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Mind-Numbing Incompetence at CBS

I just have to point this one out. Power Line, which I admit I read infrequently, has been blogging up a storm today about a 60 Minutes show purporting to give new evidence on what President Bush was doing in Alabama around about the time I was born. I'll let you read the whole thing, but the basic allegation is this: 60 Minutes presented documents, on air, that purported to be from 1971 but look like they were prepared on Microsoft Word.

Folks, this is just goddamn dumb. The mistakes--a use of a proportional font, superscript on ordinal numbers, kerning, etc--scream out 'this document is a fake,' obvious to anyone who worked in an office in that era. (For reference, there's been much blather online today about whether a typewriter might use proportional fonts. As one who learned to type on a clunky IBM Selectric in Huntsville, Alabama in the late 1980s, I can say that if such font balls existed, they were pretty bloody rare and not likely to be in a National Guard office.) But then why would Mr. Dan Rather, a man older than I am and supposedly a journalist, have fallen for this?

Well, says today's Washington Post:

A senior CBS official, who asked not to be named because CBS managers did not want to go beyond their official statement, named one of the network's sources as retired Maj. Gen. Bobby W. Hodges, the immediate superior of the documents' alleged author, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian. He said a CBS reporter read the documents to Hodges over the phone and Hodges replied that "these are the things that Killian had expressed to me at the time."

"These documents represent what Killian not only was putting in memoranda, but was telling other people," the CBS News official said. "Journalistically, we've gone several extra miles."

Like bloody hell they did. "Several extra miles" does not include authenticating documents by reading them over the phone. "Several extra miles" does not include putting on national media documents that don't pass casual visual inspection. Or if this does constitute what CBS considers "several extra miles," let's just say that journalistic standards should extend beyond Dan Rather's odometer to the heretofore undiscovered country of "getting it right."

May I propose that Mr. Rather be given a copy of another work of fiction, Perez-Reverte's The Club Dumas. Not only would he learn a bit about forging old documents, but he'd gain some hint of possible destinations for those who foolishly rely upon them.


Update: Only fair to note that the left-wing of the blogosphere has been doing its best to uphold the authenticity of the documents, most notably Atrios and The Talent Show. If it turns out I'm wrong about the above, you'll get a retraction from me. Nevertheless, I think there's a bundle of truly bad armchair research going on out there. Yes, there were typewriters--or more often, typesetting machines--that could do superscript thirty years ago. They certainly weren't common. The New York Times reports the latest typewriting suspect to be the IBM Selectric Composer. Still, I've only found one site that has a reproduction on a Selectric. But heck, typewriter enthusiasts are getting more hits than they ever dreamed of today.

I'll let my readers look through the comments on these entries and decide for themselves, but for the moment, I'm still in the "forged" camp. There's evidence on either side, but for my money, the preponderance sits with Powerline. The Composer was a typesetting machine, which seems a bit obscure for use to write standard memos.

Update 2: For those insane, or insomniac because of upcoming callbacks like me, you can try IBM's website for lots of information on the Selectric Composer. Including information on its typefaces and alignment issues.


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Tony Rickey has an interesting idea:I propose that Mr. Rather be given a copy of another work of fiction, Perez-Reverte's The Club Dumas. Not only would he learn a bit about forging old documents, but he'd gain some hint of [Read More]


Anthony, you have to learn before you get into a courtroom: in order to establish the bonafides of a document, a questioned document examiner must examine the original document; conclusions based on a copy or a .pdf file are, to put it most delicately, bullshit. (I'm giving the right-wingnut bloggers the benefit of the doubt; the whole "the docs were forged" meme started at Free Republic and snowballed at the disgusting Little Green Footballs, for Gawd's sake, so I really doubt that any of the denizens of those websites who are pontificating on the "forgery" are truly qualified questioned document examiners.) Has anyone seen the originals and pronounced on their authencity? Not that I've seen, but I welcome any reference to the contrary. However, the whole "Killian documents are forged" brouhaha is nothing but a red herring. Based on what I have seen, and based on my service as a Navy Judge Advocate, I have no reasonable doubt in what remains of either my military mind or my legal mind that George W. Bush failed satisfactorily to complete his Air National Guard service. By his failure to complete a flight physical, and letting his flight status be revoked, he is guilty at a minimum of failure to obey orders (there are standing USAF regulations requiring flight personnel to get flight physicals, and Bush failed to obey those regulations regardless of whether LTC Killian gave him a direct order to or not) and dereliction of duty. For those offenses he should have been disciplined, either at an Article 15, UCMJ non-judicial punishment proceeding, or at a trial by court-martial (not to mention administratively ordered to duty in Vietnam, per the appropriate USAF and ANG regulations then in effect). But of course, because Bush was politically connected, he was allowed to get away with his dereliction. As a veteran who, unlike Bush, served honorably and completed his entire commitment to the U.S. Navy, I hold Bush in the deepest contempt for his failure to serve honorably, and for his further dishonesty in failing to admit so and in failing to take responsibility for his malfeasance. Next to that, his despicable behavior in condoning the smears and lies of the Swift Boat Vets for "Truth" is merely an afterthought....
Len: It all depends, Len. Look, I'm aware that I can't do a scientific forensic analysis of the documents. Of course, the 'you can't make an evaluation without the originals' riff would be a lot more convincing if someone were to come out with the originals. But so long as CBS holds on to them, that's a bit difficult. Besides, as Beldar has quite nicely pointed out, and you ignore, in a courtroom it's not my responsibility to prove this. The burden of proof for authenticity lies upon the person who puts forward the document as evidence, so long as he's challenged. The reason I'm willing to be so strident about this, Len, is that while I may not have the originals in front of me, I learned to type on a Selectric typewriter. I know how the balls work and what's on them. It's where I learned about fixed vs. proportional widths. And that was in the late 1980s. True, there are typewriters dating from the late 1960s that could produce something close to those memos, but I can't think of a single reason that a Lt. Colonel would have one. Particularly one who his own wife said didn't really type anything. The thing stinks to high heaven, Len. Simply put, I can't figure out why a Lt. Col. is typesetting on a Selectric in Texas in the early 1970s. Typesetting like that's a pain in the arse, or could be--why's he doing it for personal memos? Now, CBS could clear this up in an instant: let's send the original documents to a document specialist (as opposed to a handwriting analyst). Or let's say where the documents came from: reveal the source. But when they're not available for cross-examination, and yet an accusation is being made on their back, then it's a bit rich to hold me to the standards of courtroom procedure.
What about the other issues outside the documents. Len all but conceeded that they were irrelevant, but you failed to answer the body of his argument. Bush failed to perform his duty in maintaining his flight status, but because he was politically connected he wasn't punished/prosecuted. I know several former USAF pilots, and two ANG pilots, and it is a cardinal sin for a pilot to lose his flight status. Why any pilot would lose it by failing to report to a medical exam is beyond any reasonable pilot or anyone who knows a lick about pilots.
Jonathan: I didn't address them because, funnily enough, they weren't the subject of my post. That Len wished to go off on a rant is rather beside the point: he loathed Bush before the documents came to light, and the fact that he "hold[s] Bush in the deepest contempt for his failure to serve honorably" is hardly surprising. That he was honorably discharged solely because of his politics is simply unsupported argument: without the memos, the reason for ignoring the missed physical--if it was ordered--can only be guessed at. Now, suppose we don't share Len's loathing of Bush as the starting point for discussion: other reasons a court martial might not have been ordered? I've seen a few relatively interesting ones. One pointed to the relative dearth of courts martial in National Guard units at the time, mostly because the war was winding down, soldiers were being repatriated, and there were more than sufficient guardsmen about. True or not? I couldn't tell you. You see, here's the problem: if Len wants to make courtroom arguments, I certainly have to wonder why he doesn't make them straight through his case. The year is 2004, and anything that Bush should have been tried for in the years before my birth are almost certainly barred by a statute of limitations. One reason for this, of course, is the difficulty of assembling the necessary data required to provide an adequate prosecution or defense. You state that "Why any pilot would lose it by failing to report to a medical exam is beyond any reasonable pilot or anyone who knows a lick about pilots." Now, maybe you're right. But maybe not. I'm not interested in getting into the heads of pilots, most pilots, or any specific pilot. One of these days, the Dems are going to figure out why the SBVT and these memos accusations have stuck, and the counterattacks haven't. You're making a 'fact' out of what you assume to be in someone's head. On the other hand, that Nixon was not president in 1968 is a fact; and typography is real, physical evidence. These things have a life to them in argument that the trials of hearts not your own don't. So Jonathan, I'm sticking to the story I care about: someone putting forth seemingly fake documents in 2004. The fact that Bush avoided going to Vietnam wasn't that important to me three weeks ago, for the reasons above. Why bother now?
Fair enough. I suspected you didn't answer because it wasn't confined to the topic. However, to be clear, I'm not concerned with Bush evading the Vietnam war. I am concerned with a CinC who has demonstrated that he has poor judgment for missing the physical in the first place. Is this a legal issue, no. To get back on topic, I'm far more interested in who put these documents out into the media in the first place. Vast right wing conspiracy? That's what my gut tells me. Create a story that is demonstrably bogus, forearm people to debunk the story and as soon as it is released, engage the story. I have no proof of course, just a gut feeling.

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