September 10, 2004

Something Bad Has Happened

Apparently my earlier pessimism was not unwarranted.

There will be no investigation. There will be no retraction. There will be no correction.

I titled the previous entry "Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy" with tongue in cheek. I don't generally ascribe to conspiracy what can be ascribed to simpler causes, to butcher an old saying. Thus, I find this quote from Bernard Goldberg, reported at Rather Biased, appropriate:

"This is the nature of bias in the news. no conspiracies. Rather never said, 'I know these documents are phoney, but I'll go with them anyway.' He would never do that. The problem is too much like-mindedness, too much groupthink. What happened was almost invevitable. Sooner or later, when you live in the bubble, something bad will happen."
I am not a gifted enough writer to convey adequately how bad I think this is. I am not devoted enough to spend the hours of my day countering all the gross incompetence on display in this article. Though, part of me wants to. Part of me wants to know why Hunter thinks anyone should believe such unsupported assertions as:

"typewriters were indeed available with Times New Roman typefaces." Really? Find it. Find me one. I couldn't find one 20 years later. I certainly couldn't find one 20 years later in government work. But maybe I'd believe you if you supported the assertion adequately.

"[The IBM Executive (a typewriter using proportional type--ed.)] was an extremely popular model, and was marketed to government agencies." Show me. Back it up. I find it sense-defying that a typewriter that required this level of effort from its operator to produce quality output:

Mike did the original ad on an IBM Executive typewriter after carefully measuring the letter weights and counting the spaces to create proper column justification.
. . . would have been at all popular among office clerical staff--and again, particularly not at military offices, where budget constraints are always a primary consideration in the purchase and upgrading of office equipment.

(Personally, I can say with assurance that any typing pool I ever worked in would have gone into open revolt if the boss had tried to saddle us with machines like that. If you're old enough to remember when offices had secretaries, you know that a roomful of angry ones makes the movie Nine to Five look like a goddamn fairy tale, and I don't mean the part where Lily Tomlin fantasizes she's Snow White.)

"So, as you can see, both IBM and Microsoft specifically obtained the typeface "Times New Roman" from the designers of that font; neither was the creator of it. And, as we said before, typeface includes not just the "shape" of the letters, but the size and spacing between those letters." Actually, he has a point that typeface includes more than just the shape of the letters; but the reasons his conclusion is ultimately incorrect are explained thoroughly here.

(MID-POST CORRECTION/UPDATE: The following passages about kerning appear to be irrelevant. Carry on!)

It boils down to this: Typewriters don't kern. Can't kern. Wouldn't kern if you threatened them with fiery destruction.

What's kerning? Well, there's a good definition, with examples, here. And here is my own example. This text was typed in Microsoft Word 2000, Times New Roman, 36-pt text, with kerning off. I have taken the liberty of adding a red dividing line between the characters for emphasis:

No kerning

This text was typed in the same fashion, but with kerning set "on" for fonts 36 points and above:

With kerning

In the kerned example, the space between the "T" and the "o" has been reduced; MS Word's kerning algorithm "knows" the lowercase "o" can fit more snugly against the uppercase "T."

The original of one of the suspect CBS documents is available in .pdf format here. I know it's fuzzy, but do your best to look at the characters.

Do you see any kerning? Do you any instance in which the spacing of consecutive letters overlap?

Do you know of a typewriter ever made that could predict the next letter you were going to type and automatically "snuggle" it part-way into the space already occupied by the previous letter? Because if you do, pass the pipe, brother. I want some of what you've got.


And now let me say why I think none of this matters: Because it's a parts story.

"But CNN is going to run it day and night," he said. "By next week, it'll be ancient history. We have to go with this story Saturday."

"Right," she said.

. . .

He spun back. "Go do it."

"Okay," she said. "Thanks, Dick."

"You sure you can put it together in time?"

She started collecting her notes. "Trust me."

As she headed out through Marian's office, she heard him shout, "Just remember, Jennifer--don't come back with a parts story! I don't want a fucking parts story!"

From Airframe, by Michael Crichton. If you've read it, you know why I think it's relevant (I hope).

If you haven't, here's the short version: The excerpted conversation above occurs between the producer of a news-mag style show (a la "60 Minutes"), and the reporter who wants to do a story about a recent in-flight accident that has left three people dead. (The line "CNN is going to run it day and night" refers to graphic home video footage taken during the flight.)

The producer doesn't want a parts story because he knows nothing will put people to sleep faster than a technical discussion of airplane construction and safety devices.

(Or, say . . . fonts.)

The producer wants what I'd call a "some heads are gonna roll" story. A story about how negligent airplane manufacturers are. A story about Terror in the Skies. A story about how You Could Be at Risk. A story about Evil Corporations and the Evil, Evil Ways in Which They Totally Neglect Your Safety for a Buck.

I'm sure you're familiar with the type of story I'm talking about.

All over the blogosphere, people are discussing fonts and typesetting and military style guidelines and, well, parts.

But the aspect of this that isn't a parts story is what's frightening. That a major news organization is willing to neglect its own credibility to further an agenda is frightening. That a major news organization assigns more value and emphasis to voter intent--ack, I'm sorry; I mean Lieutenant Colonel Killian's intent--than the actual votes--geez, there I go again! I mean Lieutenant Colonel Killian's actual statements--that disturbs me very much.

Gosh. Why do I keep mixing those two things up?

Maybe it's because they come from the same thought process: One in which what should have been true trumps what is verifiably true. Voters in Florida should have voted for Gore; therefore, it's within reason to spend months analyzing ballots looking for any indication, however slight, that they meant to vote for Gore.

Lieutenant Colonel Killian should have written that memo. He meant to write that memo. He would have written that memo, had he only found the time--oh, what the hell! He did write the memo. He wrote it in his mind, and Dan Rather divined it, and that's close enough, isn't it?

You've probably read it 100 times already, but read this statement by Kelli Edwards, CBS spokesperson, one more time:

CBS verified the authenticity of the documents by talking to individuals who had seen the documents at the time they were written. These individuals were close associates of Colonel Jerry Killian and confirm that the documents reflect his opinions at the time the documents were written.
See? He meant to. He definitely thought those things. He was going to write them down. He should have written them down. Does it matter whether he really did or not? He would have; he could have. Oh, let's pretend he did. We could get away with it. We will get away with it. No one wants to read about typefaces and kerning and superscript and date formatting . . . no one will care. By Monday, anyone who does care will be thoroughly sick of discussing it anyway. The rest won't remember. Let's run with this. We can do it.

And they did.

And I don't care who you're voting for this November: That kind of behavior from a major news source should scare the daylights out of you.

Posted by Ilyka at September 10, 2004 08:52 PM in news

Airframe was excellent, in a nicely understated manner. And yes, this behavior from CBS scares the bejesus out of me.

Posted by: Jim at September 11, 2004 02:02 AM