Imagine a leading newspaper summarizing its main story in these terms: "It was the typefaces that consumed much of the news media." Meanwhile, Dan Rather, the anchor of CBS News, had to mount an aggressive defense "to protect the credibility of the new division." All around typefaces?
Only 50 days before the U.S. presidential election, the hottest news story about George W. Bush is whether he did or did not fulfill his military service. The most recent documents, unearthed by CBS's 60 Minutes, suggest that he not only was absent during his National Guard duty, but in fact disobeyed direct orders to get a physical examination in order to stay flight-eligible, and that pressure was applied to "sugarcoat" his record with special treatment.
The question is whether the documents supporting these charges are authentic, and all the recent reporting has boiled down to what we might call "Font Forensics."
These are the details: "a furious battle over the minutiae of Vietnam-era typewriter fonts;" "the documents appeared to be fakes created by a modern computer because they had features that could not have been produced on Vietnam-era typewriters;" "the superscripts in '111th' are 'not consistent with Vietnam-era typewriters;'" and "the documents could not have come from old-fashioned typewriters because of proportional spacing and type features."
Last November, I wrote a post titled Information Archaeology that examined a news story about a government document released with censored black-outs, but where the underlying information was retrievable through PDF technology. I asked the question, "Do designers, often experts at using Acrobat, become the new P.I.s, or criminal investigators, at finding what is hidden beneath the seams?"
Let me ask the question again. "Are designers not the new criminal investigators at finding what is hidden beneath the seams?" Why are leading typography specialists like Jonathan Hoefler, Tobias Frere-Jones, Matthew Carter, or Zuzana Licko not expert witnesses in this critical issue of national, and ultimately international, politics?
It has become quickly clear, precisely because of blog speed, that these issues can be analyzed in design terms. Other sites will adopt the language of design when design become the issue. A few examples:
• The INDC Journal attacks the Boston Globe for falsely supporting Bush when "the documents could have been prepared on an IBM Selectric Composer typewriter available at the time."
• And there are experts. Allen Halley, with the unlikely title of Director of Words and Letters at Agfa Monotype, believes "it was highly out of the ordinary for an organization, even the Air Force, to have proportional-spaced fonts for someone to work with." Meanwhile, John Collins, Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Bitstream Inc., notes the use of the superscript "th" in one document, "That would not be possible on a typewriter or even a word processor at that time." Designers are used to seeing these folks at trade shows, not quoted on national issues.
I want to believe these documents are authentic. Meanwhile, I have design peers who fear an even worst outcome, that they are part of some larger conspiracy by the Republicans. "One theory in our office is that the GOP did it to cast doubt on the Kerry campaign," notes Scott Stowell at Typographica under the rubric "Forensic Typography."
Meanwhile, over at Daily Kos, they have done the hard homework to come up with some persuasive answers: technological archaeology about typewriters, a history of Times Roman, and superscripts and proportional spacing. (The 397 comments as of midnight tonight are worth tomorrow's reading.)
We can go to bed tonight knowing that George W. Bush is not telling the truth.
[I am indebted to Michael Bierut for many of the links in this post, and to Rob Giampietro for suggesting the title "Font Forensics."]