The Magazine

The CBS Whitewash

From the January 24, 2005 issue: The coverup continues.

Jan 24, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 18 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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LAST SEPTEMBER, CBS NEWS president Andrew Heyward promised a full accounting within "weeks, not months" of his network's attempt to pass off as genuine four fraudulent memos about President Bush's long-ago service in the Texas Air National Guard. Last Monday--nearly four months later--CBS released its report.

Compiled by independent investigators Dick Thornburgh and Louis D. Boccardi, the 224-page document looked thorough enough, and its executive summary contained some bracing language. The 60 Minutes Wednesday segment shown on September 8, 2004, suffered from "considerable and fundamental deficiencies." Its producers had "failed miserably" to authenticate the purported memos from Col. Jerry Killian that supposedly substantiated the old claim that George W. Bush had received favorable treatment in the TexANG in the 1970s. The network had been guilty of "myopic zeal" in rushing the story onto the air. The Wall Street Journal deemed the report "scathing," and the New York Times called it a "crushing blow" to CBS's credibility.

Only on closer examination do the report's core weaknesses become clear. For while it includes quite a lot of detail, its authors decline to draw conclusions on two essential factual matters: Were the documents CBS relied on copies of authentic 1972 memos? And was the reporting of them motivated by political bias? Without a final judgment on these counts, the report is useless--or worse.

WERE THE KILLIAN MEMOS FORGED? The Thornburgh-Boccardi panel makes a great show of its agnosticism on this question. Its members are certain of their uncertainty: "The Panel was not able to reach a definitive conclusion as to the authenticity of the Killian documents."

This was perhaps the most newsworthy statement in the CBS report. Most people considered it long since established that the documents were fakes. This had been settled by a large cohort of experts, a bevy of testimony from the blogosphere, and most definitively by Dr. Joseph Newcomer.

When the scandal broke last fall, Newcomer, one of the fathers of modern electronic typesetting, found himself intrigued. Not normally interested in politics, he was interested in typography and fonts, and he noticed problems with the CBS memos almost immediately. After investigating, he came to the unequivocal conclusion that the documents were "modern forgeries." What many on the Internet had suspected, Newcomer proved. On Friday, September 10, he sent his lengthy analysis to a number of local and national media outlets, including Time and Newsweek. No one bothered to call him back, so on September 11 he posted his work on a website. A few hours later, it was everywhere.

Newcomer's analysis and conclusions, soon joined by other experts, quickly came to be accepted as definitive. So why did the Thornburgh-Boccardi panel spurn Newcomer and the rest of the body of expert opinion? What caused them to reopen the possibility that the documents might be copies of authentic memos after all?

Appendix 4 of the CBS report details the panel's inquiry into the technical aspects of the memos. It relies heavily on the testimony of Peter Tytell, a forensic document examiner with impressive qualifications, including having once been called a "famous typewriter detective" by CBS's own Andy Rooney.

Like Newcomer, Tytell came to some quick conclusions. He told the panel that even while watching the September 10 CBS Evening News broadcast at home, he'd known "within 5 seconds" that something was wrong with the documents CBS was showcasing as newly discovered memos from 1972. In fact, on September 10--the same day Newcomer sent his essay to members of the media--Tytell had contacted CBS to explain "in detail why he believed the Killian documents were likely fakes."

Eventually, the panel hired Tytell to serve as its document expert. He examined the Xeroxes carefully and came to three conclusions: (1) Previously released Texas Air National Guard documents from the early 1970s had been created on an "Olympia manual typewriter." (2) The four disputed Killian memos "were not produced on an Olympia manual typewriter." And (3) "The Killian documents were produced on a computer in Times New Roman typestyle."

Why was Tytell so sure? The Killian memos had proportional spacing, a superscript "th", and a serif typestyle. Tytell consulted the Haas Atlas--the typesetter's bible--looking for a typewriter model that could have produced these features in 1972, and "did not find a single match with the Killian documents."