Friday, September 10, 2004

Of typewriters and fonts
Right after I got to work yesterday a coworker e-mailed me the font comparison of the Killian memos. I wrote back that I remembered using typewriters with proportional spacing back in the seventies, so this didn't prove anything. I thought about blogging on it, but unwisely chose to do some work instead. I didn't know what a big brou-ha-ha fontgate was making until I got home last night. Sigh. I could have been one of the first rebutters, but I blew it.

Even so, because I think it says a few things about the nature of blogging, I'd like to throw in a few comments.

First a summary, in case you walked into the middle of this. Wednesday's "60 Minutes II" looked at Bush's National Guard service and produced some previously unknown memos from 1973 that reflected badly on the president. Sometime in the night, someone decided the documents looked more word processed than typed. At issue was the spacing of the letters. Most typewriters used monotype spacing. That is each letter took up the same amount of space regardless of the width of the letter. In a word like "woman" the "w" and "m" would crowd in on the "o", while in a word like "ill" the letters would look oddly wide spaced. Most fonts in word processors use proportional spacing, which adjusts the spaces between the letters (called kerning) in a style more like professional typesetting. By morning right bloggistan was all in a tizzy thinking they had proof positive that the new documents were forged. Their argument was entirely based on the idea that the documents had to be produced on a word processor in order to have proportional spacing.

Later in the day, hundreds of people, old enough to have actually used typewriters, came on-line to point out that proportional font typewriters were a common office machine in the seventies. IBM had been making them since 1941, and the mighty "golf ball" Selectric, in use since 1961, had this feature. That should be the end of it, but it won't be. Already, the right is howling that we can't prove the documents are not forgeries. Irritable wingnuts will bring this up from now until the election, pouting that we lefties are play unfair by bringing in our so-called "facts."

I think this tiny tempest is a good example of some of the strengths and weaknesses of the blogoshere. Up front is our ability to fact check and critique the mainstream news media and other official sources of information. That someone was able to notice something suspicious about the news and propagate their criticism in such a short time is a good thing. Equally, the fact that others were able to catch the error in his/her suspicion and propagate their counter-criticism in an equally short time is also a good thing. This is involvement by normal citizens acting as watchdogs over the powerful managers of information. This is dialog between the factions (however angry and accusatory it might be). This happens fast enough to matter. All good things.

The bad side of this is that their suspicions were wrong and, thanks to the permanence and immortality of information once released into the internet wilds, the accusation of forgery will pop up forever. Also, while there was some dialog between the factions, there is also a large spectator component to the blogoshere that only listen to the echo chamber of their own side. They will hear the original critique, but not necessarily the counter-critique. Our greatest strengths are also our greatest weaknesses. The speed and broad spread of the internet allow a bad idea to become ubiquitous before anyone has a chance to notice how bad it is.

This is the kind of affair that the professional (i.e. "paid") news media have in mind when they sneer at blogs and websites for being untrained and lacking editors. There is some validity in their comment. Of course there is an equal amount of validity in our counter-sneer that, if training and editors are such an advantage, why does the news still suck?

The real problem is that bloggers lack training in research, evidence, and logic (and so do most paid reporters). In this case, the originator of the forgery idea noticed that the documents looked more like the word processed documents that they had encountered than the typed ones. Therefore it must have come from a computer. And they rushed to the web with no more than that thought. How many flaws are in this? From a professional perspective, it's flawed on evidence and logic. They assumed nonexistence of evidence (they had never seen a typewriter with proportional fonts) equals evidence of nonexistence (therefore they don't exist). It's also very sloppy research (they didn't try to find out if their assumption was true). Without digging, I can think of at least three ways a letter with proportional spacing could have been produced in 1973. The supporters of the forgery idea continue the assault on logic by reversing the normal burden of proof by insisting we have to prove that it's not a forgery (a negative proof).

Having insulted the mental capacity of the originator of the forgery idea, let me pull back a bit and say I think the real culprit here is over-eagerness. This is another case where speed is our enemy. When most bloggers have a good idea, our first priority is to get it on line and be the first to say it. Thinking the documents looked word processed was a good observation, it just didn't hold up under testing. Speed is not just a technical feature of blogging, it is one of our most respected values. Being first is one of the top claims to status in the blogosphere. Being clever comes in second. Being right or thorough is a distant third.

I don't exempt myself from this criticism. I'd sell my left kidney for a really good scoop. I'm not going to end with a pious call to reevaluate our core values. This is a young medium. Frontier wildness and adolescent mistakes are part of growth. There will be time for more reasoned consideration later. I just wanted to be the first one to say it.

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