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An Inept Smear at Columbia Journalism Review

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At Columbia Journalism Review, Corey Pein has published an incredibly slipshod, stunningly incorrect article about the Memogate affair: Blog-Gate.

Here’s the section dealing with my document experiments, and Dr. Joseph Newcomer’s technical analysis:

Haste explains the rapid spread of thinly supported theories and flawed critiques, which moved from partisan blogs to the nation’s television sets. For example, the morning after CBS’s September 8 report, the conservative blog Little Green Footballs posted a do-it-yourself experiment that supposedly proved that the documents were produced on a computer. On September 11, a self-proclaimed typography expert, Joseph Newcomer, copied the experiment, and posted the results on his personal Web site. Little Green Footballs delighted in the “authoritative and definitive” validation, and posted a link to Newcomer’s report on September 12. Two days later, Newcomer — who was “100 percent” certain that the memos were forged — figured high in a Washington Post report. The Post’s mention of Newcomer came up that night on Fox, MSNBC, and CNN, and on September 15, he was a guest on Fox News’s Hannity & Colmes.

Newcomer gave the press what it wanted: a definite answer. The problem is, his proof turns out to be far less than that. Newcomer’s résumé — boasting a Ph.D. in computer science and a role in creating electronic typesetting — seemed impressive. His conclusions came out quickly, and were bold bordering on hyperbolic. The accompanying analysis was long and technical, discouraging close examination. Still, his method was simple to replicate, and the results were easy to understand:

Based on the fact that I was able, in less than five minutes … to type in the text of the 01-August-1972 memo into Microsoft Word and get a document so close that you can hold my document in front of the ‘authentic’ document and see virtually no errors, I can assert without any doubt (as have many others) that this document is a modern forgery. Any other position is indefensible.

Red flags wave here, or should have. Newcomer begins with the presumption that the documents are forgeries, and as evidence submits that he can create a very similar document on his computer. This proves nothing — you could make a replica of almost any document using Word. Yet Newcomer’s aggressive conclusion is based on this logical error.

Notice how Pein first smears Dr. Newcomer as a “self-proclaimed typography expert” — then turns around in the next paragraph and cites his “impressive resume.” Pein says that Dr. Newcomer’s analysis was “long and technical” — then turns around and implies that this was a ploy to “discourage close examination.” Pein is apparently too lazy and/or technically incompetent to follow Dr. Newcomer’s analysis, but feels no compunction about smearing it with no refuting evidence whatsoever.

And his characterization of my document experiments is completely off the mark, as well.

Many of the typographic critiques were similarly flawed. Would-be gumshoes typed up documents on their computers and fooled around with the images in Photoshop until their creation matched the originals.

This is simply wrong. The damning fact about the Microsoft Word experiments is that absolutely no special efforts were made to duplicate the CBS documents. I simply opened Microsoft Word and began typing, using the default settings, and came up with a perfect match, the very first time. There was no fiddling, and there were no adjustments. There was no Photoshop work. And it wasn’t just one document that matched perfectly with no effort.

Here are the Microsoft Word source documents for my experiments:

18-August-1973.doc
19-May-1972.doc

And here are CBS’s PDF versions of the fake memos; compare them for yourself:

BushGuardaugust18.pdf
BushGuardmay19.pdf

Mr. Pein’s assertion that a person can “make a replica of almost any document using Word” is ridiculous, and completely untrue. If Corey Pein can produce an exact copy of a typewritten document using Microsoft Word, matching every element of spacing and typography, in five minutes of work—as he asserts—I’ll retract everything I’ve written here. I don’t expect to be issuing a retraction because, unlike Corey Pein, I’ve actually tried to do this. On September 13 I decided to test my hypothesis that the documents were fake by attempting to recreate a verified genuine typewritten document from George W. Bush’s National Guard records, and discovered that it was extremely difficult to create a document that was an exact match (in fact, I gave up after about an hour’s work).

The rest of the article is just as full of unsubstantiated claims, erroneous statements, and inept smears. If this is the best journalism Columbia can produce, there’s no mystery why mainstream media is in such deep trouble in this country. This article is a joke.

At Wizbang, Kevin Aylward points out that Corey Pein even quotes the discredited David Hailey “analysis” as if it were authoritative—and Hailey did fool around with his images in Photoshop, extensively.

UPDATE at 1/3/05 2:43:23 pm:

From Corey Pein’s resume:

Voted “most likely to bring down a presidential administration” by Columbia classmates.

UPDATE at 1/3/05 2:48:09 pm:

Roger L. Simon points out that Columbia journalism students don’t seem to be learning some elementary journalistic techniques:

What’s amazing to me is how little fact-checking is done by the Columbia Journalism Review, if this article is any indication. Somewhat less amazing, but equally pathetic is that they solicit subscriptions at the bottom. As if.

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 Frank says:

Kid's heads are filled with so many nonfacts that when they get out of school they're totally unprepared to do anything. They can't read, they can't write, they can't think. Talk about child abuse. The U.S. school system as a whole qualifies. -- Discussing the state of the education system in America - Playboy magazine, April 1993.