Sunday, October 03, 2004


The blogosphere, really, has the potential to be a great innovation in American journalism. As I've argued previously, it represents in many ways the democratization of journalism, the ability of voices of all kinds to participate in the sharing and distribution of information that might otherwise be choked out by the bottleneck that mainstream media have become over the past decade and longer.

But there's an important caveat to all that: If bloggers want to act as journalists, they need to conform to basic journalistic standards. Or they will, in the end, pay for it.

These standards, of course, have come in for severe erosion in recent years, especially as image- and sound-bite-oriented television broadcasters have come to dominate the scene. The product is often a lazy kind of journalism in all spheres of the industry that substitutes "he-said/she-said" reportage for substantive analysis of truthfulness, as well as a willingness to discard basic standards of balance and factuality in pursuit of of proving often partisan theses. This is as true of CBS' manifest failures in vetting the provenance of the Killian documents as it is of the New York Times' steadfast support of Jeff Gerth's clearly shoddy Whitewater reportage.

Nonetheless, the arrival of bloggers on the journalistic scene -- especially their heady self-contratulatory response to having successfully embarassed CBS News -- represents not just a new phase in journalism, but a new phase for bloggers as well.

While CBS' failures are one thing, still, much of the critique of CBS' documents, I believe, is based on utterly useless data that proves absolutely nothing. Indeed, if you want to see yet another example of how one of the bloggers' favorite "proofs" falls apart on close examination, check out Paul Lukasiak's latest contribution to the Document Wars.

The hard reality, for anyone serious about document verification, is that almost nothing can be proven one way or the other about the documents' authenticity without a copy of the original documents themselves in hand. No one has produced these yet, and until there are, everything remains almost purely a matter of speculation.

Unfortunately, this has simultaneously meant that almost any speculation can gain an audience. And right-wing bloggers, their arms still in traction from patting themselves on the back ad nauseam, have continued to attack apace -- including descending full force on anyone who dares question their basic tenets.

This brings us to the case of the folks at Wizbang, who have in recent days been devoting themselves to attacking the work of Utah State professor David Hailey, in particular his research in a study titled "Toward Identifying the Font Used in the Bush Memos", which argues that the CBS documents likely were in fact produced not with a word processor but with a typewriter.

You can get a sense of the tenor of the attacks at the original post with multiple updates, as well as at posts dubbing the matter "Haileygate". While commenters at the blog have been even more crude, the blog's authors have hardly been shy in flinging accusations. Their core mantra is that Hailey is "a liar, a fraud and charlatan." Even in its more toned-down recent posts, the blog's authors insist that Hailey has committed "academic fraud."

This is the same blog which, as I've described previously, fell for a clear hoax from an anonymous Internet poster claiming that Iowa farmer Martin Heldt -- whose FOIA requests uncovered much of what was originally known about Bush's National Guard records -- had tried to sell these documents to various campaigns. Based on the bogus testimony, the Wizbangers decided that Heldt was the "forger" of the documents -- a blatantly wrong and false accusation which it has neither corrected nor apologized for.

They've continued in the same vein with the Hailey report -- openly libeling their subject and accusing him of unethical and potentially criminal behavior, all without the benefit of getting a response from him as well as any consideration of the gravity of the charges. Even their most recent posts continue to assert the "academic fraud" charge.

This has not occurred, of course, without consequences in the real world. As the Deseret News reports, the result of Wizbang's campaign has been a flood of nasty and accusatory e-mails directed at Hailey, his department head, his dean, and even the president of Utah State, demanding Hailey's head for having ventured such a thesis:
Since posting his findings on the Web, Hailey has for the past week received hundreds of e-mails that he now simply forwards to a file he created called "hate mail." The subject line of one e-mail reads, "In more ways than one, you are a fascist hack."

Hailey's plans are to read through the mail more thoroughly for another research project but not until he is "emotionally stable." He said he couldn't sleep Thursday night because people are attacking his credibility and credentials.

"In a virtual reality situation, they're coming on campus and trying to lynch me," Hailey said over the phone.

... Without a request for an interview, USU President Kermit Hall called the Deseret Morning News with his own take on the situation.

"Whoever it is," Hall said of the e-mails, "is clearly trying to intimidate the university and trying to intimidate Professor Hailey."

Hall called Hailey's research "legitimate" and said the professor has every right to engage in and publicize the research.

"There's been an effort to suggest that the administration put him up to this -- the answer to that is, 'wrong,' " Hall added. "There's a suggestion that the purpose of his work is to join some kind of political action -- that's wrong."

Hall called the blogging and e-mails the "worst kind of smear" against academic research and the opportunity for academics to share their research within academe and with the "wider" public.

... An unidentified person claiming to represent the Web site called Smitten and accused Hailey of "academic misconduct." There were 50 pages of blog entries critical of Hailey on the Wizbang site as of Friday.

Hailey's heresy, of course, was arguing thus in the conclusion of his study:
Since current odds hold that the Bush memos are faked, the question of their authenticity turns to whether CBS should have known they were inauthentic – if, in fact, they are. In fact, there seems to be nothing in the memos that indicates they are faked. All evidence points toward a mechanical production process and away from a digital process.

Furthermore, the mechanical process seems to be consistent with typewriters used in the military at the time in question.

If I had been one of the experts advising CBS, I would have advised them that there is nothing physical in the memos implying they are not authentic. All indicators imply they are authentic. I would have told them that from my point of view, the memos are worthy of presenting to the public.

It's worth noting, of course, that Hailey brings a highly specialized set of credentials to the puzzle:
I served in the U.S. military (Army) from 1963 to 1972. For five of those seven years I was an Army illustrator responsible for short run publications including memos such as those in question. Ultimately, I have a total of almost 35 years experience examining document production, including analyzing and spec’ing type. I have an archive that includes military documents produced between 1963 and 1984 and have access to a repository of military documents here at the university. Finally, I have extensive experience using computers to manage and manipulate images, including type.

I interviewed Dr. Hailey today by phone from his office in Logan. He maintained that his research was sound, readily refuted his critics, and pointed toward further steps that he thinks will eventually exonerate him.

He told me that he had personally received hundreds of e-mails, nearly all of them nasty and accusatory, nearly all of them calling him a fraud. As the News reported, his department head had received a call accusing him of "academic misconduct." So far, he said, the confrontations had not invaded his home or his personal life.

The core accusation by Wizbang -- that he had cut and pasted an upper-case "th" into the document -- he said, represented a basic misunderstanding of what he was presenting. As the study itself warns:
Using the hypothesis established from examining the Bush memos, it becomes possible to create a virtually flawless replica. Please understand, however, the replica is not typed. It is produced by examining and replicating the original font used in the memo. It is not a demonstration that I can type a replica memo, it is a demonstration that the font in the memo is probably Typewriter.

Hailey said that the entire lines of reproduced type are simply sample letters of the type he hypothesizes is the actual type in the memos -- namely, a condensed Slab/Serif version of an IBM font similar to ITC American Typewriter, and not the oft-hypothesized Times New Roman -- essentially cut and pasted in the proper order.

"At no point do I claim that this reproduces the memo on a typewriter," Hailey told me. "Every letter in it, in fact, is cut and pasted. That's explicit in the exercise."

In fact, that's the whole point of Hailey's work: It is simply a hypothesis. He hasn't reached any final conclusion, because none is finally possible without the original documents. What he is doing is examining the available evidence and arguing within the limits imposed by them.

And all Hailey is claiming, if you read his study carefully, is that he believes the font in the memos is that particular version of the IBM font similar to Typewriter. The evidence to substantiate his hypothesis, he believes, could be found by examining other documents produced within the 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at that same time period.

Here's what he told me today:
To be perfectly honest, my research up to this point was strictly to examine this font and determine if it was Times New Roman. And then it was to go a step further and say, OK, if it's not Times New Roman, what is it? Not specific font, just what font family it is. And that's what I've been doing up to this point.

Now, having done that, basically, I'm finished with this research project, and all I have to do is finish writing up this report. But the next project is going to be to track down duplicate documents -- documents done on the same machine.

I was prepared to go on and just do my other research -- because this was an academic process. I just said -- oh look, here's what I see, this is how I see it, this is why I see it this way.

Basically, I end by saying, I'm not saying that these documents are authentic. I'm saying that if somebody will go out and look at all the documents in the 111th, they will either find documents that match this -- in which case this is probably authentic -- or they will not find documents that match this, which means this is bogus. And that's what I said.

It's also worth noting, of course, that Hailey's critics have focused on line reproductions, which are secondary to his argument, and ignored the heart of his thesis: namely, that multiple examples of particularized wear on certain of the letters in the documents -- especially the "e"s and "t"s -- are typical of letters produced by mechanical typewriters and are not likely to appear in a word-processor document.

Moreover, even the celebrated superscript "th" provides evidence the document was produced by a typewriter:
Superscripts on a computer font tend to be low, permitting the printer to print a line in most cases in a single pass. For typewriters, height is not so important. This does not say that the superscript could not be digital. The quality of the superscript "th" in the Bush Memos is so bad that deriving much information other than its relative placement is impossible.

The overwhelming evidence that the documents were produced by a typewriter led Hailey to conclude that there was a high likelihood they were authentic. After all, if that was the case, then there was an extremely low likelihood that any forger could have pulled it off. As he explained to me:
If this was a forgery, then this person typed that thing on a machine that no one's going to believe. The person couldn't possibly have chosen a worse typewriter and a more difficult to find typewriter to do this forgery on. Which means that if they are typed, probably they are authentic.

If you apply Occam's Razor, then this guy is either extremely brilliant, because what he has is this very specialized typewriter that is so unique that there's only one like it just every thousand miles kind of thing. And it is actually the typewriter that was used at that center. So this person actually knows that this typewriter was there and that there will be paper there -- there will be memos there and other projects there that will match. And if it's a fraud, it's that good.

We'll leave it to Dr. Hailey's further investigations to determine whether or not his hypothesis holds up. In the meantime, it's clear that if nothing else, his critics at Wizbang, and their associated minions, have fallen far short of giving his work a fair hearing.

As David A at ISOU observed:
I feel that Wizbang and its writers have every right to question research and reporting that they disagree with, I do not feel they have the right to destroy someone's career because they disagree with them. If the professor is guilty of some sort of fraud, his University should be free to investigate under their standard academic processes, not be overwhelmed and pressured by a bunch of partisan hacks who likely don't even understand all the complexities of his research.

Conservatives get very upset when you use the Nazi metaphor to describe their tactics, and I am loath to do so under anything but the most extreme cases, but let the chips fall where they may in this case. Call it McCarthyism, Nazism, Digital Fascism, whatever, but limiting debate on an issue to all but those who agree fanatically with you, and attempting to squelch any opposing point of view, represents the very traits that many of my Right Wing friends protest as metaphors for their behavior. This case... clearly to me, is a scary one for its implications, and while I agree that the Rather documents were fakes, I don't agree that someone should have their life and credibility destroyed because they don't happen to share my beliefs...

David needn't worry, actually. Because the folks at Wizbang are about to discover that there are consequences for leveling these charges.

While it's true that, as the Deseret News reported, Hailey himself is not considering legal action against the authors of the Wizbang posts that have openly libeled him, the same cannot be said of the officials at Utah State University.

Hailey, in fact, assured me that the university's attorneys consider the Wizbang posts "fully actionable" and are in the process of preparing legal remedy for the defamation of character that the blog has leveled both against Hailey and the university. It's difficult to say at this point whether they will act on it, but there's at least some likelihood they will.

This is a matter of academic freedom to USU officials, Hailey said. "When you start attacking legitimate research just because you don't think it's something that should be explored, you're attacking the right of academics to work freely. That's an important battle for them."

Interestingly, in another post, one of the Wizbang authors boasted of the new status of bloggers:
It was my adventure debunking Professor Hailey that lead me to an epiphany. I no longer what to be called a blogger and neither should you.

We are not bloggers, We are independent, peer reviewed journalists.

Well, OK. Fair enough. Just about anyone who wants to can probably call himself a journalist, really. That's the whole point of blogging, isn't it? To disseminate information that should be circulating in the journalistic media but isn't.

But the newly proclaimed journalists of the blogosphere might want to pause for a moment and consider some advice from a journalist who has been through a few document wars and court threats: If you're going to level serious charges of unethical or scandalous or especially criminal behavior, then you had by God better be ready to back it up in court.

There remains in full force today a body of libel law that makes it posssible for aggrieved parties to file civil actions against persons who level such charges in public and in print, and the mere fig leaf of free-speech rights will not protect you if you have failed to meet basic standards of truthfulness, fairness and factuality. This is as true for bloggers as it is for the ink-stained wretches who man the front lines of actual print publications.

Now, it's true that for public figures -- thanks to New York Times v. Sullivan, libel laws are nearly unusable for anyone who rises to the level of "public figure." That's because public figures now must be able to establish "malicious intent" on the part of the libeler, and such proof is a real rarity. However, this limitation does not hold for private figures such as Dr. Hailey (though it may, in fact, for the university).

So here's what is probably about to happen: USU's attorneys will send legal letters to the Wizbang authors demanding a full retraction (and, if justice is served, a full apology to both Hailey and the university), upon pain of facing a civil action for libel. If the authors refuse, then they'll be served with more papers detailing the civil lawsuit filed against them.

It's ugly, but it's a hard, cold fact of the real world of journalism.

In any event, the Wizbang authors may soon find themselves wishing they had applied a little old-fashioned journalistic prudence before rushing to print with their manifestly reckless accusations.

But in the process, they may provide a useful object lesson for us all.

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