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September 14, 2004

Dan Rather: Expert Shop-A-Holic!

Precisely how many experts did CBS News have to cajole before they finally discovered one willing to risk his reputation -- whatever reputation he might have -- to sort of "authenticate" the signature on one of the four forged documents?

When lawyers go shopping for an expert to say what they need to be said in court, they will usually start out at the top of the list, the best qualified, highest regarded stand-outs in their field.

And if those experts say that they can't or won't testify as the lawyer requires, both parties bid an amicable farewell and go their separate ways.

And then lawyer goes to the second tier of expert; and then the third. And so on, until he finally finds someone -- anyone -- whom a judge might charitably deem legally an "expert" competent to render expert testimony in a field.

I wondered how many experts CBS had burned through before they finally found someone willing to say, "Um, okay, I guess, looks all right to me."

I should have wondered more about the man's address: San Fransisco. CBS News is headquarted in New York, and the locus of the story is in Texas; neither of those places is anywhere near San Fransisco. How did it come to be, exactly, that CBS News had to reach out all the way to second biggest city on the opposite coast to land an expert willing to "authenticate" the forgeries?

How many New York and Washington experts turned CBS down before they finally turned to LA, and then, after LA proved fruitless, headed up the Pacific Coast Highway?

Somewhat embarassingly for both Matley and CBS, he had previously written that the authenticity of a signature cannot be positively established off a copy, because simple computer tricks can put one genuine signature on to a document never signed by the subject, and that therefore only the disproving of a signature on a copy was possible.

But, there you go. There was Dan Rather's expert witness, a man who, to the extent he "authenticated" anything at all, could only authenticate a signature rather than the entirety of a document.

It turns out that it's actually a little worse than that. Which will be the epitaph of this story: Everything was worse than it seemed, even when you thought it was all pretty shoddy to begin with.

The New York Post reports today:

Matley, it turns out, got his start as a graphologist analyzing "spirituality in handwriting," The Post's Deborah Orin reports today. Some in the field believe he lacks sufficient credentials.

Spirituality in handwriting? Well, certainly, it's possible that a man in the field of handwriting generally might become well-trained in more scientific, and less spiritual, facets of graphology; but it's not exactly the most promising start.

And, no matter how competent Matley may be, you certainly wouldn't take as your first choice of expert, all other things being equal, the guy who started off in "spirituality in handwriting." It's not the kind of bullet-point on a resume you'd highlight.

But even still: Everything is worse than it seems, even if you thought it was all pretty shoddy to begin with.

Because, as the Washington Post article already linked headlines, Matley now says he didn't actually "authenticate" anything, no matter what Dan Rather might say:

The lead expert retained by CBS News to examine disputed memos from President Bush's former squadron commander in the National Guard said yesterday that he examined only the late officer's signature and made no attempt to authenticate the documents themselves.

"There's no way that I, as a document expert, can authenticate them," Marcel Matley said in a telephone interview from San Francisco. The main reason, he said, is that they are "copies" that are "far removed" from the originals.

Well, that and he's not qualified to authenticate typography or military-records format or the like.

Matley had previously been "muzzled" by CBS, in his own words, previously telling reporters that he "can't talk" to the press. He's talking a little bit now, and I can't imagine that's good news for Dan Rather.

Matley seems to have realized his professional reputation, such as it may be, is now in serious jeopardy due to his decision to trust Dan Rather, and he has apparently decided he's not going down with Rather's ship.

Will the hundreds of executives and reporters and copyeditors at CBS make a similar calculation?

Does Steve Krofft want to see his professional reputation tarnished because Dan Rather is still smarting over George H. W. Bush's put-down of him?

We'll see. I don't have much faith in the media to act in the public interest, but I do trust in them to act in their own.

Correction: I originally linked another blog for the proposition that Matley only had a few self-published books to his name. I am now told that's not true. I retract the claim and apologize for making it.

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posted by Ace at 04:11 AM

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