The World According to Nick
My take on Software, Technology, Politics, and anything else I feel like talking about.
Friday, September 10, 2004

Undisclosed Sources 

Well, 60 Minutes has stepped in it now. According to the Washington Post, and about a dozen bloggers around the internet, the new Bush National Guard papers are forgeries. Having looked at them myself (and personally duplicating them in Microsoft Word to the pixel in about 5 minutes) I have to agree with them. Talk about sloppy. But that's been covered already pretty thoroughly.

What I'd like to talk about are some of the things that struck me in the Washington Post article, most notably some of the quotes from CBS regarding the scandal... which I'll call Papergate (emphasis added):

CBS News released a statement yesterday standing by its reporting, saying that each of the documents "was thoroughly vetted by independent experts and we are convinced of their authenticity." The statement added that CBS reporters had verified the documents by talking to unidentified people who saw them "at the time they were written."

CBS spokeswoman Kelli Edwards declined to respond to questions raised by experts who examined copies of the papers at the request of The Washington Post, or to provide the names of the experts CBS consulted. Experts interviewed by The Post pointed to a series of telltale signs suggesting that the documents were generated by a computer or word processor rather than the typewriters in widespread use by Bush's National Guard unit.
After their initial airing on the "CBS Evening News" and "60 Minutes II" programs Wednesday night, the documents were picked up by other news organizations, including The Post. A front-page story in The Post yesterday noted that CBS declined to provide details about the source of the documents, the authenticity of which could not be independently confirmed.

So basically what we have here are a bunch of papers from who knows where, authenticated by who knows who, and we're supposed to trust you? First of all, let's go over the concept of "authentication". You can say that you authenticated something, but if you refuse to disclose the person or method who performed it, then authentication is worthless.

If we don't know each other I tell you who I am, you really have no reason to believe me unless I show you a photo ID. But if I show you a school ID from Billy Bob's School of Journalism let's say, would you believe it? Would you regard my name as authentic? Maybe not. What if I showed you my state issued driver's license? Probably you would. Both say who I am, but in this case, you have more trust in the issuer of one ID over the other. The same applies to authenticating a document. Not only do you need the final result from a person, but you also need to trust the person performing the authentication. CBS gives you the final result, and skips the need for trust in the authenticator. We have to have implied trust in the authenticator through CBS... which of course means that we have to trust CBS.

What bugs me even more is the media's ravenous foothold on a right that doesn't exist. Courts time and time again have stated that the media does not have the right (in court at least) to withhold the identity of a source. The media says it does due to "Freedom of the Press". This is bullshit. They claim that if they are required to disclose sources, no sources would come to them, and therefore they would not be able to accurately report events, eroding their 1st amendment rights. Worked great in this case didn't it? The problem is that this system is easily abused, and CBS is not taking the obvious step to remedy the problem.

Imagine if CBS were to say not only who gave them the documents, but also said who performed the poor authentication of them. They would be proclaiming to the world that we will protect your anonymity if you provide accurate information. But if you lie to us, we can't... no... we won't protect you. Wouldn't that bring even more integrity to news media? Shouldn't that be something that they'd want to do? Instead CBS is protecting liars and forgers, and destroying what little credibility they had with us. What does that say about the rest of their news? As far as I'm concerned now, CBS is just another Billy Bob's School of Journalism.

Update: Many thanks to VodkaPundit for the linkage.

Update II: Upon further review... I've given the topic more thought which can be found here.

Update III: And from the Washington Post, now we know why CBS didn't release the name of the document authenticator:

The lead expert retained by CBS News to examine disputed memos from President Bush's former squadron commander in the National Guard said yesterday that he examined only the late officer's signature and made no attempt to authenticate the documents themselves.

"There's no way that I, as a document expert, can authenticate them," Marcel Matley said in a telephone interview from San Francisco. The main reason, he said, is that they are "copies" that are "far removed" from the originals.

I rest my case.


Lileks or someone has postulated that if a CBS staffer was the source of this tripe, then the odds are that it would have been vetted within an inch of it's existence. It wasn't, thereby leading to the conclusion that the source and chief water-carrier for this story is Rather himself. Only Rather could have carried this all the way up the editing and programming chain and not allowed anyone access to the documents. Only Rather himself could have denied the vetting process. And that is why Rather will be gone.

  Posted at September 10, 2004 3:08 PM by Anonymous Anonymous  
"Only Rather himself could have denied the vetting process. And that is why Rather will be gone."From your lips to Gods ears! I have despised this arrogant a$$hole for a LONG time.


  Posted at September 10, 2004 5:09 PM by Anonymous Anonymous  
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Name: Nick
Home: Wauwatosa, WI, United States

I'm a Software Consultant in the Milwaukee area. Among various geeky pursuits, I'm also an amateur triathlete, and enjoy rock climbing. I also like to think I'm a political pundit.

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