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Watching the Media Watchdogs

The liberal media-criticism establishment ignores the CBS News story--while the Washington Post delivers the coup de grace.

11:22 AM, Sep 14, 2004 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Breaking their silence on the CBS forgeries, the Columbia Journalism Review's Campaign Desk finally mentioned the scandal yesterday afternoon. In a post titled Blog Report, CJR finally turned to the biggest media story in recent memory; they gave it five sentences:

Last week's CBS report on the disputed Jerry Killian memos and the blogosphere's role in first questioning their validity is the subject of much back-and-forth in the 'sphere this morning.

(As an aside, the mainstream press moved in to give credit where credit's due. The Los Angeles Times ran a story crediting alert bloggers for first suspecting a hoax and introducing the possibility of forgery. And New York Times op-ed columnist William Safire today lashed out at Dan Rather, urging him to re-examine the sources.) Mostly, the frenzy consists of various bloggers swearing on the lives of their mothers that the Killian memos are authentic, and an equal number of bloggers swearing on the lives of their fathers that the Killian memos are fabricated.)

As for those writing about things other than typewriters and superscripts . . .

That's it. It is, of course, astounding that CJR could avoid covering the CBS forgery as a media story for almost a week. But here they're giving it short shrift as a blog story. There is, quite literally, no bigger story in the history of blogs. Yet somehow the writer--one Thomas Lang--manages to write about happenings in the blog world for another 420 words without touching further on the matter.

Such is the state of professional media criticism.

Meanwhile, Jim Romenesko continues his half-hearted coverage of the story by headlining this morning's installment "Rather's colleagues say they're worried about memos flap."

Romenesko then goes on to quote a New York Times story, saying, "One source describes the state of the CBS News staff as 'deep concern, I'd say not panic--we all want it to be right. Dan really put himself on the line and I can't imagine him knowingly defending something he knew not to be the case.'"

Romenesko buries (and CJR ignores) the definitive story on the case: this morning's devastating Washington Post article by Howard Kurtz and Michael Dobbs. The Post scores the following knockout punches:

(1) They get Marcel Matley to give an interview. Matley now says he examined not the documents, but only one signature and that "There's no way that I, as a document expert, can authenticate them."

(2) They reveal that the Post has run its own, independent comparisons and found "dozens of inconsistencies, ranging from conflicting military terminology to different word-processing techniques."

(3) Among these inconsistencies: "Of more than 100 records made available by the 147th Group and the Texas Air National Guard, none used the proportional spacing techniques characteristic of the CBS documents. Nor did they use a superscripted 'th' in expressions such as '147th Group' and or '111th Fighter Intercept Squadron.'"

(4) And factual problems, too: "A CBS document purportedly from Killian ordering Bush to report for his annual physical, dated May 4, 1972, gives Bush's address as '5000 Longmont #8, Houston.' This address was used for many years by Bush's father, George H.W. Bush. National Guard documents suggest that the younger Bush stopped using that address in 1970 when he moved into an apartment, and did not use it again until late 1973 or 1974, when he moved to Cambridge, Mass., to attend Harvard Business School."

(5) And also important stylistic differences: "The CBS memos contain several stylistic examples at odds with standard Guard procedures, as reflected in authenticated documents."

(6) They demolish CBS News defenses: "In a CBS News broadcast Friday night rebutting allegations that the documents had been forged, Rather displayed an authenticated Bush document from 1968 that included a small 'th' next to the numbers '111' as proof that Guard typewriters were capable of producing superscripts. In fact, say Newcomer and other experts, the document aired by CBS News does not contain a superscript, because the top of the 'th' character is at the same level as the rest of the type. Superscripts rise above the level of the type."

(7) And then take down last night's new CBS expert, Bill Glennon: "But Glennon said he is not a document expert, could not vouch for the memos' authenticity and only examined them online because CBS did not give him copies when asked to visit the network's offices."

(This is the same Bill Glennon, as Little Green Footballs points out, whom Time magazine described yesterday as a former typewriter repairman.

But what's really funny, as Tim Blair points out, is that Glennon first entered the fray as a commenter on the far-left Daily Kos website! So, after sneering at bloggers non-stop for four days, CBS was finally reduced to tracking down a former typewriter repairman who posted a comment on Kos--and putting him forward as their chief defender.)

(8) Finally, they get bonus points for quoting Joseph M. Newcomer, of Flounder.com fame.

Yet the most damning bit might be the reaction quote Kurtz and Dobbs get from CBS spokeswoman Sandy Genelius. "In the end, the gist is that it's inconclusive," she says. "People are coming down on both sides, which is to be expected when you're dealing with copies of documents."

Old CBS default position: "The story is true. The story is true." New CBS default position: Who knows what the truth is! You can't prove anything!

Jonathan V. Last in online editor of The Weekly Standard.