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September 10, 2004

The CBS Forgeries: Why?

The blogosphere has done a great job of proving beyond all doubt that the 60 Minutes Bush National Guard Documents are forgeries, even though Dan Rather is adamantly denying it. Powerline is the place to go for info, or Instapundit. The forgery is obvious even to a non-expert: computer fonts, not typewriters fonts; signature different from the genuine one; computer superscripts that a typewriter of the 1970s couldn't do.

Thus, we can move along to the causes and effects. First the causes. We know that CBS is working to elect Kerry, so they would be pleased to publish genuine documents, or even convincing forgeries. But why would they publish obvious forgeries? The result is to destroy their credibility and to leave George Bush stronger than before.

"Anatomy of a Forgery" by The Prowler suggests that the Democratic Party bushwhacked CBS:

More than six weeks ago, an opposition research staffer for the Democratic National Committee received documents purportedly written by President George W. Bush's Texas Air National Guard squadron commander, the late Col. Jerry Killian.

The oppo researcher claimed the source was "a retired military officer." According to a DNC staffer, the documents were seen by both senior staff members at the DNC, as well as the Kerry campaign.

"More than a couple people heard about the papers," says the DNC staffer. "I've heard that they ended up with the Kerry campaign, for them to decide to how to proceed, and presumably they were handed over to 60 Minutes, which used them the other night. But I know this much. When there was discussion here, there were doubts raised about their authenticity."


A CBS producer, who initially tipped off The Prowler about the 60 Minutes story, says that despite seeking professional assurances that the documents were legitimate, there was uncertainty even among the group of producers and researchers working on the story.

"The problem was we had one set of documents from Bush's file that had Killian calling Bush 'an exceptionally fine young officer and pilot.' And someone who Killian said 'performed in an outstanding manner.' Then you have these new documents and the tone and content are so different."

The CBS producer said that some alarms bells went off last week when the signatures and initials of Killian on the documents in hand did not match up with other documents available on the public record, but producers chose to move ahead with the story. "This was too hot not to push. If there were doubts, those people didn't show it," says the producer, who works on a rival CBS News program.

Now, the producer says, there is growing concern inside the building on 57th Street that they may have been suckered by the Kerry campaign. "There is a school of thought here that the Kerry people dumped this in our laps, figuring we'd do the heavy lifting on the story. That maybe they had doubts about these documents but hoped we'd get more information," says the producer.

According to one ABC News employee, some reporters believe that the Kerry campaign as well as the DNC were parties in duping CBS, but a smaller segment believe that both the DNC and the Kerry campaign were duped by Karl Rove, who would have engineered the flap to embarrass the opposition.

Why would the Democrats want to embarass CBS and help Bush? This theory doesn't work.

How about simple stupidity? Could it be that CBS didn't realize the documents were forgeries? The Prowler article suggests not. And it would be a rare degree of stupidity. I've heard it said that tabloid newspapers are very careful about checking out possible libels, and surely 60 Minutes knew some forensic experts. Indeed, CBS claims it did have an expert check out the documents, though since it won't name him, and any real expert would have caught the forgery we may have caught CBS in a lie (the next stage in this scandal? )

Well, how about a different sort of stupidity: CBS did know the documents were forgeries, but thought nobody else would figure it out. This is a bit more plausible, but not very. Even if CBS didn't expect the blogosphere and Killian's family to notice (I didn't mention it, but apparently the purported author of the memos didn't know how to type), CBS, with its paranoid fantasies about George Bush, surely should have expected the Republicans to check.

No-- it doesn't matter how biased we think CBS is-- the problem is that this kind of Amazing Stupidity seems incompatible with running a weekly news show.

There's the Karl Rove Theory-- that Karl Rove planted the documents with the Democrats, knowing they'd be stupidly taken in. But that theory, too, relies on incredible Democratic stupidity. All it adds is the extra requirement that Karl Rove have realized how stupid the Democrats were. So we can reject that theory too.

I discussed this today with my PhD students, as an applied game theory problem. It helped that a couple of them are former high-flying bureaucrats. One suggested that maybe CBS was hurrying, in a competition with someone else who might scoop them on the story. That doesn't wash, because even a quick look at the documents would have revealed them to be forgeries.

We did come up with one alternative to the Amazing Stupidity theory: the Backstabbing Theory. Suppose someone at CBS wants to ditch Dan Rather. Such a person could make sure that he didn't get accurate information on what the document experts, or anybody else said. Dan Rather wanted to believe in the documents' authenticity anyway, so this would just be a matter of spinning things so he could dismiss the doubters. Then, a week later, Dan Rather's name is Mud and one of those doubters is a hero and takes over his job.

We'll see...

Ah-- and then there are consequences. Can anybody sue CBS for libel? Even if CBS itself did not forge the documents, they recklessly published them. Thus, I wonder whether George Bush could sue for libel. As a public figure, he can't sue for innocent mistakes-- innocent being very broadly defined. But even a public figure can sue if he can prove deliberate falsehood-- and, perhaps, if he can show reckless disregard for facts.

The Killian family cannot sue, I think. To be sure, CBS has defamed Mr. Killian, and he is not a public figure, but he is dead, and I think it is not illegal to defame dead people.

I wish somebody could sue. It would be nice to force CBS to reveal all the details in court.

Eugene Volokh looked for fraud statutes that might make forging documents a crime, but didn't find any good ones. It's interesting, because it *would* be criminal if the CBS forgeries were used for a commercial purpose, to extract money from someone.

I thought of another court strategy-- a risky one. Someone could assert that Dan Rather had personally forged the documents, and dare Rather to sue him for libel. Rather might could win such a case, but it would probably come out at trial that though Rather had not personally forged them, they were indeed forgeries and he ought to have known that. The jury might decide that Rather was villainous enough that they didn't want to award him any damages. Rather and CBS would lose more from such a trial, in bad publicity, than they could win, so they probably wouldn't bring suit in the first place. So the dare might be a safe one.

But the big news is that CBS is arguing that the documents are authentic! This is either support for the Amazing Stupidity Theory, or, more likely, CBS knows full well that the documents are forgeries, and knew it all along, but thinks that it can confuse its viewers enough that the viewers won't figure it out. Thus, they use the forgery charges as a pretext to repeat the false charges against Bush, pretending to address the charges but actually evading them and just repeating the falsehood. If all CBS has left by this time are the stupidest, most Democratic viewers, this might be a good strategy for them. The viewers, after all, won't read anything different in the New York Times.

I hope at the next press conference, Bush says, "Now I want to ask one of you guys a question. You, at CBS-- why are you manufacturing fake documents to smear me? Why, after people pointed out that the document was written on a computer, not a typewriter, do you still insist it was written in 1973?"

Posted by erasmuse at September 10, 2004 03:23 PM

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Another possibility is that the source of the forged documents is someone whom a powerful figure at CBS (e. g., Dan Rather) trusts so completely that all doubts have been overridden by fiat. It would not be the first time that a man has been rendered stupid by friendship, family loyalty or love.

Posted by: Tom Veal at September 10, 2004 10:34 PM

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