Friday, September 10, 2004

CBS, We Have a Problem

Like, major.

ForgeGate goes into hyperdrive this morning over accusations that 60 Minutes, network TV's flagship news broadcast, (Edward R. Murrow, steel thyself in thy grave), has fallen prey to an elaborate forgery involving documents supposedly impugning President Bush's Vietnam-era National Guard record. The documents suggest that besides neglecting to appear for medical checkups, Bush failed to meet military standards during his time in the Texas National Guard.

Needless to say, the journalistic implications here are very serious indeed. If these docs prove to be false and 60 Minutes can be shown to have run with them during such a frenzied and politically freighted campaign season - during "a time of war" with so much at stake overseas - then CBS News will have had its credibility blighted for a long time to come.

The brouhaha started when Power Line went agro with claims that the documents were obvious fakes. Multiple PL readers said that the documents' proportional spacing, kerning, superscript and other formatting features simply weren't used in the 1970's, when typewriters ruled, and bore all the hallmarks of a poorly rendered MS Word duplication. Drudge quickly followed, reporting that CBS honchos have commenced an internal investigation.

Having conducted a cursory review of circulating pdfs (if THEY are legit, though who the hell knows anymore), we're afraid that there are discrepancies, or at least questions, that need to be answered. A sample of the major papers on this very quickly evolving story, then a dash of analysis.

WP:

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.

Experts consulted by a range of news organizations pointed out typographical and formatting questions about four documents as they considered the possibility that they were forged. The widow of the National Guard officer whose signature is on the bottom of the documents also disputed their authenticity.

NYT:
Still, throughout the afternoon and evening, questions arose about the authenticity of the memos as various forensics experts told news organizations, including The New York Times, that the fonts of the documents resembled those of modern-day word processors, specifically Microsoft Word.

NBC:
CBS News released a statement yesterday standing by its reporting, saying that each of the documents "was thoroughly vetted by independent experts and we are convinced of their authenticity." The statement added that CBS reporters had verified the documents by talking to unidentified individuals who saw them "at the time they were written."
As many obervers have noted, this election has devolved into a frenzied spectacle over who did what, when, during Vietnam, instead of who is planning to do what, if anything, to improve the lives of Americans now. With so many pressing contemporary issues at stake, it's a real tragedy that the popular discourse has been hijacked by a bunch of bitter baby-boomers who feel guilty about what may or may have not happened on the Mekong Delta or at an airbase in Alabama.

This does us all a disservice. If the files are fake, than it appears that 60 Minutes, (where are you Lowell Bergman), has been suckered-punched. Media watchers, J-School snobs, and Access Hollywood knobs alike have been pulled into the discussion. And if the candidates and the parties, not to mention Dan Rather and Charlie Rose, insist on obsessing about this story, we will play along.

As we see it, there are five posibilities here. One, the documents are legit, and the story stands. Two, the documents are forgeries perpetrated by an anti-Bush faction, unconnected with the Kerry Campaign or the DNC. Three, the docs' placement is connected to the Kerry or the DNC. Four, the docs are fakes and were planted by GOP activists, knowing they'd be found and understanding the resulting damage to both Kerry and CBS News, poster-chlid of the liberal media. Five, the docs were planted by the Bush campaign, presumably under the tutelege of Karl Rove. To review:

1. Legit
2. Fake - Rogue Left
3. Fake - Kerry Camp
4. Fake - Rogue Right
5. Fake - Bush Camp (Rove)

Bottom line, if the documents are fakes, whatever their source, this represents a serious failure on the part of the CBS News honchos to properly vet their content, and the repurcussions will be felt for some time to come. If, as we suspect, there is some partisan counterprogramming going on here, then it will come out. But from a journalistic point of view, if these docs prove fake, shame on 60 Minutes for getting punk'd.

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