Washington - Alert bloggers who knew the difference between the product of old typewriters and new word processors immediately suspected a hoax: the "documents" presented by CBS News suggesting preferential treatment in Lt. George W. Bush's National Guard service have all the earmarks of forgeries.
The copies of copies of copies that formed the basis for the latest charges were supposedly typed by Guard officer Jerry Killian three decades ago and placed in his "personal" file. But it is the default typeface of Microsoft Word, highly unlikely to have been used by that Texas colonel, who died in 1984. His widow says he could hardly type and his son warned CBS that the memos were not real.
When the mainstream press checked the sources mentioned or ignored by "60 Minutes II," the story came apart.
The Los Angeles Times checked with Killian's former commander, the retired Guard general whom a CBS executive had said would be the "trump card" in corroborating its charges. But it turns out CBS had only read Maj. Gen. Bobby Hodges the purported memos on the phone, and did not trouble to show them to him. Hodges now says he was "misled" - he thought the memos were handwritten - and believes the machine-produced "documents" to be forgeries. (CBS accuses the officer of changing his story.)
The L.A. Times also checked out a handwriting analyst, Marcel Matley (of Vincent Foster suicide-note fame), who CBS had claimed vouched for the authenticity of four memos. It turns out he vouches for only one signature, and no scribbled initials, and has no opinion about the typography of any of the supposed memos.
The Dallas Morning News looked into the charge in one of the possible forgeries dated Aug. 18, 1973, that a commander of a Texas Air Guard squadron was trying to "sugar coat" Bush's service record. It found that the commander had retired from the Guard 18 months before that.
The Associated Press focused on the suspicion first voiced by a blogger on the Web site Freerepublic.com about modern "superscripts" that include a raised th after a number. CBS, on the defense, claimed that "some models" of typewriters of the 70's could do that trick, and some Texas Air National Guard documents released by the White House included it.
"That superscript, however," countered The A.P., "is in a different typeface than the one used for the CBS memos." It consulted the document examiner Sandra Ramsey Lines of Paradise Valley, Ariz., and reported "she could testify in court that, beyond a reasonable doubt, her opinion was that the memos were written on a computer."
The Washington Post reported Dan Rather's response to questions about the documents' authenticity: "Until someone shows me definitive proof that they are not, I don't see any reason to carry on a conversation with the professional rumor mill" and questioned the critics' "motivation."
After leading with that response, Post media reporter Howard Kurtz noted that the handwriting expert Matley said that CBS had asked him not to give interviews, and that an unidentified CBS staff member who had examined the documents saw potential problems with them: "There's a lot of sentiment that we should do an internal investigation."
Newsweek (which likes the word "discredited") has apparently begun an external investigation: it names "a disgruntled former Guard officer" as a principal source for CBS, noting "he suffered two nervous breakdowns" and "unsuccessfully sued for medical expenses."
It may be that CBS is the victim of a whopping journalistic hoax, besmearing a president to bring him down. What should a responsible news organization do?
To shut up sources and impugn the motives of serious critics - from opinionated bloggers to straight journalists - demeans the Murrow tradition. Nor is any angry demand that others prove them wrong acceptable, especially when no original documents are available to prove anything.
Years ago, Kurdish friends slipped me amateur film taken of Saddam's poison-gas attack that killed thousands in Halabja. I gave it to Dan Rather, who trusted my word on sources. Despite objections from queasy colleagues, he put it on the air.
Hey, Dan: On this, recognize the preponderance of doubt. Call for a panel of old CBS hands and independent editors to re-examine sources and papers. Courage.