• September 16, 2004 | 11:47 PM ET
MEANWHILE, ELSEWHERE IN THE WORLD
I have to confess that I've spent more time on, and taken more pleasure in, the ongoing RatherGate forged-document story than I probably should have. But for those of us who feel that Big Media is both more biased, and less competent, than it's ever willing to admit, this is vindication.
Nonetheless, there's a lot going on in the world, and it's worth taking a look at it. One of my favorite resources for military information is StrategyPage, and they have a number of important points. One is a look at how the global war against Al Qaeda is going. The answer: better than you might think, which is probably why it gets so little coverage from Dan Rather. StrategyPage takes a three-year look back and reports:
After three years of the war on terror, the lack of a conventional "front line" or large battles, has made it difficult to easily determine who is winning. But a little effort reveals battles won and lost, and who is occupying what territory. Three years ago, al Qaeda had most of Afghanistan available for training camps and other facilities. There was even a "forged documents office" that operated openly in Kabul. Al Qaeda, or related organizations, operated extensively in over fifty countries, especially places like Indonesia, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Chechnya, Iraq and Western Europe. Over 70,000 people were actively involved in planning and carrying out attacks. And the number of attacks against American targets grew during the 1990s, starting with a bombing of the World Trade Center in New York in 1993. But al Qaeda was handled as a criminal matter until September 11, 2001. After that, it was war.
In three years, al Qaeda has been driven out of most of its sanctuaries. Initially, al Qaeda was very popular among Moslems, and the slaughter of thousands of infidels (non-Moslems) on September 11, 2001, caused spontaneous celebrations throughout the Moslem world.
That celebratory mood has been slowly changing, as more and more Moslems see al Qaeda for what it really is. After the slaughter of children in southern Russia earlier this month, the Moslem media finally moved broadly against al Qaeda and its terror tactics. This is significant, for Islamic radical terrorists are nothing new in the Islamic world. There have been several outbreaks in the last few centuries. Such violence can be defeated, and always is. One of the key factors in defeating these outbreaks is the local media turning against the radicals.
The terrorists have been forced to make their attacks in out-of-the-way places. With thousands of similar targets world wide, and hundreds of thousands of eager young men and women willing to join their cause, al Qaeda has been able to accomplish little.
Most notably, there have been no major attacks in the United States, something that I think we would have regarded as wildly optimistic if anyone had predicted it on September 12, 2001.
In Iraq, the picture is more mixed, and one of the problems, as columnist Austin Bay notes, is that bureaucratic regulations are getting in the way of the troops. Bay -- who's just back from service in Iraq as a reservist -- writes:
Money is ammo in Iraq, and right now our troops on the ground are short-changed.
Pay attention, Bush administration and Congress: The specific program with the most effective bang-for-bucks is CERP, Commander's Emergency Response Program funds. The military needs a plus-up in CERP funds in Iraq and needs it now.
It always takes cash (or, more elegantly, economic power) to create, reinforce and sustain military power. In the final analysis, bricks -- not bombs -- win wars the way America wants to win and, frankly, needs to win in the 21st century.
Secretary of State Colin Powell and Ambassador John Negroponte asked for more CERP funds earlier this summer, but now it's September. On Monday, the administration "re-programmed" $3.46 billion dollars out of $18 billion budgeted for Iraqi reconstruction. Some of that must increase CERP funds. Here's a guess: $200 million channeled through CERP will have positive effects by December. The big infrastructure projects bankrolled by the $18 billion are necessary, but their payoff is three to five years away.
CERP fills that gap, and even small amounts can buy goodwill. In mid-July, I went on a foot patrol in Baghdad with another 1st Cavalry Division unit. One of the officers told me the Cav had experimented with a "designated spender" on foot patrols. A soldier would spend 10 bucks while on patrol, buying food in a souk or a toy from a store.
The food would then be donated to a food bank and the toys given to kids. Unfortunately, the troops spent their own money. To use appropriated funds, another officer later told me, was practically impossible, "unless the funds are CERP."
Somebody needs to get on the ball with this. Killing terrorists is essential -- in fact, as David Warren notes, it's unavoidable -- but it's what lawyers call a "necessary but not sufficient condition." And as Max Boot writes in the Los Angeles Times, the case for promoting democracy as a remedy for terrorism is growing steadily stronger.
Let's not drop the ball now.
• September 15, 2004 | 10:28 PM ET
What happened is perhaps familiar by now:
The documents CBS presented supposedly came from the personal files of Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, which Killian supposedly typed more than 30 years ago. Rather and “60 Minutes II” vouched for the authenticity of the documents, one of which claimed that a Texas Air National Guard squadron commander was trying to “sugarcoat” Bush’s record.
Cumulative evidence produced primarily by the blogosphere suggests that the documents are forgeries and that Rather and CBS were duped in a political hoax.
It's gotten so bad that Andrew Sullivan (who originally believed the documents were genuine) writes that Rather should resign -- not for the original error, but for the stonewalling that's come since:
What's riveting has been the reaction of CBS. Like Howell Raines and the directors of the BBC before him, Dan Rather seems to believe that journalism is some kind of caste profession, a calling that no amateur blogger can aspire to.
This is not the first time that a major news organization has been hoaxed. It happens. But what's stunning is the way in which CBS has responded. Its defensiveness is not the attitude of any journalistic organization truly interested in finding out the truth. CBS's Jonathan Klein even went so far as to say the following: "Bloggers have no checks and balances. ... [It's] a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas." Actually, I'm in sweatpants and a tanktop. But of course, it doesn't matter a jot what a fact-checker is wearing as long as his facts are correct. CBS's apparently aren't.
CBS News has failed on all these counts. It did shoddy reporting and then self-interestedly dug in against an avalanche of evidence against it. Rather can blather all he wants about the political motivation of some in the blogosphere--but what matters is not bias but accuracy.
His attitude, moreover, has bordered on the contemptuous; and the blogosphere has chewed him up and spat him out. He has acted as if journalism is a privilege rather than a process; as if his long career makes his critics illegitimate; as if his good motives can make up for bad material. The original mistake was not a firable offense. But the digging in surely is. It seems to me that when a news anchor presents false information and then tries to cover up and deny his errors, he has ceased to be a journalist. I'd like to say that Dan Rather needs to resign from his profession. But, judging from the last few days, he already has.
Ouch. As I write this, CBS has still dug in. And they still don't seem to like the criticism. But this is the new reality, with the press as the scrutinized, not just the scrutinizer. Dan Gillmor comments:
Media watchdogging isn't new, either. But the newest version is nothing like the mostly polite coverage we in the business tend to extend to ourselves and our peers. What's happening now is sometimes instructive, and always tough.
Journalists have demanded more transparency of others. Now, thanks to the ability of large numbers of people to dissect our work in public and in something close to real time, they're demanding more of us.
We'd better get used to it.
• September 13, 2004 | 6:02 PM ET
BAD WEEK AT BLACK ROCK
Things look bad for Dan Rather.
Last week, CBS announced with great fanfare that it had obtained documents proving that George W. Bush was a slacker back when he served in the Air National Guard. Not the biggest news, really, given that President Bush -- unlike John Kerry -- doesn't seem to attach a lot of present-day importance to his past military service. But CBS clearly thought there was a big story there.
There was, too -- but it turned out that the story was CBS. Because the documents that CBS presented now appear to have been forgeries.
And pretty obvious ones. Just look at this animated graphic, created by blogger (and desktop publishing expert) Charles Johnson. Johnson took one of the CBS documents -- supposedly created on a typewriter over thirty years ago -- and matched it up with what you get when you type the same words into Microsoft Word at the default settings. The image alternates between the two. As you can see, the only differences appear to come from the blurs and distortions introduced by the document's being copied and faxed.
"The wording in these documents is very suspect to me," she told ABC News Radio in an exclusive phone interview from her Texas home. She added that she "just can't believe these are his words."
Killian's son also thinks that they're bogus. Experts agree:
More than half a dozen document experts contacted by ABC News said they had doubts about the memos' authenticity.
"These documents do not appear to have been the result of technology that was available in 1972 and 1973," said Bill Flynn, one of country's top authorities on document authentication. "The cumulative evidence that's available … indicates that these documents were produced on a computer, not a typewriter:"
The Washington Post investigated, and reported:
Documents unearthed by CBS News that raise doubts about whether President Bush fulfilled his obligations to the Texas Air National Guard include several features suggesting that they were generated by a computer or word processor rather than a Vietnam War-era typewriter, experts said yesterday.
Experts consulted by a range of news organizations pointed out typographical and formatting questions about four documents as they considered the possibility that they were forged. The widow of the National Guard officer whose signature is on the bottom of the documents also disputed their authenticity.
There were also internal problems with the documents. Here's one:
The man named in a disputed memo as exerting pressure to "sugar coat" President Bush's military record left the Texas Air National Guard a year and a half before the memo was supposedly written, his own service record shows.
An order obtained by The Dallas Morning News shows that Col. Walter "Buck" Staudt was honorably discharged on March 1, 1972. CBS News reported this week that a memo in which Staudt was described as interfering with officers' negative evaluations of Bush's service, was dated Aug. 18, 1973.
That added to mounting questions about the authenticity of documents that seem to suggest Bush sought special favors and did not fulfill his service.
And here's another:
HODGES SAID HE WAS MISLED BY CBS: Retired Maj. General Hodges, Killian's supervisor at the Grd, tells ABC News that he feels CBS misled him about the documents they uncovered. According to Hodges, CBS told him the documents were "handwritten" and after CBS read him excerpts he said, "well if he wrote them that's what he felt."
Hodges also said he did not see the documents in the 70's and he cannot authenticate the documents or the contents. His personal belief is that the documents have been "computer generated" and are a "fraud".
Ouch. It's conceivable, I guess, that CBS may somehow manage to convince people that these documents are genuine, but it's obvious that there are a lot of questions -- typewritten, informal documents from the early 1970s with a modern typeface and no corrections or strikeovers? -- that CBS should have answered in advance before making serious charges in public. But CBS seems to have run the story without doing the kind of checking you'd expect from a professional news organization.
An article from today's Baltimore Sun summarizes the problem:
Any news organization broadcasting or publishing potentially highly charged reports - particularly in an election year - must make sure the information is accurate and that the public understands why it can be believed, said experienced reporters.
"That's the kind of thing that you really have to do when you have a controversial topic - endless shoe-leather [reporting]," said Donald L. Barlett, half of a prize-winning investigative reporting team for Time magazine. "That kind of work just takes a lot of time. There are no shortcuts."
There is a particularly heavy responsibility for news organizations that rely upon anonymous sources, reporters said. Typically, any news organization that grants anonymity to a source will then go to exceptional lengths to keep that promise. "We're going to protect our source, every way we can," CBS spokeswoman Sandy Genelius said yesterday.
But the genesis of the information can provide valuable clues in evaluating its worth. "If this came from somebody who was inside the Pentagon records center and said, 'Here's some documents,' then it's better than somebody who's a partisan Democrat," said Ross of ABC. "Your level of skepticism would rise, the more a person has to gain."
"I've never thought that simply relying on a source got you off the hook for your own credibility," said Brooks Jackson, a former investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal and CNN. Jackson now runs FactCheck.org, a Web site dedicated to reviewing claims made by politicians.
Barlett of Time said yesterday that he and his partner, James B. Steele, had two rules of thumb when evaluating documents of uncertain provenance. First, he said, they consult, at minimum, three or four analysts with expertise in typewriting or handwriting. Second, they would not consider documents that were "10th generation" - that is, photocopied so many times that they could not be credibly examined.
This story was originally broken by bloggers, and that has generated some pushback, with a CBS defender deriding bloggers as guys in their pajamas. But as John Fund notes, bloggers bring some things to the table that reporters don't -- even if it's the kitchen table they're bringing them to:
A watershed media moment occurred Friday on Fox News Channel, when Jonathan Klein, a former executive vice president of CBS News who oversaw "60 Minutes," debated Stephen Hayes, a writer for The Weekly Standard, on the documents CBS used to raise questions about George W. Bush's Vietnam-era National Guard service.
Mr. Klein dismissed the bloggers who are raising questions about the authenticity of the memos: "You couldn't have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of check and balances [at '60 Minutes'] and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing."
He will regret that snide disparagement of the bloggers, many of whom are skilled lawyers or have backgrounds in military intelligence or typeface design. A growing number of design and document experts say they are certain or almost certain the memos on which CBS relied are forgeries.
(In fact, you can see the credentials of some of the leading bloggers looking at this matter here.)
But, as I've noted elsewhere, one thing that distinguishes bloggers from Old Media guys like Dan Rather is that they don't expect you to take them on faith. Instead, they try to get things right. Which may be why some people are starting to trust blogs more than they trust Dan Rather.
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