Wednesday, January 05, 2005

RATHERGATE REVIEWED. There is a slight conceptual problem with Corey Pein's piece in the new Columbia Journalism Review, which is supposed to be a counterintuitive critique of the bloggers who helped to expose the CBS National Guard documents as frauds. The problem is pretty easy to define: the bloggers were right. The documents were frauds.

Now, look, I realize it wasn't quite that simple. Pein rightly exposes the pro-Bush agenda of many of those involved. And he observes that none of them could actually prove the principal contention: that documents CBS presented as being more than 30 years old had actually been produced on a modern computer using Microsoft Word's default settings. In fact, at the time that this story was unfolding, there were anti-Bush bloggers who presented dauntingly learned analyses showing that the documents could only have been produced by a 1970s-vintage electric typewriter.

Even so, the MS Word theory continues to be the most plausible explanation for how those documents came into being. And though Pein notes that some cable shows got carried away (we're supposed to be surprised about Sean Hannity and Joe Scarborough?), mainstream media outlets like the Washington Post and the Dallas Morning News used the bloggers' speculation exactly as they should have: to dig and get at the truth.

If the media failed, it was in letting CBS's lapses freak them out so that nobody wanted to do any more reporting on George W. Bush's iffy service in the National Guard. The Boston Globe, to name one news organization, had been reporting on Bush's missing months since 2000, and its work has never been questioned.

Instead of exposing Bush, Dan Rather and company wound up immunizing him.

SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION. Tim O'Shea interviews the proprietor of this blog for a website called The subject: Little People, my book on the culture of dwarfism.

WHAT OFFENSIVE CARTOON? The Special Ethnic Offensiveness edition of Mallard Fillmore has been removed from I'll try to remember to see whether it pops up here.


Anonymous said...


I posted the following at Romenesko's Letter page:

Did anybody else find something odd about The Columbia Journalism Review story by Corey Pein? In particular, the following (key) elements were omitted:

CBS News had been told by at least two document examiners, before the show aired, that there were doubts about the memos (Linda James and Emily Will). Despite this, and the fact that CBS later admitted it relied largely on one examiner, Marcel Matley, the report claimed "several" experts had vouched for their authenticity. A good report on this is David Folkenflik's Baltimore Sun A1 article of September 21. Matley, it turns out, claimed he only vouched for the signatures - not the documents themselves. Even if we forget all the typescript stuff, the bloggers self-congratulatory excess, and virtually everything else Pein notes, shouldn't a Journalism Review at least tell us that it is not a good idea to ignore - or misrepresent - your experts?

I actually found the piece to be disingenous at best. Is this what we should expect from a serious Journalism Review? There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the CBS News case, but Pein seems to miss the most important ones. That Boccardi-Thornburg report should make for some good reading.

Anonymous said...

Re RatherGate, I'll have more comment after I RTFA, but the MSWord "theory" is a "theory" like "evolution" -- it's the only theory that fits the facts according to bone fide experts, and should be treated as proved unless proved otherwise. The "experts" who asserted it "had" to be authentic are weird -- either blinded by mission, or publicity seeking opportunists, or just wrong, I don't know and wouldn't want to speculate. This is the opinion of a anti-Bush avocational printing-and-font historian who *was* qualified to form an independent judement, namely me.
  The immunizing effect on the rest of the story was tragic -- The Globe series that didn't rely on these documents and the witness testimony were both damning enough without the documents!

Re What Cartoon?, anyone who didn't see it or who wants to see the Globe's prior comments on Mallard, see links in my comment on Dan's prior column.

Re Self-Promotion, way to go Dan! You know which is my favorite chapter

Bill R

Anonymous said...

"If the media failed, it was in letting CBS's lapses freak them out so that nobody wanted to do any more reporting on George W. Bush's iffy service in the National Guard"Huh?

Bush's draft-dodging and National Guard absence happened 30 years ago. Our right-wing dominated corporate media failed by not completely exposing this scandal back when Bush first ran for governor.

It's no different from when the media covered-up Strom Thurmond's black rape child for 50 years, the Catholic Church's sex abuse for 40 years, or the dead female intern in Joe Scarborough's congressional office.

If Bush were a Democrat, the media would have done stake-outs at his home like they did with Gary Hart & Gary Condit, or they would have broadcast a "documentary" about it a la Sinclair Broadcasting.

- Anthony G.

Anonymous said...

Amen, Anthony G.

Tim W said...

One aspect that was often underplayed about the Air National Guard memo brouhaha is that faxes of documents are not easy to work with. (I don't know whether the documents were forged, authentic, or even somewhere in between. The problem is without the originals, no one is going to know. And CBS should have known that.)

Here is what Emily Will, a forensic document expert, writes on her website:

?: Can a client fax documents to you for examination?

A: A fax of a questioned document is usually of very little use. The fax process digitizes the copy, obscures detail, and adds flaws to the document. Of course, there are document questions about faxed documents, but those are best handled by examination of the original faxes themselves.

Alas, the same Emily Will had no qualms about opining about the faxed documents in this case:

Will said she examined two disputed Killian memos, one of which was not used on the broadcast. She said she saw discrepancies in Killian's signature from an undisputed military document bearing his handwriting. Will said she also questioned whether an early 1970s typewriter could have produced the superscript, such as a raised "th," on the memos, and noted differences in the letterhead, the salutation and the way the date was rendered.

All these discrepancies "looked like trouble to me," Will said, adding that she told CBS this "in a resounding way."