Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
September 10, 2004
POLITICS: Freepers 1, Big Media 0
If you read political blogs other than this one, you have by now already seen some of the details of this story; it's such a perfect illustration of the speed with which the blogosphere can detect, analyze, and ultimately overwhelm a bogus story in the mainstream media. And it all started with one guy on a message board. Here's the timeline:
1. Stories about President Bush's National Guard service had been pushed very hard by the media back in February, but little new information had surfaced since then. Following a month of tough questions about John Kerry's Vietnam service, however, Democrats were desperate to put some heat back on the president. Enter Dan Rather, ever eager to move the ball against Republicans; "60 Minutes II" had a story in the works for some time built around an interview with Ben Barnes, a Texas Democrat who claimed he'd pulled strings to get Bush into the National Guard in 1968. Leaving aside the fact that Bush actually didn't need any help because there was no waiting list for people willing and able to spend a year learning to fly the F-102, Barnes has an obvious credibility issue: he's a high-ranking official with the Kerry campaign and is the campaign's third-largest donor/fundraiser.
Enter the memos: CBS pushed the fact that the story also included "newly discovered" documents from the files of Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, who died in 1984 (dead men dispute no tales). Even before it aired, lefty bloggers like Josh Marshall and Kevin Drum started hyping the fact that the story would be more than just Barnes. The documents weren't hugely damning, but they added just enough weight to some of the pre-existing theories about Bush avoiding a flight physical and getting favored treatment to keep the story moving. The story aired Wednesday evening. In apparent coordination, the New York Times and Boston Globe on Wednesday released new high-profile stories including a retired military officer's analysis that had apparently been in the works since at least February (more on that one later).
2. Having been launched by CBS, the story took off immediately, with none of the slow-boil skepticism that had been applied to bona fide eyewitness accounts of Kerry's service. Thursday morning, the Times, the Washington Post and the New York Daily News all ran CBS' documents story on the front page. ABC's The Note aptly summarized the instant media feeding frenzy (links omitted):
ABC's Terry Moran's wrap of Bush's military Guard records was the first stand alone package in GMA. Moran included sound from White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett claiming Ben Barnes was acting "on behalf of John Kerry" and reported in his live close that Lt. Col. Jerry Killian wrote in one memo that "I'll back-date, but won't rate," a statement that "raises the possibility that Bush's military records were falsified."
CBS' Bill Plante's wrap led the "Early Show." Plante reported that the White House says Bush did not have to take the annual physical exam he never showed up for because the Alabama National Guard did not have the kind of airplane Bush was flying. Plante also reported that the White House says they are trying to get all of his records released.
NBC's Carl Quintinilla wrapped both Kerry's and Bush's Wednesdays within the "Today" newsblock, focusing on Kerry first then reporting nothing new on Bush's Guard records. Quintinilla was the only one to include the new "Texans for Truth" ad featuring former Alabama Air National Guard Lieutenant Bob Mintz claiming he didn't remember Bush being there.
The New York Times and the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune and USA Today wrap the days' developments. LINK, LINK, LINK, and LINK
The Boston Globe 's Robinson and Latour ran the "60 Minutes" documents by military officers who said it "contain[ed] evidence that political influence may have come into play as he sidestepped his training requirements in his final two years of service, from May 1972 until May 1974." LINK
"Bush's service has been in dispute for years because of a six-month gap in 1972 that has not been fully explained by military records. Repeated news reports and document releases by the White House and Pentagon have not settled the question," writes James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times. LINK
Rainey's last graph calls the Globe's Wednesday "scoop" into question:
"Two retired officers interviewed by The Times on Wednesday and familiar with National Guard procedures differed as to whether Bush was still obligated, at that point, to check in with a unit in the Boston area."
The Washington Times looks at the Democrats' strategy. LINK
Rush Limbaugh calls it all a cheap media ploy. LINK
DeFrank, Meek, and Siemaszko of the New York Daily News report the Bush campaign was "rocked yesterday by allegations that the "Top Gun President was a substandard pilot who disobeyed a direct order while serving in the Texas Air National Guard." LINK
The big lefty bloggers jumped instantly into the breach, with Kevin Drum, Mark Kleiman and Oliver Willis, in posts too numerous to link here, calling Bush a criminal and a liar and accusing the Whiite House of a cover-up.
3. Before the papers had hit the stands, however, CBS had posted PDF copies of the documents online, however, and around 9pm Wednesday, one guy on a FreeRepublic.com message board was raising questions about their authenticity:
In 1972 people used typewriters for this sort of thing, and typewriters used monospaced fonts.
The use of proportionally spaced fonts did not come into common use for office memos until the introduction of laser printers, word processing software, and personal computers. They were not widespread until the mid to late 90's. Before then, you needed typesetting equipment, and that wasn't used for personal memos to file. Even the Wang systems that were dominant in the mid 80's used monospaced fonts.
I am saying these documents are forgeries, run through a copier for 15 generations to make them look old.
This should be pursued aggressively.
47 posted on 09/08/2004 8:59:43 PM PDT by Buckhead
Now, the "freepers" have taken more than their share of guff over the years, and since I don't go there I can't vouch for whether the bad reputation is deserved. But on this one, all it took was one skeptical guy - one more, apparently, than works for Dan Rather (at least when it comes to anti-Bush stories).
4. At 7:51 AM Thursday morning, the Big Trunk over at Powerline - which may well be the best single conservative blog out there - simply posted a copy of the FreeRepublic post and asked whether the CBS memos were genuine. As soon as I saw that post, I knew this was a big story - and apparently, so did everyone else. Blog after blog started linking to it, emails poured in, and the Big Trunk started updating with thoughts from people all over the country who had experience with typewriters and computers and could tell the various telltale signs that this was a Microsoft Word document created on a laser printer rather than a genuine typewritten document. The incoming feedback really took off once the National Review Online linked to Powerline's analysis both at The Corner and the Kerry Spot. Typewriter museums (did you know such things existed?) were contacted, bloggers produced exact duplicates of the memo on Microsoft Word, forensic document experts were interviewed (see this INDC Journal post for a particularly in-depth treatment), people familiar with the technology and terminology available to the military in the early 70s weighed in. Dan Rather's most persistent critics jumped aboard. By late yesterday, the original Powerline post had over 250 trackbacks; by this morning, nearly 500.
5. Then, the breakout: around 3pm, the Drudge Report linked to the Powerline analysis, flooding the site with so much traffic it crashed. By 9pm, the Weekly Standard had a column out with this tidbit:
6. By this morning, the Washington Post and ABC News were running with the story - WaPo had it on the front page - of how CBS may have been duped, and Killian's own son was disputing the documents' authenticity. John Podhoretz was retracing some of the timeline in his NY Post column. And now, for all of Rather's eagerness to put some pressure on Bush, the heat will instead fall on CBS, which at last check was simply insisting that it adequately sourced its story.
In just a day, one citizen's skepticism shook CBS and reminded the major media outlets of the hazards of running with a story just because it came from one of their own. Ten years ago, they would have gotten away with it.