TCS Daily

Blogs v. 60 Minutes

By Jay Currie - September 10, 2004 12:00 AM

The CBS news program Sixty Minutes II ran a story on September 8th bringing to light a set of memos which purported to show that when President Bush was in the National Guard he failed to obey orders. Liberal blogger Josh Marshall framed this revelation thusly:

But aside from orders that contravene the laws of war, the Geneva Conventions or the US constitution, I don't think an officer or an enlisted man is allowed to disobey an order just because he comes up with some logic by which he decides the order doesn't really make sense. An order is an order, right?


The memos were supposed to have been written in the early 1970s by a Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian. Who is, as it happens, died in 1984.


Heres what CBS says about the documents:


60 Minutes has obtained a number of documents we are told were taken from Col. Killian's personal file. Among them, a never-before-seen memorandum from May 1972, where Killian writes that Lt. Bush called him to talk about how he can get out of coming to drill from now through November."


According to the CBS report, Lt. Bush tells his commander he is working on a campaign in Alabama. and may not have time to take his physical." According to the report, Killian adds that he thinks Lt. Bush has gone over his head, and is "talking to someone upstairs."

60 Minutes says it consulted a handwriting analyst and document expert who believes the material is authentic.


The CBS story, echoed in the New York Times and the Boston Globe went on to suggest Bush directly disobeyed orders to have an annual physical and, as a result, was grounded.


Pretty damning stuff. Just one problem -- there is mounting evidence collected by the blogosphere that the documents were forgeries. And not very good forgeries at that.


A lot of bloggers are designers and computer geeks. People who pay attention to things like proportional spacing, kerning, superscript text and the other features of modern word processing. Guess what? A letter by letter comparison of one of  the purported memos with a version typed in Microsoft Word by Charles Johnson at the blog Little Green Footballs reveals:


The spacing is not just similar -- it is identical in every respect. Notice that the date lines up perfectly, all the line breaks are in the same places, all letters line up with the same letters above and below, and the kerning is exactly the same. And I did not change a single thing from Words defaults; margins, type size, tab stops, etc. are all using the default settings. The one difference (the th in 187th is slightly lower) is probably due to a slight difference between the Mac and PC versions of the Times New Roman font, or it could be an artifact of whatever process was used to artificially age the document. (Update: I printed the document and the th matches perfectly in the printed version. Its a difference between screen and printer fonts.)   


To hammer his point home Johnson superimposes the purported memo with his Microsoft Word, typed today version. Literally 1:1, not even fuzzy, not a letter out of place.


For really detailed analysis, Powerline readers get right to the kerning:


The type in the document is KERNED. Kerning is the typesetters art of spacing various letters in such a manner that they are 'grouped' for better readability. Word processors do this automatically. NO TYPEWRITER CAN PHYSICALLY DO THIS.


To explain: the letter 'O' is curved on the outside. A letter such as 'T' has indented space under its cross bar. On a typewriter if one types an 'O' next to a 'T' then both letters remain separated by their physical space. When you type the same letters on a computer next to each other the are automatically 'kerned' or 'grouped' so that their individual spaces actually overlap. e. g., TO. As one can readily see the curvature of the 'O' nestles neatly under the cross bar of the 'T'. Two good kerning examples in the alleged memo are the word 'my' in the second line where 'm' and 'y' are neatly kerned and also the word 'not' in the fourth line where the 'o' and 't' overlap empty space. A typewriter doesn't 'know' what particular letter is next to another and can't make those types of aesthetic adjustments.


The Weekly Standard published a story with comments from a number of typography experts all of which suggest the memos are a hoax. Radio host and blogger Hugh Hewitt interviews a document examination expert and, unsurprisingly, on point after point the expert is convinced the memos are forgeries.


Most importantly, because it breaks out of the blogosphere, the Associated Press is now on the story, albeit from a different angle:


Gary Killian, who served in the Guard with his father and retired as a captain in 1991, said one of the memos, signed by his father, appeared legitimate. But he doubted his father would have written another, unsigned memo which said there was pressure to sugar coat Bush's performance review.


"It just wouldn't happen, he said. The only thing that can happen when you keep secret files like that are bad things. ... No officer in his right mind would write a memo like that."


One day. That was all it took for the ranks of citizen journalists to swarm and then thoroughly discredit a story which ran in the New York Times, the Boston Globe and on a network news magazine.


From the Kerry perspective a scandal involving forged documents is a disaster. Kerry had yesterday to get in front of the story and he missed that boat. Instead of being able to stay on message and trying to beat down the post convention pulse which has sent Bush several points ahead in various  opinion polls, Kerry is likely to face questions about who was responsible for the forgeries. While it would be astonishing if anyone inside the Kerry organization had a hand in them, it is a question that will be asked. Moreover, the spectacle of Kerry announcing that his campaign organization and the Democratic Party had nothing to do with issuing those documents will occupy several critical news cycles and focus attention on character -- exactly where Kerry does not want to be.


From the perspective of the establishment media, this, too, is a disaster. CBS will have to explain: where did the documents come from? What were the bona fides of the source? Who was the source? Which expert looked at the documents? How closely?


Those are the starter questions. The more basic question is how could a rabble of bloggers, in one day, provide hard core proof of forgery when major news organizations took those documents at face value? Most fundamental of all, why did the New York Times, the Boston Globe and CBS allow themselves to be used for such a transparent attempt to slander President Bush? Out in the blogosphere there are a swarm of people rooting for the answers.


Jay Currie is a Galiano writer whose writing and blog is at



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