The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Memogate: minor puzzles

In the torrent of pieces on Lt Col Jerry Killian's infamous memos, a Post piece today will be a useful reference for future use. It summarises a number of difficulties with the memos, typographical, stylistic and circumstantial.

On the first, it mentions one Joseph Newcomer: a Ph D and pioneer in electronic typesetting, he has his own page which purports to demonstrate that the memos are fakes. (I say purports since my expertise on the subject is nil. The level of detail is impressive either way.)

But, standing back from the detail, one has to wonder both at CBS and the hoaxer (if hoax it be).

There are dubious stories that creep out by inadvertence - a prime example of which was Andrew Gilligan's infamous 6.07am broadcast that triggered the David Kelly/Hutton Inquiry business - where those originating the story had no idea it would turn out to be so important.

Clearly, when 60 Minutes decides to run fresh documentary evidence impugning the honesty of a US president two months before election day, and has its Number 1 news face to present the piece, nothing about the operation is inadvertent.

Yet they rely on photocopies (which are inherently more difficult to authenticate than originals). And, no doubt, they cannot explain why they did so without risking the anonymity of their source; but the inference is hard to resist that they wanted the story too badly to let an inevitable gap in the availability of proof [1] get in their way.

The organisation's cavalier approach to the question is suggested by a quote from
CBS spokeswoman Sandy Genelius...: "In the end, the gist is that it's inconclusive. People are coming down on both sides, which is to be expected when you're dealing with copies of documents."

(CBS's lead expert on evaluating the document, Marcel Matley, turns out to be a handwriting expert only:
Matley said [interviewed by the Post] he spent five to eight hours examining the memos. "I knew I could not prove them authentic just from my expertise," he said. "I can't say either way from my expertise, the narrow, narrow little field of my expertise."

In looking at the photocopies, he said, "I really felt we could not definitively say which font this is." But, he said, "I didn't see anything that would definitively tell me these are not authentic."

Not exactly ein feste Burg for Rather and Co...)

As I understand it, the problem for CBS was that, without the memos, there really wasn't anything new in the story: Ben Barnes was long on the record for having helped Bush into the Guard, his patchy service record was in evidence during the 2000 campaign.

It was the Killian memos that gave the story that Frankenstein jolt of electricity without which, according to the bizarre rules of the business, the story could not legitimately be run again.

And the hoaxer? Surely the first thing a serious hoaxer would have done would be to have picked up a second-hand typewriter of a make and model in common office use in 1972?

With the world and his wife on the story, I shall now retire and monitor developments...

  1. Testing the paper and the inks used, for instance, is clearly not possible with a photocopy..


Dan Rather's on-screen defence of his report (September 10 - NRO transcript, it says) seems less than convincing.

And the New York Times today has dissent in the CBS News camp on the matter - and on the record, to boot!

Mike Wallace, the longtime "60 Minutes" correspondent, said after hearing about new challenges to the validity of the documents on Sunday, "I'm confused by some of what I've heard today." But of his colleagues working on the report, he said: "You're dealing with genuine professionals. The last thing in the world that any of these people would want is to phony something."

I have a feeling there's a wealth of history behind that quote!


From Kevin Drum's comments:
I remember distinctly, Christmas 68, on a Swift Boat headed up river into Cambodia and seeing Charlie use an IBM Selectric with Subscripts and proportional spacing......that memory is seared into my mind

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