Tuesday, September 21, 2004

By now everyone who reads this blog has surely read about the CBS document scandal, in which Dan Rather claimed to possess four 1973 documents tarnishing George W. Bush's record with the Texas Air National Guard. The documents were in fact, really poor-quality forgeries, almost certainly edited on a personal computer running Microsoft Word on its default settings, rather than typed on a typewriter in 1973. I will limit myself to two comments:

1) Much attention has been given to the role of blogs in uncovering the scandal and generally "fact-checking" the press. No doubt blogs increased the speed of the reaction to CBS' malfeasance, but I don't think they would have accomplished much without a much more important development--the collapse of the old "big three" network news oligopoly.

In 1997, the Food Lion supermarket chain won a lawsuit against ABC, after two ABC Prime Time journalists got themselves hired at a Food Lion, then filmed unsanitary practices they found there with a hidden camera. Although the film taken by the ABC employees (subpoena'd by Food Lion and shown to the jury) proved that the "Prime Time" piece had effectively been a set-up, the press generally rallied around ABC. At a panel on ABC's "Nightline", for example, Don Hewitt--then executive producer of CBS' "60 Minutes"--not only spoke in "ABC Prime Time"'s defense, but even castigated the judge for allowing Food Lion to obtain the unbroadcast footage revealing some of ABC's questionable tactics. Hewitt obviously felt that both he and the "Prime Time" producers were in the same boat, as network television magazine journalists, and had to stick together when threatened from outside.

These days, however, ABC is among the more aggressive news organizations exposing the fraudulence of the CBS memos. With the cozy dominance of the "big three" gone--replaced by a chaotic battleground of cable news stations, satellite channels and foreign outlets accessible over the Internet--ABC has its own credibility (and market share) to worry about, and is happy to cannibalize its erstwhile friends at CBS. Its reports, along with the equally skeptical accounts of such organs as the Washington Post, reach millions more Americans than even the most popular blogger, and are the real reason why CBS had to back down in the end.

2) This scandal may, in the long run, prove to be the press' salvation. For while much has been made of the crude obviousness of the forgeries CBS fell for, little attention has been paid to a much more fundamental point: the documents "60 Minutes" touted as evidence were in fact photocopies, rather than originals. In other words, if the forger had simply taken the trouble to type them on a vintage typewriter instead of a word processor, then scanned them into a computer and edited in the image of a real (or painstakingly forged) signature, then the documents' authenticity would have been virtually impossible to ascertain, and CBS would most likely have been able to continue to defend the plausibility of their story.

The problem, of course, is that given the state of modern technology, a photocopied document is terribly easy to forge, in ways that are difficult-to-impossible to detect. If the existing standard of evidence had continued to allow journalists to rely on photocopied documents, then one would expect any number of forged photocopies to be leaked anonymously to the press in the future, and their contents to be dutifully relayed to the public by gullible reporters. The CBS scandal, however, may have sufficiently discredited photocopy evidence that it will never again be considered trustworthy enough to base a story on. If so, then that would without question be the most important positive outcome of the whole affair.

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