Thursday, September 9 2004

Why is this news? Either part?

Today’s tempest in a teapot is the publication of recently-discovered memos that appear to demonstrate that a young George W. Bush slacked off in his last year of National Guard service, and the not-terribly-convincing claim that these memos are obvious forgeries created using the default settings in Microsoft Word.

It strikes me that both sides of this little newsblip are remarkably silly things to stake your credibility on. It’s not news that young W was a slacker, it’s part of his official biography. As for the forgery claims, they’re filled with misconceptions about typewriters (“no proportional fonts in 1973!”) and typography (“look at the kerning!”), and surrounded with a glow of “bloggers kick the mainstream media’s arrogant asses again, boo-yah!.”

One of the few cautious commenters on LGF got to the heart of it: the people dancing in their cubicles over this amateur sleuthing would absolutely crucify a Leftie who tried to bash a pro-Bush document with the same flimsy evidence. Why should it surprise anyone that the default template in Word is set up to resemble a good typewriter, with one of the most common fonts in the world?

The question for Right-bloggers to ask is not “how foolish can we make the Boston Globe and CBS look?” but “how foolish will we look if it’s not a fake, and CBS’ original holds up to inspection?”. It’s already been claimed that new copies of the documents have been provided by the White House after the AP made an FOIA request, although no one has provided a direct link to the new copies.

As for the Globe and CBS, the question is “Will anyone actually care about this, or will it just keep the focus on Vietnam, where Kerry already has plenty of problems?”.

Update: Belatedly, it occurs to me that the memo can be both authentic and word-processed. If Killian was working on his memoirs before his death in the Eighties, he may well have had someone transcribe his old hand-written memos.

Update: The most convincing argument for fraud, I think, is not Charles’ recreation of the memo in Word, but CBS’ inability to defend their source or their verification process. Even if they were caught flat-footed yesterday, they should have been able to respond today, even if their response was to say “your experts are looking at a scanned fax, and ours have the original.” They haven’t done that, instead issuing a CYA memo of their own, promising an investigation into the allegations.

There’s still a lot of misinformation floating around among the pro-forgery crowd that makes them look a bit foolish. Many of them have finally discovered that proportional type was not a creation of the digital age, although some still have using it confused with the difficulty of justifying type on a typewriter. Quite a few are still laboring under the delusion that kerning is somehow part of the smoking-gun proof, despite the fact that kerning is turned off by default in Word, and is completely irrelevant even if they’re forgeries. And there’s the poor expert whose statements were so garbled by INDC that he sounds like a complete buffoon who thinks that only digital-era Times New Roman has a “4” with a closed top and no foot, or, worse, that Times itself is somehow a new font.

In the end, I still can’t find much reason to care about this story. The biggest impact it has on me is slowing down popular web sites by flooding them with traffic.

Update: Apparently, Dan Rather has personally staked his credibility, integrity, and career on this story by going on CNN and defending the memos. CBS News is backing him up and insisting that earlier reports of an internal investigation were false. They’ve raised the stakes, but their opponents don’t have to take the same risk to stay in the game. Not smart, unless they’ve really, really got a secret weapon.