Rathergate Redux

A Technical Retrospective

Copyright © 2005 William D. Ricker
All Rights Reserved

Corey Pein's CJR deconstruction of both the more rabid red bloggers and the "MSM" (Main Stream Media in blog-speak) are on target, but he repeats the error of the "MSM" in discarding the story with the messenger. In this case, he discards the technical proof of forgery.

As with Evolution, willful doubters can pick at individual points and cite alternative views and claim "only a theory". 60Min should have treated the memos as dubious until authenticated by both a chain of custody and document examination; they failed to do that. Based on the typographic evidence available, I must conclude the documents are highly dubious, at least for these copies.(At best they are modern retypings of actual memoranda, to hide an illicit chain of custody perhaps.) The evidentiary connections that Pein/CJR is missing is the combination of the typographic indicia; amongst the ravings of the rabid right there was some good investigative scholarship -- perhaps not journalism, but good technical history scholarship. One hopes facts matter in journalism, whether right or left.

Even if the original comment was on a raving righty blog site, and was phrased "for action", so what -- if the conclusion it jumped to was correct and checked out once it was checked out?

Bias disclosure & Qualifications -- I would love for the Rather story or the Globe story with the same facts but no documents to have "stuck" to Lt.Bush, even though it hadn't stuck 4 years prior either. But as an avocational printing historian (formerly webmaster and collections triage @ MuseumOfPrinting.org) and student of fonts, who has used computers for more years than most of these Bloggers and has carried an IBM Composing Selectric or two: once I saw the "smoking gun" memos at CBS, I knew the game was up on those documents at least.

Thought of in terms of a classical statistical experiment (for which we have too few test cases, but follow the terminology), the documents being producible in the era claimed is the null hypothesis, the norm that we wish to measure the likelihood of; if it is not compelling, that is the sign that something is wrong in the experiment. (Even if the null hypothesis checked out, a chain of custody would be nice too.)

There were some initial over-statements by the rabid righty bloggers. The rabid lefty counter-bloggers (and CBS/Media apologists) latched onto these quickly. But we will see that they are actually harmless to the theory.

These are over-statements. We can check the historical facts about typewriters.

However, none of these damages the MS Word hypothesis. If one actually cross-checks historical sources used to debunk these over-statements, one finds some relating facts that indicate that while any one of these nearly-true factoids can be false about a specific antique typewriter, no exemplar voids all the statements.

The most interesting refutation of the IBM Selectric Composer or IBM Composing Selectric theory was also over-stated by someone who read a technical source but without jargon knowledge. On the composer, it was required to type each line twice only when not setting flush left rag right. However, you only bought a set of these if your publishing project required full justification and centering.

I delivered four of the IBM Composing Selectrics to the MuseumOfPrinting from the Belmont Press's old automated strike-on composition system. These had formerly been run by computer to set the body type for three community weeklies, with four similar keyboards providing text-to-tape, and an IBM computer handling justification.

The th, the 4, and the linebreaks are why the colonel didn't type these on the Sargeant's newsletter composer, not the retyping.