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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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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.