Friday, September 10, 2004

The Shot Heard Round the World

The echoes of the big Internet bang which annihilated a 60 Minutes story in under 12 hours are still resounding. The key riffs apparently started at the FreeRepublic and Powerline and as Samizdata notes, the distributed intelligence of the Internet took over. Under the scrutiny of thousands of analysts, the CBS story began to melt down. The idea that the intellectual resources of a major news agency are always superior to the blogosphere is given by lie by citing these two separate lines of analysis which, though proceeding from different starting points, both led to the conclusion that the documents which Dan Rather relied on to question the Bush National Guard record were faked. Donald Sensing's analysis was grounded in a familiarity with military documents.

The two memos refer to a flight physical and a flight review board, both IAW ("in accordance with") AFM 35-13. But that would stand for "Air Force Manual" 35-13, and manuals are guidelines only. They have no regulatory authority. No one takes a physical exam, flight or not, IAW a manual. ...

So I went there and discovered, sure enough, that there was an Air Force Regulation 35-13, but no AF Manual 35-13 is listed. AFR 35-13 was superceded in 1990 by AFI36-2605 (Air Force Instruction, i.e., the same as a regulation). So I Googled AFI36-2605 and voilá! Here it is. This instruction implements Air Force Policy Directive 36-26, Military Force Management, and Department of Defense Instruction (DODI) 7280.3, Special Pay for Foreign Language Proficiency. It prescribes all procedures for administering the Air Force Military Personnel Testing System and Foreign Language Proficiency Pay (FLPP) program. Which is to say, this publication has nothing to do with flight physicals.

From all this I conclude that the Killian-signed documents are forgeries, forged by someone without a very good knowledge of military correspondence or Air Force publications or procedures. Based on the Air Force's own online library of current and obsolete publications, I conclude that there never was an Air Force Manual 35-13, although there was an AF Regulation by that number. But a lieutenant colonel would never have made such a fundamental error as using "AFM" twice when he meant AFR.

As TV lawyers would say, the documents were fake because there was no Air Force Manual 35-13 and it had nothing to do with physical examinations. The analysis of Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs, on the other hand, was based on the technical characteristics of the 60 Minutes documents themselves. He convincingly showed that the 1973 document was produced on Word for Windows by the simple expedient of "proof by construction" -- by exactly duplicating the document in Winword and superimposing both using Photoshop. Poor Kevin Drum dismissed these demonstrations by arguing from authority. "Powerline appears to be the central clearinghouse for amateur discussion of typefaces, terminology, signatures, etc. For what it's worth, I spoke to someone a few minutes ago who's familiar with how the documents were vetted, and the bottom line is that CBS is very, very confident that the memos are genuine."

Here was the dismissal of amateurs in favor of the genuine CBS branded product. But in fact it was doubtful that the "experts" at CBS stood a ghost of a chance against the "amateurs" who ripping their story apart. Here's was Charles Johnson's matter of fact reply.

I actually received two emails from people questioning my expertise to examine and criticize the documents shown in the entries immediately below. Can you believe it? So here’s the skinny.

I’ve been involved with desktop publishing software and scalable software fonts (as opposed to hot lead type) almost since their inception. I’m a former West Coast editor of a popular computer magazine for a now-orphaned computer, the Atari ST/TT. I also co-owned a software publishing firm, CodeHead Technologies, for whom I designed and laid out packaging and manuals for more than a dozen products (in addition to developing most of those products, using 680x0 assembly language). We used a combination of DTP and traditional typesetting techniques for these jobs, and I cut my teeth on some of the first serious DTP software ever created for personal computers—including Aldus Pagemaker and Aldus Freehand on the Mac, and less recognizable titles available for Atari computers (anyone still using Calamus or Pagestream out there?).

My software company also marketed a word processing program (Calligrapher, written by a developer in Britain) that had the ability to import and use Postscript Type 1 fonts. And I had early experience with some of the dinosaur-like dedicated word processors that were available in the 70s/80s. I’m not boasting like this just to pump up my lizardoid ego; it’s to let you know that I have an extensive background in these subjects—and when I tell you that there’s no way the CBS News documents were created on any machine available in 1972/1973, I ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie.

While there is no doubt that there are competent professionals at CBS News, how many of them have extensive experience in the arcana of military forms or writing DTP software in assembler? None of this is to argue that the mainstream media is always wrong or that the blogosphere will always be right. Blogs, including this one, are often wrong. But there is no reason why bloggers should ipso facto be dismissed as amateur analysts when compared to the Mainstream Media (MSM). The traditional news model is collapsing. It suffers from two defects. The "news object" can no longer be given sealed attributes in newspaper backrooms. The days when the press was the news object foundry are dying. Second, the news industry is suffering from its lack of analytic cells, which are standard equipment in intellgence shops. Editors do some analysis but their focus is diluted by their attention to style and the craft of writing. The blogosphere and other actors, now connected over the Internet, are filling in for the missing analytic function. And although the news networks still generate, via their reporters, the bulk of primary news, they generate a pitiful amount of competent analysis. Put another way, the classic media outlet generates data and entertainment but they don't generate much information. Because of this, the MSM will stumble into these pitfalls time and again. The Andrew Gilligan and Jayson Blair fiascos were indicators that something was really wrong, but no one was listening then. Maybe there is no point to listening now.

Updates and Corrections

Donald Sensing writes to say there really was an AFM 35-13, whose existence he previously doubted. However, he stands by his stylistic criticisms of the 60 Minutes text.

Update, 9-10: It seems there really was an AFM 35-13 after all. Scott Forbes comment-linked to a page that reproduces orders from 1970 that cite AFM 35-13. Also, Cecil Turner comments about how a manual could be relevant to this matter.

I've altered the post to give due credit to the Freepers. I was behind the curve and actually didn't know about Powerline's role and if you look at my previous post, Signatures, the FreeRepublic is credited with no mention of Powerline. When I found most sources crediting Powerline with starting the meme I figured I had shafted those folks. Now it turns out that the FreeRepublic has a timestamp edge on Powerline (see the comments section of this post). But there is honor enough to go around. Special mention must go, in their own ways, to people like Charles Johnson, Donald Sensing, Hugh Hewitt, Glenn Reynolds who by all accounts rose from the dentist's chair, and Roger Simon and many more that I don't know. Posters and commentators on the blogs kept the meme going. I slept through most of it.

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks 
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

My manhood is cheap anyway, but still I am glad to have witnessed how well the Everyman fought upon this Crispin Crispian's day.