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Prove It

The Columbia Journalism Review finally confronts CBS News, Rathergate, and the blogosphere.

11:00 PM, Jan 4, 2005 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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THE COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW has a long, proud history of ignoring the story of the forged documents used by Dan Rather and CBS News. You'll recall that the scandal first broke on September 9, 2004, when a group of bloggers publicly questioned the validity of the four CBS memos. In the ensuing media scramble to get to the bottom of the story, blogs and big journalistic outfits such as ABC News, the Dallas Morning News, and the Washington Post took turns breaking news about the forgery, and then about the real source of the documents. (For a full history, click here.)

In all of the hubbub, the Columbia Journalism Review--America's premier media criticism outfit--was notably absent. CJR's blog did not mention the story until September 14, and then only in passing. Goaded by the blogosphere, they addressed the matter head-on later in the day, when managing editor Steve Lovelady wrote, ". . . we're not in the business of saying, 'You may be a bad boy; drink your medicine.' We're in the business of saying 'You are a bad boy; drink your medicine.' And, as of this moment, despite the flurry of charges and counter-charges, it's not clear whether CBS has been had by some undercover operative intent on smearing the president, or whether the network itself is the victim of a smear campaign."

By that point, of course, the matter was nearly settled. Nevertheless, CJR refrained from saying much more about the story. (However Lovelady did send a letter to Jim Romenesko's media criticism website chiding other journalists for making much ado about nothing: ". . . come on, guys--try to get a grip. It's not Watergate. It's not even Rathergate. So far, it's no more than Fontgate.")

After CBS disavowed its forged documents and announced that it was conducting an independent investigation into the affair, CJR finally weighed in definitively, declaring that "There's nothing complicated about any of this. The real story here isn't political bias on the part of CBS or Rather. It's that of big news organizations still in the thrall of a scoop mentality that dates back to the 1920's . . ." And that was that.

BUT NOW CJR'S flagship magazine has waded into the fray, albeit four months late, with a long analysis of the story by Corey Pein.

Pein's article, "Blog-Gate," posits, somewhat counterintuitively, that the lesson of CBS's "forged" documents is that the media are allowing themselves to be manipulated by a throng of right-wing bloggers. Says Pein, "on close examination the scene looks less like a victory for democracy than a case of mob rule."

The case Pein makes against bloggers rests largely on one point: That the CBS documents were not forged. Pein says that the memos "it turns out, were of unknown origin."

"We don't know enough to justify the conventional wisdom: that the documents were 'apparently bogus,'" Pein says. He adds, "We don't know whether the memos were forged, authentic, or some combination thereof." (Authentically forged, perhaps?) And finding proof for Pein may well be impossible. "The bottom line," he says, "which credible document examiners concede, is that copies cannot be authenticated either way with absolute certainty." Which suggests that, to Pein's mind, it is actually impossible to prove that the documents are forgeries.

Having erected an insurmountable burden of proof, Pein then goes about trashing anyone who dared reach a conclusion about the memos, beginning with Joseph Newcomer.

One of the fathers of modern electronic typesetting, Newcomer wrote a definitive, 7,000 word explanation of why the memos must necessarily have been forgeries on September 11, 2004, back when CJR was still officially ignoring the story. Four months later, his essay is still considered definitive. By everyone save Corey Pein, that is. Pein labels Newcomer "a self-proclaimed typography expert" and allows that his work "seemed impressive." Yet Pein dismisses the 7,000 word proof out of hand in two sentences, maintaining that it was based on a "logical error." (Meryl Yourish has cleared Newcomer of this silly charge.)

PEIN THEN MOVES ON to the inconvenient Bill Burkett, the Texas man who fed the documents to CBS and fibbed about their origins. By the end of last September, Burkett's credibility was in tatters: He admitted lying to CBS and claimed that he had received the memos from a mysterious woman named "Lucy Ramirez" during a blind hand-off at a livestock show in Houston. He was calling himself "a patsy." USA Today reporters described their sessions with him: "Burkett's emotions varied widely in the interviews. One session ended when Burkett suffered a violent seizure and collapsed in his chair."

But just as he could not be persuaded that the memos were forged, Pein refuses to discount Burkett either. "Dan Rather trusted his producer; his producer trusted her source. And her source? Who knows." Pein's sympathies for Burkett go farther:

. . . many suppositions about Burkett are based on standards that were not applied evenly across the board. In November and December the first entry for "Bill Burkett" in Google, the most popular reference tool of the twenty-first century, was on a blog called Fried Man. It classifies Burkett as a member of the "loony left," based on his Web posts. In these, Burkett says corporations will strip Iraq, obliquely compares Bush to Napoleon and "Adolf," and calls for the defense of constitutional principles. These supposedly damning rants, alluded to in USA Today, The Washington Post, and elsewhere, are not really any loonier than an essay in Harper's or a conversation at a Democratic party gathering during the campaign. While Burkett doesn't like the president, many people in America share that opinion, and the sentiment doesn't make him a forger.

So goes it at the Columbia Journalism Review. The university's motto may still be "In lumine Tuo videbimus lumen," but over at the j-school they have a new slogan: You can't prove anything.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard. He also runs the blog Galley Slaves.