Excerpt: 'Truth and Duty'

My heart started to pound. There is nothing more frightening for a reporter than the possibility of being wrong, seriously wrong. That is the reason that we checked and rechecked, argued about wording, took care to be certain that the video that accompanied the words didn't create a new and unintended nuance. Being right, being sure, was everything. And right now, on the Internet, it appeared everything was falling apart.

I had a real physical reaction as I read the angry online accounts. It was something between a panic attack, a heart attack, and a nervous breakdown. My palms were sweaty; I gulped and tried to breathe. My heart was pounding like I had become a cartoon character whose heart outline pushes out the front of her shirt with each beat. The little girl in me wanted to crouch and hide behind the door and cry my eyes out.

The longtime reporter in me was pissed off . . . and I hung on to her strength and certainty for dear life. I had never been fundamentally wrong, never been fooled, never been under this kind of attack. I resolved to fight back.

I talked to our document analyst Marcel Matley, now back in San Francisco, who said he had seen some of the comments and dismissed them out of hand. "They aren't even looking at the quality of copies I did," Matley said. He disdained the anonymity of the postings, saying that any real analysts would use their name and credentials. And he pointed out something that would be a huge problem for us in the days ahead: that in the process of downloading, scanning, faxing, and photocopying, some computers, copiers, and faxes changed spacing and subtly altered fonts. He thought that this basic misunderstanding of how documents changed through electronic transmittal was behind the unfounded certainty and ferocity of the attack on the documents.

In retrospect, Matley was right and our story never recovered from this basic misunderstanding. Faxing changes a document in so many ways, large and small, that analyzing a memo that had been faxed -- in some cases not once, but twice -- was virtually impossible. The faxing destroyed the subtle arcs and lines in the letters. The characters bled into each other. The details of how the typed characters failed to line up perfectly inside each word were lost.

And these faxed, scanned, and downloaded documents were the only versions of the memos ever made public. A comparison of one of the documents before faxing and after faxing is in the appendix.

But I thought Matley's belief that a technical misunderstanding was behind the ferocious attack was too good to be true.

I was afraid that this time Matley, who was an experienced document analyst and longtime expert witness, was out of his element. He knew a great deal about documents and signatures. But I knew attack politics.

I knew what we were seeing was not a simple mistake made because of technical differences in the way the documents looked. This was something else, something new and fundamentally frightening. I had never seen this kind of response to any story. This was like rounding a corner in the woods and spotting a new creature, all venom and claws and teeth. You didn't know what it was, but you sure knew it was out to get you.

Page
Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...