As Rathergate.com has noted, former CBS news executive vice-president Jonathan Klein’s comment (to Fox News Channel) that “you couldn’t have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances [at ’60 Minutes’] and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas” was “a watershed media moment.”
Indeed it was. Because Klein’s correct; you couldn’t have a starker contrast. The guys in pajamas got it right, and traditional media either got it wrong, like “60 Minutes,” or have been busy playing catch-up.
But I think there are a couple of aspects to this story other than Dan Rather’s liberal bias blinding him to the fact that those documents — which criticized President Bush’s behavior in the National Guard 30 years ago — are almost surely forgeries, and pretty obvious ones at that.
Another lesson here is that free agents like bloggers have a certain advantage over old media, because if they don’t aggressively pursue information no one notices them. The staff of hallowed institutions like “60 Minutes,” on the other hand, receive paychecks and retain prestige no matter what they happen to do (or not do) any particular week. And so they bask comfortably in the reflected glory of their employers, which often makes them lazy and soft.
As it happens, the same weekend that Rathergate broke, I got an illustration of this courtesy a friend who’s a longtime staff member at a famously reputable newspaper. She forwarded me — in all seriousness and evident alarm — an Internet letter warning that President Bush plans to launch a “mandatory draft for boys and girls (ages 18-26) starting June 15, 2005,” with no college deferments.
The letter explained that the Bush administration is quietly pushing through twin bills reinstating the draft while the public is distracted by the election. It took me less than two minutes to confirm (via the handy urban legends sites truthorfiction.com and snopes.com) that this Internet-circulated rumor is connected to reality only by the thinnest of threads. (Bills relaunching the draft do exist, but they’ve never gotten out of committee and are considered stagnant.)
I passed this info on to my friend, adding “P.S. Walt Disney isn’t cryogenically frozen either.”
That was snippy. But it’s one thing to get forwarded Internet hoaxes from your dotty Aunt Mildred, and another when they come from a fellow journalist who should know better. “I have read about draft-related discussions in more than a few places,” my friend responded defensively. “It’s probably not as far out as you think.”
Apparently she reconsidered how that sounded, though, adding that “I have to admit I popped off on that one.” Why? Because she wanted more info and so “took the shortcut” of seeing how a few email contacts would respond instead of researching it personally.
Most bloggers and freelancers (i.e: the pajama crowd) already know that’s a pretty inefficient “shortcut.” If my comfortably employed friend doesn’t, I’d say it’s because she doesn’t have to. And, of course, it’s easier to believe that President Bush has secret evil plans up his sleeve when 90 percent of your office colleagues are inclined to believe exactly the same thing.
Rathergate has been also something of a trip down memory lane for women of a certain age who remember the typewriter era. I should say women over a certain age and under a certain social class; my mother made me take typing in 6th-grade summer school “because then you’ll always be able to get a job.”
The idea — as I had to explain to an astonished 31-year-old friend the other day (“Are you saying she wanted you to be a SECRETARY?!”) — was that a girl might have to work in some clerical capacity if she didn’t get married right away, or if she had to put her husband through law school or something.
Secretarial impatience, by the way, is why the invented term “Ms.” caught on while other grating, artificial words like “womyn” and “herstory” didn’t. “It makes things so much easier for all the girls in offices,” I remember my mother observing 30 years ago. Before “Ms.,” secretaries had to call and find out whether the female recipient of a letter should be addressed as “Miss” or “Mrs.”
Later, when I grew up, I was surprised to meet women from fancier backgrounds whose “Feminine Mystique”-influenced mothers had instructed them NOT to learn to type (or cook, for that matter), lest men stick them with these lowly tasks and they end up like put-upon Sally on “The Dick Van Dyke Show, whose perky hairbow always seemed like a silent scream of rage.
This anti-competence tactic could pay off: Dame Margaret Anstee, the first woman undersecretary-general at the United Nations, titled her autobiography “Never Learn to Type.” But my speed-demon touch-typing skills have had their advantages, among them the ability to notice that another funny thing about those supposedly typewritten National Guard documents is that they contain neither hyphenated word-breaks at the ends of lines nor irregular right margins.
Typewriters would make a ding sound a few characters before the end of a line, at which point you had to either hyphenate a long word or press margin release to continue past and finish. (But then the right margin could look a?little messy.) That ding, and the cheery sound of a manual typewriter’s return bar, are now as forgotten as what the ring on a non-electronic phone sounded like.
Hyphenating at the end of a line was a pain and by the mid-to-late ’70s had gone out of style. Before that, teachers had spent a fair amount of time in school on correct wordbreaks. The early ’70s, when the National Guard “memos” are dated, were something of a transition period. Rathergate inspired me to dig up an old typed letter my mother sent to me at summer camp in 1972. She hyphenated exactly one word at the end of a line, in the first paragraph — “I’m looking for-ward to seeing you…” — and then I guess figured to hell with it.
A typist would normally always put her initials in lowercase under the uppercase intials of the person the letter was from. You could tell what KIND of a person the letter was from if the typist had been told to add the pro forma/rude jerk notation “dictated but not read.”
What a vanished world all this conjures up, like that verse from the musical “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying”:
A secretary is not a toy, no, my boy, not a toy…
Her pad it is to write in, and not to spend the night in…
The elitism of big media has many dangers, not least of which is that when it hovers so far above the lives of most Americans, the ordinary artifacts of the unglamorous workplace become hopelessly exotic. Too bad for CBS that?everyone there is apparently so lofty they not only can’t admit error, but can’t recognize what something from the typing pool looked like.
Catherine Seipp is a writer, and she blogs at her website “Cathy’s World.”