Media Matters

Regular Folks Know a Lot

People are too smart. To remain in the dark, CBS turned to "experts."

By 9.24.04

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In all the blizzard of words published about Blathergate over the last couple of weeks, one paragraph caught my eye. It's this one, from the September 19 Washington Post story headlined, "In Rush to Air, CBS Quashed Memo Worries." Howard Kurtz, Michael Dobbs and James V. Grimaldi wrote it.

It quickly became clear that the people CBS hired to authenticate the documents had -- and claimed -- only limited expertise in the sometimes arcane science of computer typesetting technology and fonts. Such expertise is needed to determine whether the records could have been created in 1972 and 1973. Independent experts contacted by The Post were surprised that CBS hired analysts who were not certified by the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners, considered the gold standard in the field.

"Sometimes arcane science"? "Expertise…needed"? "Analysts…certified"? Granted, you want a credentialed expert when you take something to a courtroom, and CBS News ought to have had appropriately credentialed analysts backing up their story, too. But truly, there's very little arcane science involved in answering an immediate question: Was a piece of text created on a computer or a typewriter? Even more important, was a memo typed or printed in 1972?

The same kind of looking-down-the-nose insularity hung about the suspicions raised of one "Buckhead," the Free Republic poster whose early questioning of the Killian memos' typefaces seemed to have kicked off the whole Memogate controversy. He must have been some Republican plant, the Dem activists insisted. The timing was too suspicious. He knew too much. When Buckhead was revealed to be an Atlanta attorney with Republican affiliations, well, that cheesed it. Karl Rove had sent Buckhead a message; Buckhead had enlisted the VRWC with a few well chosen words, and there you go.

For Buckhead stuff, see here. For a complete recap of Free Republic posts on the origin of the controversy, see here.

BUT CONSIDER HOW MUCH REGULAR FOLKS KNOW. If you have not been famous or otherwise insulated, you have likely had half a dozen jobs by the age of 50. You have perhaps started, or tried to start, your own business. You have moved at least four times in adulthood, and bought and sold perhaps that many houses or condos, You have researched a number of areas of the country and lived in two or three (and not just Washington, New York, and Los Angeles). You have perhaps served a military hitch. You have had children in public schools or you've been home-schooling; you've raised funds for a church or a lodge or a Boy Scout troop. In some context or other, you have sold something door to door, published a newsletter, sold advertising, served on a committee, had a hand in hiring and firing.

If you've ever had a hobby, you probably have an expert education in something like motorcycle mechanics, photography, flying, firearms, railroad history, or ornithology.

Just to the matter at hand: Like Buckhead, who is a 46-year-old lawyer, you have probably had to work with, or even specify the purchase of, several computer systems. Indeed, you're old enough to remember when there were no computers in offices. You have participated in the entire computer revolution. You're old enough to have learned to type on a typewriter, and maybe even to have worked on one.

So what's the big mystery? Not that ordinary people knew "arcane" things about typefaces and spacing, but that the big machers at CBS didn't know perfectly ordinary things.

To have detected these forgeries did not require: Knowing the difference between Times Roman and Times New Roman, knowing the difference between the look of Times Roman printed from MicroSoft Word versus the look of the same typeface set by a Varityper, distinguishing chemical characteristics of printing inks, or -- shades of Ellery Queen -- differentiating between the signature idiosyncracies of one Underwood manual typewriter's key bars versus another's.

It required making an ordinary observation: "Hey, these things don't look like they were typed in 1972." It just required being part of the real world.

"Out of touch" doesn't even begin to describe what CBS did -- what CBS News is.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.