Agam's Gecko
Friday, September 30, 2005

s difficult as it might be to believe (for anyone who even minimally followed the "RatherGate" memo-forging scandal at CBS' "60 Minutes" last year), anchorman Dan and his "news producer" Mary Mapes still don't understand what all the fuss was about. One year after they made the phrase "fake but accurate" world famous, and almost as long since Dan's early retirement from his anchor desk and Mapes' firing from CBS News over their faked news story, both continue against all common sense to adhere to Rather's dictum to his comrades: "Never back up, never back down, never give up, never give in." Not to mention the revelatory "F.E.A." According to Mary Mapes' new book, the acronym stands for.... well, let's just say it starts with an "F" and ends with ".. 'Em All". Lovely sentiments from those who are charged with providing us with reliable information, rather than "making the news".

Dan Rather was interviewed by Marvin Kalb this week, and Mary Mapes has just published her new book. The Rather interview was carried live on C-SPAN -- not available to me way over here, but a quick check on the C-SPAN site just now, shows it still available there. A click on this link should open it in Real Player (if you have it). I'm listening to it while I write this. If Marvin Kalb (an old CBS hand and longtime friend of Dan's) were to be any more fawning ("Dan you are marvelous, you are no ordinary work-a-day journalist."), he'd be sitting on the floor at Rather's feet. When Kalb launched into an "end of an era" question (regarding the 'big three' network anchor changes), Rather replies by talking about how it's all about the news, not the personalities or technology or the latest fancy graphic innovations. He then continues:
"You know it's very hard when you get, what I call 'up above the treeline,' in journalism; up where the air is thin, up where you think the Dalai Lamas of journalism..... run. It's very hard to keep it in perspective. But it's very important to do so."
Oh yeah! Cue the old song! "Love lifts us up where we belong, where the eagle cries, on a mountain high, where the Dalai Lamas of journalism run..." Somebody please help this poor man with his badly shattered self confidence.

What can be said though, when the interviewer -- a veteran of long experience -- comes prepared with questions that show his most basic non-acquaintance with the fundamental facts of the 60 Minutes fake memos? Early in the interview, Kalb lays the groundwork to a question by setting out the early events which first set the distributed intelligence network of the blogosphere into motion. And gets it totally tangled up in the process, complete with a rehashing of the first dumb misunderstanding which was debunked on the very first day (in other words, more than one year ago already!), seems to have plucked others in his sequence of events out of thin air, disregards everything important that happened immediately following the broadcast -- and then winds it up by (accidentally?) reminding us not to believe everything we read in newspapers.
"I've always been astonished that even before the program ended -- it was still on -- a blog site called Free Republic dot com, run by an active Air Force officer, blasted the program. Four hours later, another website called "Buckhead" ran a detailed critique of the documents that you used in the report."
I have looked at Free Republic just out of interest -- it is not a blog by any stretch of the definition. It's a conservative-oriented news portal that has discussion areas. I've no idea if an Air Force officer runs it, nor why that should be relevant. "Buckhead" was simply the online name of a user who learned via the site that CBS would be putting the "documents" up online in pdf format for download after the program had aired. Which he did. Several things didn't look right to him, and he posted about this on a Free Republic forum well after the show was over. Because he was not a registered user (in which case a poster's article is given a timestamp in his own time zone), his article was timestamped with a PDT identifier (probably because FR is hosted on the west coast) while he was actually in Georgia as I recall. The program had long finished when he posted his doubts about the authenticity of the memos. Naturally this was picked up by many BDS-ridden brainiacs in the media and elsewhere in the following days, convinced that this was a conspiracy that was all cooked up and ready to go long before the program was aired, and that the dumb "hyperconservatives" and "far right" elements behind it slipped up by pulling the trigger too early, giving the game away. As I said, this was all sorted out more than a year ago, and yet to this day it's one of the first "suspicions" trotted out by people who are determined to believe the memos are real.

Once the first suspicions were raised by "Buckhead", they spread very quickly to the blogs, and fortuitously also to Dr. Joseph Newcomer who posted a detailed professional analysis on his own website (his extensive resume is also available there for doubters to peruse). Newcomer flatly stated at the outset of his work that he's no fan of President Bush.
But I am even less a fan of attempts to commit fraud, and particularly by a complete and utter failure of those we entrust to ensure that if the news is at least accurate. I know it is asking far too much to expect the news to be unbiased. But the people involved should not actually lie to us, or promulgate lies created by hoaxers, through their own incompetence.
I believe that this detailed analysis is the one referred to by Marvin Kalb that astonished him so much, the "pages and pages of detailed analysis" (it is very long and involved) which appeared so quickly on the internet, not anything by "Buckhead".

Kalb wraps up his question by identifying "Buckhead" by name, saying "I don't know if that's true, but that's what the LA Times says." Well Marvin, if we can't trust the LA Times, who can we trust? The ones above the treeline, where the air is thin, and the Dalai Lamas of journalism roam? He finishes by outlining how the blogosphere grabbed hold of it in earnest, then the mainstream media all grabbed hold, and suddenly the focus was no longer on the specifics of the documents in question, "but it became all about you." Marvin, Marvin. By the time it became "all about Dan," practically nobody believed the documents were authentic any more -- so who or what do you expect it should be about once that has been settled? Mapes and Rather of course, the ones so determined to put these forgeries out despite the doubts of their own document experts, both running on a "tight deadline" with this story because of the fast approaching presidential election.

Rather does not answer. He has some tangent he wants to get out of the way first, and dances around that for a while. Then somehow he gets onto hurricane Katrina, and how wonderfully fantastic the media was on that issue. Kalb takes the ball back again, Katrina, Iraq etc. Eventually some time later, Dan reiterates that the story is true and accurate (he still doesn't mention the documents or anything substantial, all generalities). He believes in the story. CBS won't let him do anything more on it (he's joined the crew of 60 Minutes now, for some strange reason).

Mary Mapes produced the forged memos program, and had been chasing this story down for five years up to that point. Now she has published her book, Truth and Duty. There is a chapter available to read for free at that link. It's absolutely amazing how clueless she still is, after all the water under this bridge. She betrays how very little she actually paid attention while this whole controversy was going on -- she didn't learn anything.

One gets the feeling that she, to this day, doesn't feel obligated to pay the slightest attention to any of the factors in the de-authenticisation of her long-sought memos, the centerpiece of her project, because it was all just a cacaphony of nonsense from "hyperconservatives" and the "far right". The most fundamental typographical characteristic -- proportional vs. fixed spacing, basically whether an "i" and a "w" take up the same amount of space, or a proportional space according to their actual size -- remain a mystery to her. She writes about how "hard-core, politically angry, hyperconservative sites loaded with vitriol..." were doing write-ups on "...typeface, font style, and peripheral spacing..." Ha, ha. If she can't take the time to understand what's being talked about, the basic fundamentals of type face even to the extent of just getting simple terminology correct, what is she doing writing a book about it? But this looks very much like a Freudian slip revealing her inner voice. All this technical talk and document forensics, including the most elementary stuff, is just "peripheral" and not worth paying the slightest attention to.

Rand Simberg, writing at Transterrestrial Musings, says that she doesn't understand the arguments against her. Here is a beautiful example of a concise fisking (named in honour of Robert Fisk, who helped develop the genre). Simberg blogs mostly about science, technology and space. Like Dr. Newcomer, he doesn't have much use for hoaxes, or hoaxers.

Mapes, in her new book, continues to put forth the claim that the first "Buckhead" posting was sent before the program had finished. She cops out of responsibility for promoting this canard, by use of the old "I was told that..." trick. Pretty transparent. Even if she were to now understand that this is false, she doesn't actually come right out and tell an easily proven lie. I'm sure that many people told her that -- including most of the mainstream media, which certainly did -- at the time.

On the storm of public debate and widespread forensic analysis that the scanned memos generated on internet blogs (and don't forget that their exact synchronicity with MS Word docs, graphically demonstrated on the first day by Charles Johnson), Mapes writes (and Simberg fisks):
There was no analysis of what the documents actually said, no work done to look at the content, no comparison with the official record, no phone calls made to check the facts of the story...
Well, she's finally admitting it.

Oh, wait! She's talking about the bloggers! My irony meter just shattered the glass, and bent its needle into a pretzel.
Ouch! That's gotta hurt.
...nothing beyond a cursory and politically motivated examination of the typeface. That was all they had to attack, but that was enough.
Yes, it was enough to show that the faxes from Kinko's were faked (the fact that typefaces and kerning are inherently apolitical, is just a bonus), but there was nothing cursory about the examination. It's just that their fakeness was already apparent under even first and most cursory inspection. If anyone started the "politically motivated" bit, it was you and Rather. You had no doubts, and you didn't want any. You rushed to get this out six weeks before the election after having chased it for five years, and nothing would stand in your way -- not even professional ethics. You both still believe in the documents to this day! (Or are they actually "fake but accurate"... I'm losing track) Is this Bush Derangement Syndrome (a condition that seems frighteningly terminal in all too many cases) yet again? "Bush stole the election" so somebody has to steal it back?

This isn't merely "stuck on stupid." This is turned all the way up to eleven on stupid.
Or maybe it's just that. Stuck on stupid, willfully stuck for sure. Great example of General Honore's immortal quote!

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