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The problem of discernment in the digital age

The Killian memos -- remember "fonts"? "Rathergate"? -- has come alive again (via). I thought I'd summarize the episode for those who came in late, and then ask some questions about the implications of the story from the standpoint of the media critique. It’s an interesting example of a dis- and misinformation campaign, and a complicated one (at least complicated for those of use who don’t do this sort of thing for a living). It was a big deal at the time, and bigger still in retrospect.

This, on backstory, summarized in June 2008 in the context of another disinformation campaign:

1. Bush was in a lot of trouble in the 2004 election because he couldn’t actually prove that he’d fulfilled his service obligations to the Texas Air National Guard [TANG]in the VietNam years. (Paul Lukasiak had him dead to rights on payroll records, I believe.)

2. Dan Rather and Mary Mapes of CBS went with an alternative path to the story, using for their source one Dan Killian, who supplied them with xerox copies of National Guard memos purporting to prove that Bush did not serve.

3. CBS authenticated the signature on the memo, but not the memos themselves, and ran with the story.

4. When the memos were published online, the Freepers had a held a humongous wankfest, since the memos were typed in a serif font — they claimed Times Roman — and, as they claimed, there were no typewriters with serifs in the period in question. (As a sidelight, the serif story made it from the blog of one “Buckhead” — who turned out to be a member of the Federalist Society and a voting machine expert (!) — to FOX in a single news cycle.)

5. For our purposes here, the authenticity issue is a sidelight: I myself owned an IBM typewriter with serifs during the time period in question; the freepers were “analyzing” a JPG of a xerox of an original, and the resolution is so poor that the font might not have been Times Roman; and other experts, promptly vilified by hordes of freepers, determined the memos were authentic.

6. What is important, is the outcome, a lovely Rovian bankshot, whose “logic” went: This memo on Bush AWOL is discredited, therefore all questions on Bush AWOL are discredited.

7. And indeed the story died, and Mapes and Rather were punished.

And this on the memos themselves, from September 2007:

1. Let’s remember that the TANG [Texas Air National Guard] story made it all the way from an obscure blogger (one “Buckhead,” who turned out to be a Federalist Society member and voting machine expert (!!) from Atlanta) to FOX news in a single news cycle. That stinks of yet another orchestrated disinformation campaign, to me.

2. I never bought into the “word processing” theory at the time because, back in the early 70s, I myself owned an IBM typewriter that justified type and had serifed fonts. And all the “experts” who testified against the authenticity of the memo had never physically examined it, which is a violation of professional ethics for graphologists. (Not to excuse CBS for only verifying the signature, even though the memo itself was a multi-generation xerox.) Finally, IRRC, the memos had a ragged baseline with letters out of alignment, much more characteristic of produced by mechanical means rather than by a digital system like a word processor (see below). Sure, anything can be PhotoShopped, but the wingers didn’t frame the argument that way, and in any case only physical examination of the documents could resolve that. (That we were arguing about fake documents using online reproductions that could, themselves, be faked, merely added to the surreality of the episode.)

3. Nobody disputed the underlying facts in the Killian memos that Rather went with. In fact, the secretary on the base at the time, when interviewed, didn’t remember the memo, but vouched for the accuracy of the memo’s content. And there is plenty of other evidence that Bush didn’t complete his service, must obviously that nobody ever came forward to claim the $10,000 reward that Gary Trudeau offered for a witness who saw him do it.

4. The real tragedy is that Rather went with Killian, an impeachable witness, instead of connecting to Paul Lukasiak of the blogosphere, who did serious work with the TANG payroll records (below), which showed, using evidence that was in now way controvertible, that Bush was paid for TANG work that he didn’t perform.

What this post adds is:

5. The reason that internal corporate politics at CBS would work to take Rather down.

As regards the authenticity of the memos themselves. I’m left with two possibilities:

A. The memos were authentic in both content and medium (see above comment on serifs), but that corporate politics and the compressed time frame imposed by the winger assault prevented that from happening. (They “hung tough” for two weeks, but IIRC made no further examinations of the memos. That sounds like corporate politics to me; the denial of resources.)

B. The memos were authentic in content, but not in medium. This would be a classic Rovian bankshot of deliberately planting TRUE information in a form that could be discredited.

In retrospect, as far as the truth goes, the fact that Gary Trudeau offered a $10,000 reward for anybody who actually witnessed Bush doing his TANG service, and nobody came forward to claim it, looms large.

As far as mis- and disinformation campaigns, the TANG/Killian memos episode is textbook case that should be studied in legacy party staff college, were there such a thing. The birthers making pronouncements of authenticity on the basis of digital images are the heirs of whoever (Bruce Bartlett, I think) orchestrated the Killian affair.

And from the 30,000 foot level, the question of “What is authentic?” in the digital era — the issue of discernment — is a very important one. How many YouTubes do we really know the provenance of? How about tweets? How about tweets in contested areas like Iran, or Occupy? One would hope that corporate branding would be an answer to the question digital authenticity, but after a few decades worth of false and/or fake stories — the WMDs (“Suck on this,” Tom), Wen Ho, the whole Whitewater mishagoss — that’s clearly not so.

But what do we do?

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