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Saturday, September 11, 2004

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CBS Entertainment torpedoes CBS News

Don't underestimate the CSI Effect!

A lot of people are wondering whether the news of Dan Rather's forged documents, which he trotted out on 60 Minutes to try to damage President Bush's re-election campaign, will have legs. It's absolutely certain that the documents are fakes (and not very good ones at that), but CBS News continues to stonewall, and Rather continues to insist they are genuine.

Will the story fade away? Can Rather and CBS survive by just hunkering down and brazening it out, ignoring facts and the torrent of ridicule until everyone finally moves on to other matters?

I don't think so.

Over the past four years the CBS Entertainment division has trained tens of millions of arm-chair sleuths in the intricacies of forensic science. It's not uncommon for a CSI episode to draw over 25 million viewers, with CSI: Miami only a few million behind and NCIS coming up fast. Yet another spin-off, CSI: New York, is about to debut.

The general public (myself included) laps it up. Every week people watch Crime Scene Investigators crack cases with DNA evidence from fibers of hair, computer simulations of gunshot trajectories, graphic overlays of matching fingerprints, etc., etc. It's fascinating to see these TV investigators unravel mysteries and solve puzzles using advanced scientific techniques that catch the criminals no matter how clever they think they are being or how well they try to cover their tracks.

The "CSI Effect" has already changed the way juries are viewing evidence. Now it is going to change the way voters treat the old-guard news media.

The biggest name in TV news, Dan Rather, has been caught red-handed peddling forged documents. And he was caught by hundreds of average citizens sitting at their computers, collaborating over the Internet, and analyzing the evidence. Here's a real-life instance where everyone can live their fantasy of being a CSI expert. Anyone can retype one of the forged documents into Microsoft Word and see that the two match precisely as to font, tabbing, word-wrap, line spacing, letter spacing, centering, superscripts, and so on. They can prove to themselves and to their friends that (absent time travel) it is statistically and scientifically absurd for a 1973 memo to just coincidentally be identical to a document they themselves created on their computer in a matter of minutes using MS Word's default settings.

This is a "gotcha" moment which can't help but mesmerize today's generation of CSI aficionados. As Gil Grissom would say, "follow the evidence". And that's what people all over America are doing.

Now that their forensic knowledge has confirmed the forgeries, CSI fans will want to see the culprits punished and humbled. That's a much better way to end an episode than by letting the bad guys get away with the crime. Especially when the principal bad guy turns out to be an arrogant celebrity who thinks he's above the law and untouchable by the peons.

How ironic that Dan Rather's final television career role should see him cast as the unwitting guest star in yet another CBS spin-off:

CSI: The Blogosphere.








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