September 21, 2007


Dan Rather is suing CBS over the way they treated him in the aftermath of the 2004 fontgate affair. (In case you've forgotten that bizarre episode, I'll remind you that CBS, under Rather's leadership as anchor, featured obviously-forged documents purporting to show that George W. Bush had shirked his National Guard duties during the Vietnam War.) And yesterday, the Huffington Post featured a piece by Mary Mapes, one of the CBS producers who was disgraced along with Rather ("Courage for Dan Rather", 9/20/2007).

Mapes' piece is extraordinary -- and I don't mean that in a good way -- for two reasons.

First, she seems still to be claiming that the forged documents were real, or perhaps copies of real documents, or at least not proved to be faked:

We reported that since these documents were copies, not originals, they could not be fully authenticated, at least not in the legal sense. They could not be subjected to tests to determine the age of the paper or the ink. We did get corroboration on the content and support from a couple of longtime document analysts saying they saw nothing indicating that the memos were not real.

On this point, I'd like to suggest that you go read Geoff Pullum's 9/15/2004 post "Typography, truth, and politics", and (if you have the time and care about this question) some of the rest of the Language Log commentary from the period. I'm suggesting this not because Geoff -- for all his diversely excellent qualities -- produced the definitive assemblage of evidence on this point, but because of the second extraordinary feature of Mapes' screed, namely her view that the only people who raised questions about the memos' authenticity were members of "the conservative blogosphere, particularly the extremists among them":

Instantly, the far right blogosphere bully boys pronounced themselves experts on document analysis, and began attacking the form and font in the memos. They screamed objections that ultimately proved to have no basis in fact. But they captured the argument. They dominated the discussion by churning out gigabytes of mind-numbing internet dissertations about the typeface in the memos, focusing on the curl at the end of the "a," the dip on the top of the "t," the spacing, the superscript, which typewriters were used in the military in 1972.

It was a deceptive approach, and it worked.

Now, you didn't have to be an expert on document analysis to follow the (straightforward, convincing and indeed incontrovertible) argument that certain of the crucial documents were crude forgeries. The person who made this argument in its most complete and convincing form, Dr. Joseph Newcomer, explained that "I am not a fan of George Bush. But I am even less a fan of attempts to commit fraud". And the people who were convinced, and said so, were not all "far right blogosphere bully boys". Geoff Pullum can be a bit rough on careless purveyors of bad grammatical and stylistic advice, but he's no thug; and I believe that he considers himself politically left of center; and he began his post on the subject this way:

The documents that CBS, Dan Rather, and 60 Minutes presented as 1972 memos from the Texas Air National Guard, with their putative revelations that George W. Bush tried to wriggle out of his obligations, are crude forgeries. The evidence for this claim is basically linguistic. There are weaker points about style (a military officer writing a memo to file with "CYA" as the subject?) and abbreviatory arcana (OETR for OER), but the strong evidence has to do with technical topics often discussed on Language Log and fairly close to the business of many modern linguists: things like character sets, typographical details, and word processing technology. Enough so, anyway, that the story does merit a brief but rather serious discussion here, and a comment at the end.

According to Google, the phrase {"reality-based"} occurs 1,150 times on the Huffington Post site, often echoing the political left's positive identification with a negative characterization attributed to a Bush staffer:

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

I'm proud to consider myself a member of the "reality-based community". As a result, I'm reasonably convinced that George W. Bush used family connections to "jump the line" into the Texas National Guard in order to avoid service in Vietnam; and the evidence that I've seen indicates that he did as little actual National Guard service as the law allowed, and maybe less. Having been drafted and sent to Vietnam myself, I resent this a bit, especially in the context of what W now has to say about that war. But Mary Mapes' attempt to rehabilitate those forged documents is not based in any kind of reality that I understand.

[Note added by Geoff Pullum: Allow me to say just this about Mary Mapes's apparent implication that I belong to a gang of "far right blogosphere bully boys" — "keyboard assault artists who saw themselves as avenging angels of the right" — and thus should be dismissed as not competent to analyze documents or review the work of those who did.

It should not be necessary here for the issue of place on the political spectrum to come up at all. I have both Republican friends and Democrat friends who think George W. Bush is quite simply the worst American president they have ever known or heard about. He is loathed by conservatives and leftists alike. In the UK my Tory friends, my Labour-voting friends, and my Liberal-Democrat inclined parents all think the same. Just about everybody I know thinks it would be excellent news if evidence were found that would reveal flagrant failure to perform military duty on the part of GWB, because it might either weaken him politically or hasten his departure from the political scene. But for heaven's sake, we can't let truth be confused with wishful thinking when it comes to evidence. We can't let a forged memo, clearly faked in the early 2000s using Microsoft Word, be passed off as a genuine memo from 1972 typed on a military typewriter. Objecting to that is not right wing!

Ms Mapes is just not even looking at the evidence that I briefly and somewhat reluctantly reviewed in 2004 — still desperately trying to justify herself and Dan Rather and the whole production team, who were simply duped by a clumsy forger. It is truly amazing that even now, three years later, Rather and Mapes are trying to justify their stupidity and dismiss the thoroughly vindicated analyses offered by their many critics.

Grow up, people. You humiliated yourselves on national TV by accepting documents that could be spotted as forgeries as soon as they were released in facsimile. You were had. You were patsies, you were careless, and you caused enormous damage to the reputation of CBS. You ruined the case for GWB's military irresponsibility and mendacity (in very much the same way that Mark Fuhrman wrecked the murder case against O. J. Simpson). You messed up. Deal with it.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 21, 2007 10:03 AM