Surely it’s a joke. It’s an Onion sendup. A feature story in the January/February issue of the Columbia Journalism Review says that the famed Selectricgate documents–those fake anti-Bush memos that sent Dan Rather to swift retirement–were actually real! Yup, that’s the Columbia Journalism Review, published by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and supposedly the nation’s premier media trade-mag.
And yup, author/CJR staffer Corey Pein writes of those documents miraculously written in Microsoft Word even though the year was 1971 and Microsoft founder Bill Gates was but a teenager: “They were real.” Or at least: “Some of them were real.” Or at least: “They were recreations of real documents.”
Or at least, writes Pein, the memos, waved around by Rather on “60 Minutes” shortly before the election and detailing George W. Bush’s supposed derelictions while serving in the Texas Air National Guard back in the early ’70s, were likely “fake but accurate.” Fake but accurate? This is the journalistic standard of the Columbia Journalism Review?
Here’s the Pein-ful prose:
“Consider the memos in question. They were supposed to have been written by Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian, now dead, who supervised Bush in the Guard. We know Killian’s name was on them. We don’t know whether the memos were forged, authentic, or some combination thereof. Indeed, they could be fake but accurate, as Killian’s secretary, Marian Carr Knox, told CBS on September 15. We don’t know through what process they wound up in the possession of a former Guardsman, Bill Burkett, who gave them to the star CBS producer Mary Mapes. Who really wrote them? Theories abound: The Kerry campaign created the documents. CBS’s source forged them. Karl Rove planted them. They were real. Some of them were real. They were recreations of real documents. The bottom line, which credible document examiners concede, is that copies cannot be authenticated either way with absolute certainty. The memos that were circulated online were digitized, scanned, faxed, and copied who knows how many times from an unknown original source. We know less about this story than we think we do, and less than we printed, broadcast, and posted.
“Ultimately, we don’t know enough to justify the conventional wisdom: that the documents were ‘apparently bogus’ (as [the Washington Post’s media reporter] Howard Kurtz put it, reporting on Dan Rather’s resignation) and that a major news network was an accomplice to political slander.”
Pein goes on–and here’s where it’s got to be the Onion, not CJR!–to say that the typographic evidence that the docs were fakes was “inconclusive.” Here’s what he writes:
“The specific points of contention about the memos are too numerous to go into here. One, the raised ‘th’ character appearing in the documents, became emblematic of the scandal, as Internet analysts contended that typewriters at the time of the memo could not produce that character. But they could, in fact, according to multiple sources. Some of the CBS critics contend they couldn’t produce the specific ‘th’ seen in the CBS documents.”
Corey, as a former IBM Selectric owner (until less than three years ago, when the thing broke down for the last time and I finally threw it out), let me assure you that it couldn’t produce the raised “th.” It couldn’t center headings as on the fake memos, either, except by a clumsy manual process evident to anyone at the time who read Selectric-produced documents. It couldn’t kern, adjust spacing or do the gazillion other things that made a fool out of Dan Rather when the docs got reproduced, not just online but in every newspaper in America. (And if you don’t believe me, Corey, check this post about your story by professional typesetter Meryl Yourish.)
Pein’s main argument, however, doesn’t have anything to do with typography, or anything else that has anything to do with the facts. It’s that “right-wing” blogs broke the Memogate story, and the major media for some reason went along with it. Since we all know that the right wing can’t be trusted, that was bad, bad, bad, and hence deserving of censure by the Columbia Journalism Review.
I don’t know where to start with the guffaws across the blogosphere that have greeted Pein’s excuse for an expose, so I’ll refer you, dear readers, to these choice bits on Powerline (one of the breakers of the Memogate story), Instapundit, The Volokh Conspiracy, Little Green Footballs, and Wizbang. And as for you, dear Corey, here’s what your fellow liberal Mickey Kaus (et tu, Mickey!) has to say about your work:
“The prestigious Columbia Graduate School of Journalism could use this meandering, weak piece — which fails to deliver the goods in support of whatever its vaguely delineated thesis is–as a case study of an article that desperately needs editing before it’s published. … Oh, wait. The piece was published. By the prestigious Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. …”
By the way, Corey Pein has posted his resume on the Internet. Besides attending Evergreen State University, the grade-free, classes-on-the-floor, underwater basket-weaving college in Oregon (his fellow Corrie, Rachel, defender of Palestinian explosives-smuggling tunnels, was also a grad), our intrepid author happened to attend the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where he was voted “most likely to bring down a presidential administration” by his classmates. I’d say most likely to bring down the Columbia Journalism Review.