unfortunately for CBS' credibility, the suspicions remain. One would think that a news organization whose credibility is seriously questioned would do everything it ethically could to dispell those questions.
There are many things I don't know, and seeing a machine that would be capable of producing the memo would be an important piece of evidence in support of their authenticity. However, it is not the only evidence that would do so. Other contemporaneous documents in the same typeface would also support their authenticity. As would more accurate reproductions of the memos that experts could examine. It would also be very useful if the documentation experts CBS consulted were named and encourage to explain their reasoning.
Yes, these are questions. Yet there is one more: why is CBS not doing its best to answer at least some of them? That is evidence of some sort too, is it not?
In any case, you will find that I've never claimed the documents are forged. I've merely claimed that there are sufficient suspicions concerning the documents that it would be wise to gather further evidence before accepting that they are authentic.
Are you claiming that we should accept the documents as authentic without further question? If not, what are those questions and who should answer them?
I think that these guys http://www.allahpundit.com/archives/000941.html have done a fabulous job examining the way MS Word works, reviewing IBM typewriter capabilities, finding experts before the MSM did, noting that the General who was supposed to exert pressure had retired months before the memo on that subject, discovered tell-tale differences in military document formatting, and even differences in a signature. They’ve even used a Tivo to examine the two examples of superscripting CBS claims to have found http://brian.carnell.com/discussion/fullthread$msgnum=6221
Like an increasing number of viewers and members of the media, I think that CBS may have screwed the pooch, jumped the shark, augured in. Now someone--perhaps the guy at the Selectric museum http://www.selectric.org/selectric/index.html --could take a look at the second screen capture and tell us the model that generated it. Why would they be different? Could the TANG have had a prototype "Super Selectric"?
Why didn't CBS simply run over to IBM--the headquarters is just up the road from NYC in Armonk--and ask them about the models sold to the USAF/ANG during that period, the typing balls that were available and if they tracked sales at that level, the typing balls supplied to the government? The TANG would be at the bottom of the food chain. They’re flying F-102s for Pete’s sake! Why would they have the latest typewriters?
I believe that unless there are a lot of other documents from that period and place that use Times Roman font (forget kerning and superscripting, just the font), then you have to ask where did the Col. type his notes if not on base, and why would he spend ~$600 on a typewriter he could hardly use? A typewriter with these capabilities couldn't have come cheap. The Col. didn't have it at home, apparently. Do the Democrats and CBS want us to believe that, or maybe that the Col. bought his own typing balls so he could change them around? I bet the guy couldn't change the ribbon alone.
Here are a few more questions that occur to me based on Rather's "defense":
1) Let's leave aside all of the items in evidence we know: the Col. was not known to be a typist, and wasn't a touch typist at that, the points I mentioned above, etc. Why would he use such a "fancy" style as superscripting in a document he prepared himself? His family says that he wasn't a paper person, and that he didn't keep TANG records at home to their knowledge. The documents are inconsistent in style--no letterhead when required, etc.--and disagree with the other records in the President's file.
2) Are their other documents from CBS' source that the Col. "typed"--say, aircraft readiness, reports on other servicemen with problems, meetings with his superiors on his own career, or other topics that deal with subjects that can be confirmed by first person conversations with a living witness? Are they in that font and style?
3) Here’s the money shot for me. Unless the Col. Used a typewriter at an office or another location other than the base—in other words, unless he took confidential personnel records detailing the movements of men and equipment around the country off base, subjecting himself to courts martial—he used a machine on base. The military almost never buys one of anything. Where are all the other typewriters with the special typing element? Where is the TANG budget or asset inventory showing how and when these were acquired? Where are the destroy and replacement orders for the final disposition of the equipment? Who signed for them--the budget documents must still exist--we aren't talking about the Cretaceous period here.
5) Where are the other documents in the President's records that use the same typeface and the same kerning/superscripting/typesetters apostrophe/etc/ styles?
6) Where are documents in the files of the President's contemporaries that use the same typeface and the same kerning/superscripting/apostrophe/etc. styles?
7) If no one will release their documents for inspection, then where are the orders of the day, aircraft readiness reports and other documents that may survive in the organization from that period that use the same techniques.
8) Does any other ANG unit anywhere in the nation have documents produced in the same way? In other words, can we establish that there were thousands of other such typewriters as we should expect there to have been?
BTW, I served in the USAF from 75-79, and was formally discharged from my reserve requirement on 3/18/81. My DD Form 214 doesn't use any superscripting or even number/letter combinations in the form of "th" at all. My DD Form 256 from '81 shows the date as "18TH"--not superscripted--and in Courier font. I was stationed at Randolph AFB, TX, and assigned to the Air Force Manpower and Personnel Center there as a computer programmer. Basically, that base was and may still be Air Force personnel clerk central. If they didn't have a "super Selectric" by '79-'81, who other than perhaps some purchasing guy who was evaluating typewriters at the Pentagon or somewhere would have had one?
Great article, and very interesting thread on a scandal that very well may lead to the destruction of the network news organization that once was home to Murrow.
This "doomed are the gatekeepers" shit is driving me nuts. The reason the blogs are getting such traction is that one successful cable outlet, Fox, is willing to run with pretty much anything that comes down the pike and doesn't seem legally actionable. No one else is obliged to follow suit, but CNN and MSNBC appear to have decided that lowering their standards, such as they were, is the most competitive move they can make. There's absolutely no reason in the world for the Washington Post or the New York Times or any self-described "reputable" press organization to say anything about the records other than so far as they know, the originals haven't been examined by any independent forensic experts, that other contemporaneous records show similar qualities and that multigenerational copies are not the ideal subjects for examination. In point of fact, Karnak is on an equal footing with most of the experts who have weighed in so far; they seem to share the same methodology.
The press don't have to run with raw news. They've got the resources to deal with very complex issues, let alone one that comes down to whether a particular capacity was available at a particular time, and they have the budget to send Jimmy Olson out to find a machine that can duplicate the stuff after he calls the professor to get the lowdown.
The problem here is the same one that led major news organizations to screw the pooch on their Iraq coverage, on the allegations of torture against US personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq, and on other major stories such as the one that landed Wen Ho Lee in solitary for a year: bad frickin' judgement, timidity and laziness. Rather than sticking with and improving upon their alleged strengths, the press have elected to combine the worst elements of traditional news gathering with the echo-chamber properties of blogging.
I will not be convinced that no one at the Post or the Times has access to someone who collects or services old typewriters, or to a press liason or archivist at IBM, or to a forensics expert who would render the only valid opinion at this point, which is that no one can render a valid opinion on the authenticity of the documents without access to an early generation of the them and a thorough understanding of the state of the typewriting art at the time.
But rather than waiting 24 hours or however long it would have taken to put together a non-speculative story, our intrepid press tried to outblog the bloggers. Instead of doing what they're still reasonably good at when they remember to do it, which is throw a bunch of resources at a story, they just grabbed whatever came down the pike and ran with it, accomplishing nothing other than to reduce their own credibility to something equivalent to that of the muttonheads at Little Green Footballs and, in the process, pretty much guaranteeing that nothing short of the guy rising from the dead to authenticate the memos will resolve the question to anyone's satisfaction.
In other words, the blogosphere hasn't created any new difficulties for the mainstream press; it has just vividly highlighted the existing ones, and the press haven't yet figured out that the way to deal with the situation is to elevate their own performance in their own areas of excellence rather than trying to imitate the blogs. Maybe it's time to reinstitute the tradition of occasional brawls between denizens of rival newsrooms.
At its heart, this is an editorial problem, perhaps best illustrated by Post executive editor Len Downie, Jr., in his response to the American Journalism Review's inquiry as to how his paper missed the allegations of torture at Abu Ghraib and other US installations: "In part, obviously, because information was not made readily available, and in part because we didn't always see the tip of the iceberg as clearly as we should have." And in whole, obviously, because he didn't do his job. And that's what's happened in this instance as well.
I don't want to get into minutiae here either, but although the Post's article could have been better, I don't see that it actually subtracts from the sum total of a reader's knowledge on the subject.
As I said before, the stories could have been more nuanced and had more information. http://archive.pressthink.org/2004/09/11/cbs_docs.html#comment9050
It would have been much better if the article had pointed out that the experts were looking at copies of a copy and that conclusion of falsehood or authenticity much more difficult, if not impossible. Heck, they should have emphasized the CBS refuses to provide the copies that CBS used to authenticate, or high quality reproductions of same. That said, however, the article has many caveats: "suspicions" "appear" "anomalies" "doubts."
I also don't think the experts aren't up to speed. A memo written in the early 1970s that resembles the CBS memos would be uncommon and should raise suspicions, given the lack of other corroborating evidence. Yes, it may be technically possible to reproduce the memo using early 1970s equipment, but that doesn't make it likely.
Finally, in addition to the caveats I noted above and the generally tentative voice of the piece, the experts did not declare the works a forgery. If you claimed to have a Renaissance-era painting, provided only a poor photocopy and the experts said it was suspicious because it appeared that some parts of the painting were airbrushed, they would be right. They didn't say it was a forgery, they said it was suspicious. You should be suspicious of such a painting, until more evidence is provided.
I might point out, speaking of getting details wrong, your analogy to declaring a painting to be a forgery seems to imply that the experts declared the memos to be a forgery. That would be misleading. It might even actually subtract from the sum total of a reader's knowledge on the subject.
As a graphic designer, the degree to which these discussions center on issues of typography and what I'd call "font forensics" is fascinating.
I see a lot of discussion of typefaces, proportional spacing, superscripts, etc., but not a lot of factual knowledge. I'd recommend Daily Kos for the most in-depth look at these issues: a technological archaeology of typewriters, a history of Times Roman, and, of course, superscripts and proportional spacing.
From a news standpoint, I'm interested in who the "forensic document specialists" actually are. My post on Design Observer suggests that the nation's leading typographers could have been consulted. Is it possible that we need a new generation of forensic experts knowledgeable in typography and computer font development? (I'm not sure this is the same thing as Jay's call for a "historical forensics expert?")
As noted in Design Observer comments, news organizations from Slate to US Today have been calling designers. These same designers critique of news coverage suggests that:
1) These stories depend on creating conflicting expert opinion "to qualify for the media's murky requirements of 'equal time.'" Ironically, some of these expert designers do not want to play this game.
2) Whether or not these documents are forgeries will be determined quickly. In the meantime, news organizations are filing stories hourly based on an understanding of typography that is generic at best, or by looking at lo-res PDF versions of the documents.
When the final documents are analyzed, we will be able to thank blogosphere for not only challenging the CBS reports, but for laying out the typographic and document issues that the "forensic specialists" should be looking for.
Ernest, what you're describing isn't journalism. First, the article leaves out the fundamental point that it's really difficult to say anything with any certainty about documents an expert hasn't actually examined. That's an important part of the story.
Then the story counfounds that error by furthering the misunderstanding of when proportional spacing was introduced, making it sound as though it were a recent development rather than one that was, at the time, three decades old.
Then the story quotes an expert inaccurately stating that the font in question wasn't widely available when, according to IBM, who should know, that's not true.
Here's the lede:
Documents unearthed by CBS News that raise doubts about whether President Bush fulfilled his obligations to the Texas Air National Guard include several features suggesting that they were generated by a computer or word processor rather than a Vietnam War-era typewriter, experts said yesterday.
So: we're not told that the experts haven't actually examined the documents in question, but at best, copies of copies of copies. Later in the piece, we're given to understand, incorrectly, that proportional spacing was a recent innovation at the time the documents were generated. Then we're given to understand, incorrectly, that the font on the documents would not have been widely available.
That's bad reporting. That's bad journalism. It does nothing to clarify the situation. The Post could have held the story up for the few hours necessary to look into those problematic areas, but didn't. That's bad editorial decision-making.
These are not fuzzy questions. When an expert tells you something, you check it out. It took me five minutes to find the 1940's IBM typewriter that brought proportional spacing unto the world, and only slightly more than that to learn that IBM had hired the original designer of the Times New Roman font to adapt it to their typewriters.
So the article takes what is at best a suspect process—making judgements about documents working with copies far removed from the originals—and compounds the problem by getting some significant details wrong.
That process sucks. It really does nothing to clarify anything other than that some people think the documents may be forged, which we knew already, and it propagates several factual errors. There is nothing laudable about it.
Yes, it would have been nice if the article had mentioned the fact about the copies and how CBS refused to make clearer copies available to independent experts for analysis. However, that doesn't mean there can be no certainty concerning the documents. There is certainty that the documents are suspicious, given the uncommon typeface used, the remarkable similarities to modern PC-generated documents, and the lack of any authenticated contemporaneous documents that closely resemble the CBS memos. One can say, with certainty, that the documents have many characteristics that are consistent with a modern forgery and thus more information concerning their provenance is required.
What is uncertain about that?
In any case, except for the suspicions, the article did not make any certain claims about the documents one way or the other. There are plenty of caveats. The article makes clear that these are tentative opinions based on the evidence provided.
Yes, it would have been nice if they had pointed out that IBM had introduced a proportional spacing typewriter in the 1940s. What the Wash Post said was, "While IBM had introduced an electric typewriter that used proportional spacing by the early 1970s, it was not widely used in government." You assume the fact that such a machine was introduced 30 years earlier is particularly relevant. That is not entirely clear, and certainly not enough of an "error" that the piece should have been spiked because of it.
This isn't "bad" journalism its journalism that isn't perfect. The article clarifies several things and leaves several questions unanswered, but that is inevitable in a daily paper.
Why not complain that the Washington Post published a story about the documents in the first place, in an article that basically accepted that they were authentic, though the article noted that Post could not independently confirm it? Perhaps this article was a sort of corrective to the first? What should the Post have done?
Who knew that the some people think the documens were forged? If they only read the Post, they only found out through this article. Should the Post assume that their readers read blogs?
This battle has less to do with politics than it does to do with the media.
Forgetting for a moment that we have a political battle going on, perhaps one of the most important of our lives, it remains that the media itself is also in a battle.
The battle within, and with, the media is not wholly derived from the political battle. The political battle is certainly creating the strains, exposing the weaknesses, and the biases; but those existed prior to the political battle.
There are two reasons to examine the SWBT Vets, and the RatherGate phenoms. For all of us gleeful, or depressed, partisans it is the battle of politics that occupies our thoughts. The other reason, for those who may be partisan but are also engaged in the media – Where are we going? Why are we going there? Are there choices, or is this path pre-determined?
Setting the political battle aside, and looking at the battle of, and with, the traditional media, the stresses and strains are highlighting issues that have been discussed, debated, and largely dismissed with, by, and for the media. The bias discussion has been going on forever, and largely dismissed as either non-existent or non-important. Yet it rears its head now. The coverage discussion has been fought over and termed the cause of malcontents of left or right for years. Yet it rears its head now. The investigative capabilities have been cut, and cut for years now. Yet it rears its head now. The analytical capabilities have been criticized for years. Yet it rears its head now. Market share has been dropping for years now, as has credibility, as has belief in the media. These issues again raise their heads.
Using the now familiar means of dodging the issues, by saying:
Whether the documents or fraudulent or not - and there are certainly legitimate questions about them - it doesn't change the issue at hand - that Bush chose the Guard and wasn't shot at while Kerry chose river patrol and was shot at.
We can choose to change the subject, back and forth, depending on convenience of the moment. Alternatively, we can choose to face each issue: one at a time, and chase them through adequate resolution.
The media battle is the subject here.
The political battle is worthy of our energies, and will surely creep into our arguments.
For example: I do not think these documents have an effect, nor will they change the polls an iota. However, I look forward to the next round of SWBT Vet stuff.
Take those comments how you will.
The point here is the credibility, the self-correction capabilities, and the evolution of the media.
For this group at least, I would think these important points.
I still don't know what to think about these documents. And I feel I do not know what happened, at all, in this entire episode. I am frequently astonished at how confident some people are in what's been proven or disproven, but then this has astonished me since I began spending serious time on the Net around 1995. So maybe I should learn.
I plan to pour over the Monday papers (particularly the Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Los Angeles Times) wait for ABC's The Note to post its Monday edition (mid-morning) and put that material together with what the blogs have accomplished over the weekend and whatever CBS adds by then and maybe... the picture will be clearer. (I'll also be checking TV Newser and Lost Remote for leaks from CBS, where many mysteries remain.)
The Note is becoming an extremely significant site for journalism because--as an Internet product--it is Net-aware; and the authors try to read the traditional press and the blogs together and tell one story. This is not true of, say, the Boston Globe reporters.
My thanks to everyone who contributed to this discussion since Friday night. I found it quite interesting and remarkably serious. And I am more convinced than ever that the way to make a comment section work at a blog is to encourage posters to "argue by link"-- actually a few powerful sentences and a link.
Why? Because when two people agree on nothing, they can agree on the importance or interest of a particular link.
If you will forgive a horn-tooting rhetorical question: at how many weblogs were people from the Left and Right, forgery-skeptics and forgery-believers, thrashing out the issues and questions in a single discussion space-- i.e. this thread?
Finally--and this is really a guess, nothing more--when more of the case comes out, I believe we may find that the aura, ego, image, power and, yes, arrogance of The Anchorman, along with the automatic deference paid to him internally at CBS, will be seen as a significant factor in why events played out as they did. It's just a sense I have and I could be wrong.
ABC News is showing that CBS has fallen to a new low. Honestly, I find it difficult to believe this is true, but ABC News is reporting it.
Two of the document experts hired by CBS News now say the network ignored concerns they raised prior to the broadcast of 60 Minutes II about the disputed National Guard records attributed to Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, who died in 1984.
Emily Will, a veteran document examiner from North Carolina, told ABC News she saw problems right away with the one document CBS hired her to check the weekend before the broadcast.
"I found five significant differences in the questioned handwriting, and I found problems with the printing itself as to whether it could have been produced by a typewriter," she said.
Will says she sent the CBS producer an e-mail message about her concerns and strongly urged the network the night before the broadcast not to use the documents.
"I told them that all the questions I was asking them on Tuesday night, they were going to be asked by hundreds of other document examiners on Thursday if they ran that story," Will said.
Here is CBS's response:
"CBS News did not rely on either Emily Will or Linda James for a final assessment of the documents regarding George Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard. Ms. Will and Ms. James were among a group of experts we consulted to assess one of the four documents used in the report and they did not render definitive judgment on that document. Ultimately, they played a peripheral role and deferred to another expert who examined all four of the documents used," the network said in a statement.
"Most importantly, the content of the documents was backed up by our reporting and our sources who knew the thoughts and behavior of Lt. Col. Jerry Killian at the time," the statement said.
Umm, how long is CBS News going to continue this charade that they are a responsible news organization? And, where are these other experts?