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Rathergate revisited

Dan Rather, CBS

“There are proportional fonts that shouldn’t be there.” “The typography is wrong.” “Within hours of the release, users at the Free Republic were calling it a forgery.” “Expert forensic document examiners found problems.” “We can’t tell for sure without seeing the original.”

Sound familiar? Yes, they sound like the aftermath of President Obama’s long-form birth certificate announcement last April 27, but in reality I took them from September 9, 2004, following a report by CBS News based on a series of 1972-1973 letters purportedly written by Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian, a deceased former US Army National Guard officer, critical of George W. Bush’s National Guard fitness. The scandal eventually became known as Rathergate because of the central involvement of CBS News’ Dan Rather and the 60 Minutes television program who aired the documents and declared them genuine.

While the two document controversies are strikingly similar in a superficial way, there are important differences. First, the documents in question had real and obvious flaws, such as a raised “th” that wouldn’t be in a 1973 typewritten document. The fonts were proportional. One Internet writer typed the document into Microsoft Word and, using Word’s default settings, showed that the spacing in his document exactly overlaid the fake document.

The second important difference is real credentialed document examiners looked at the images, not just Internet hobbyists.

And most importantly The New York Times and The Washington Post questioned the documents in front-page stories the very next day after the documents came out.

In the case of Rathergate, the system worked. The existing institutions showed that even though they could make a mistake, they could also correct it. The competitive nature of the Press makes one news organization police another to keeps them honest. While the story started with competing experts, the truth became clear in short order.

Some may take Rathergate as evidence that the media cannot be trusted and that the truth lies on the Internet. I take away a different lesson: while the media is not perfect, it can admit its mistakes and has the resources to get to the bottom of things. It also belies the claim that the “liberal media” as a whole cover up facts that go against a liberal agenda.

I urge readers to read the excellent Wikipedia article linked below and draw their own comparisons and contrasts.

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6 Responses to Rathergate revisited

  1. avatar
    US Citizen June 12, 2011 at 5:08 pm #

    This provides a good question why birthers think such issues haven’t been scoured by professionals up and down with no other conclusion but Obama is legally entitled to be president.

    However, where did you find that Burkett is deceased?

  2. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy June 12, 2011 at 5:21 pm #

    US Citizen: However, where did you find that Burkett is deceased?

    The article is in error, I meant to say that Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian, the alleged author of the letters, was deceased. It has been corrected. Thanks.

  3. avatar
    Dr. Conspiracy June 12, 2011 at 7:31 pm #

    What I found interesting was that some opponents of Bush, after the letters were shown to be forgeries, declared them “fake but true.” I think the birthers are going for “authentic but false.” However, it is much easier to have true information from an impeached source than to have false information from an unimpeachable source.

  4. avatar
    JohnC June 12, 2011 at 8:23 pm #

    There’s a fundamentally important difference between Rathergate and Obama’s long-form birth certificate. No government officially vouched for the veracity of the National Guard documents. In contrast, the State of Hawaii is on the record – on multiple occasions – that Obama’s long-form is legit. To question Obama’s birth certificate is therefore to insinuate that a state government is a party to a conspiracy to forge documents.

  5. avatar
    Thrifty June 13, 2011 at 9:57 am #

    It’s a lot like Piltdown Man and Nebraska Man, two famous hoaxes in evolutionary biology that are held up by creationists as proof that evolutionists are unreliable. They never mention that both were suspected as hoaxes from the beginning, and both were exposed and discarded by the very peer-review process evolutionists hold up as the cornerstones of the credibility of evolution.

  6. avatar
    Reality Check June 13, 2011 at 11:16 am #

    This is a funny video. The author took a typewritten copy of a document from George Bush’s military file from the 1960’s and performed an “Irey” style fake analysis on it.