Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Going down with the ship

So, finally some heads are rolling at CBS News after an independent panel concluded what everyone already knew: CBS continued to defend the bogus national guard memos long after they should have realized their mistake.

I was completely fascinated watching the memo story unfold back in September. What still amazes me is the psychology of those defending the memos, both inside and outside CBS. It was pretty clear to me the memos were fake as soon as I read this post by Charles Johnson on his blog "little green footballs," posted less than 24 hours after the 60 Minutes story aired. That a random, obscure 1973 memo-for-the-files would be typed on a proportional-spaced machine is unlikely. But the idea that it would happen to come out looking exactly like a Microsoft Word document is beyond unlikely.

Of course many CBS critics made claims that did not stand up under scrutiny--for example, that there were no typewriters in 1973 that could do proportional fonts, or that the Times Roman typeface did not exist. CBS defenders were able to successfully refute these and other claims. The problem was, many defenders seemed to take these refutations as evidence that the memos were genuine, and they failed to look carefully at the remaining arguments, or to fully consider the preponderance of evidence. Lesson: just because you're critics are mistaken about some things, it doesn't mean you are right.

The reaction of CBS insiders was, to me, even more puzzling. They defended the memos for over a week, despite the fact that they were in the best position to know of the memos' shaky provenance. Their necks were on the line, questions were coming in from all over, and they didn't even bother to do any more than the most cursory investigation. That's just astounding. I'm just amazed at people's willingness to go down with the ship. I guess some people are more trusting than I am.

The incident reminded me a little of when the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke back in 1998. Clinton sounded evasive to me (and to others) on the very first day when interviewed by Jim Lehrer, (e.g. "There is no improper relationship." Huh? That's a denial?). Within a couple of days information had leaked out about white house logs and other things that made it seem very likely that something fishy was going on. Yet as soon as Clinton shook his finger, many prominent democrats seemed willing to line up behind him without skepticism.

I still think that the issues raised in the "little green footballs" post have never gotten the attention that they deserve (although the post is mentioned in the panel's report). For days afterwards the mainstream media was debating whether any typewriters in the 1970s had proportional spacing or "th" superscripts. But they almost completely ignored how colossally unlikely it would be that they would have exactly the same spacing as Microsoft Word.

My favorite take on the situation came from David at cronaca.com, who compared the memos to forgeries in the art world:

For after having given a listen to the memos' defenders (Kos thread here) and dismissers (Instapundit's list of links here), the picture that emerges is that while the memos might have been able to have been typed on an early-'70s typewriter, their overall appearance is both anomalous for the era and disturbingly consistent with the norms of our own.

This is, of course, a classic red flag for art historians on the lookout for fakes: not just the anachronistic detail, but that more fundamental anachronism arising from the forger's inability to recognize (and suppress) the impress of his own time. And when I read attempts to explain how the memos could be genuine, they sound just like a tenaciously deluded owner of a painting, purportedly the work of some great old master, who points to one feature after another that can be paralleled in the master's oeuvre, while failing to see how they add up to a whole that is entirely modern in conception.

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