These days, CBS News anchor Dan Rather and his colleagues at the network’s magazine program “60 Minutes II” are enduring an unusual wave of second-guessing by some of the public and fellow journalists.
For that, they can thank “Buckhead.”
It was a late-night blog posting by this mystery Netizen that first questioned the validity of documents Rather cited Wednesday as proof that George W. Bush did not fulfill his National Guard duty more than 30 years ago.
Buckhead refuses to further identify himself, other than dropping hints that he is a male who lives on the East Coast -- preferring to proclaim that the scramble to verify the contentions in his posting marks an extraordinary achievement for a medium that has operated more as an underground world of ideological venting than a source of legitimate news.
But Buckhead is vehement about one thing: He acted alone when he posted, to the conservative website FreeRepublic.com, what was widely believed to be the first allegation that the CBS report relied on documents that could have been forged.
“Absolutely, positively, on my own, sitting at my computer in my bedroom just before midnight -- but not in my pajamas,” he wrote in an e-mail exchange with The Times. “But once I posted the comment to Free Republic I was no longer working alone, and that is the real point of the story about the story about the story.”
That story began Wednesday, 19 minutes after the “60 Minutes II” broadcast began, when another FreeRepublic poster, TankerKC, noted that the documents were “not in the style that we used when I came into the USAF.... Can we get a copy of those memos?”
Less than four hours later, Buckhead pointed to “proportionally spaced fonts” in the memos, which CBS said had been written in the early 1970s by Bush’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, who died in 1984. Buckhead concluded that the documents had been drafted on a modern-day word processor rather than a typewriter.
“I am saying these documents are forgeries, run through a copier for 15 generations to make them look old,” Buckhead wrote. “This should be pursued aggressively.”
And it was -- with startling speed.
Early Thursday morning, Minneapolis lawyer Scott Johnson was in his basement home office, preparing to link some morning news reports to the site he co-authors, when a reader sent an e-mail about Buckhead.
Intrigued, Johnson, whose online ID is “The Big Trunk,” put a link on his site, PowerLine Blog.com, to Buckhead’s post.
Then the floodgates opened.
“Thanks to all the readers who have written regarding this post,” Johnson wrote in an early update. “Several have pointed out that the Executive line of IBM typewriters did have proportionally spaced fonts, although no reader has found the font used in the memos to be a familiar one or thought that the IBM Executive was likely to have been used by the National Guard in the early 1970s.
“Reader Monty Walls has also cited the IBM Selectric Composer,” he continued. “However, reader Eric Courtney adds this wrinkle: The ‘Memo To File’ of August 18, 1973, also used specialized typesetting characters not used on typewriters. These include the superscript ‘th’ in 187th, and consistent ' (right single quote) all parentheses in original used instead of a typewriter’s generic (apostrophe). These are the sorts of things that typesetters did manually until the advent of smart correction in things like Microsoft Word.”
Soon Charles Johnson, a Los Angeles musician-turned-conservative-blogger who hosts the site LittleGreenFootballs.com, posted the results of his own investigation. He wrote that he had opened Microsoft Word, set the font to Times New Roman and used the program’s default settings to retype a purported Killian memo from August 1973.
“My Microsoft Word version, typed in 2004, is an exact match for the documents trumpeted by CBS News as ‘authentic,’ ” Johnson wrote, posting images of his creation and the CBS document. (The Times New Roman font itself predates computers; it was designed in 1932.)
Within 90 minutes of that post, the Power Line site was linked to perhaps the best-known conservative site of all -- the Drudge Report, made famous when Matt Drudge took a lead role in the first reports on the relationship between then-President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
“That was a quantum jump in awareness,” said Scott Johnson. “It was wildly circulating in the blogosphere until Drudge linked us. Then it was instantly known to a million people, and it was all of a sudden a legitimate story.”
Suddenly, the story line shifted from the question Democrats had been trying to ask -- whether Bush received special treatment in the Guard -- to whether a network long detested by conservatives had been duped in its quest to air a report critical of the president in the midst of the reelection campaign.
Journalists at mainstream media outlets rushed to consult with experts to check the validity of the documents. The claims of seemingly legitimate analysts posting commentary online could not be ignored.
“If the blog enthusiasts wanted to write a better scenario, they’d have a hard time coming up with one more spectacular than this one,” said Jim Geraghty, host of the Kerry Spot blog published by the conservative National Review, whose e-mail queue was filled by font experts from across the nation wanting to weigh in.
Democrats point to the timeline as evidence of a right-wing conspiracy; Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe suggested to reporters Friday that White House political advisor Karl Rove might have cooked up the memos, presumably with the idea that they would be discredited. A Bush spokesman called the charge “nonsense.”
“It was amazing Thursday to watch the documents story go from FreeRepublic.com, a bastion of right-wing lunacy, to Drudge to the mainstream media in less than 12 hours,” said Jim Jordan, a strategist for independent Democratic groups opposed to Bush.
“That’s not to say the documents didn’t deserve examination. But apparently the entire thing was cooked up by a couple of amateurs on Free Republic. The speed with which it moved was breathtaking.”
By Friday, articles in The Times, the Washington Post and other news outlets were quoting some analysts raising questions about the CBS documents, and others saying it was impossible to judge the memos’ authenticity without seeing the originals.
Rather opened his evening news broadcast Friday with a defense of his report, producing an analyst who vouched for the memos.
But at the same time, one man who Rather had said would corroborate CBS’ report -- retired Maj. Gen. Bobby Hodges, Killian’s direct supervisor -- told The Times that he did not think the memos were real.
Media experts said the role of the bloggers illustrated a significant development in the relationship between mainstream news and the still-nascent phenomenon of blogging.
This was the first time, some said, that the Web logs were engaging in their own form of investigative journalism -- and readers, they warned, should be cautious.
“The mainstream press is having to follow them,” said Jeffrey Seglin, a professor at Emerson College in Boston. “The fear I have is: How do you know who’s doing the Web logs?
“And what happens when this stuff gets into the mainstream, and it eventually turns out that the ’60 Minutes’ documents were perfectly legitimate, but because there’s been so much reporting about what’s being reported, it has already taken on a life of its own?”
“All hail ‘Buckhead,’ ” wrote one posting to Free Republic.
“Here, here,” wrote another. “But how do we know Buckhead is really not Karl Rove.... “