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Font wars hit prime time
by Jules Siegel
September 11, 2004

"TV ads that are saying 'the memos are fake' or 'Kerry's isn't a hero' are the main focus of the campaign right now," comments High Times contributing editor Preston Peet in the course of a very spirited debate about the disputed Killian memos on newsroom-l, one of the Internet's principal email discussion lists for journalists.

"It's sick, to put it mildly," he observes.

To me, it's not all that bad, because I think that campaign ads are the distilled reflection of the candidates' personalities. The discussion brings this out even further. The real question under scrutiny is whom do you trust. Moreover, because I have devoted my life to type, whether as a journalist or a graphic designer, I am happy that TV screens are filled with discussions of arcane font identification details and the capabilities of the otherwise forgotten IBM keyboard devices at which I spent much of my youth.

If they ever invite me to go on TV to explain the difference among MS Times New Roman, Linotype Times Roman and Monotype Times New Roman, I will ask them to display the interesting visual experiment now featured on Newsroom-l. Look what happens when I match up the scan of a date from one of the Killian memos (blue) with the same text composed in Word in MS Times New Roman and Bembo, laser-printed at 300 dpi and scanned at 300 dpi. Bembo was designed by the legendary British typographer Stanley Morison, who also created Times New Roman for the Times (London) in 1931. Judge for yourself which one fits better.

Most of the case against the Killian memos rests on the claim that the typeface is MS Times New Roman, which was not available on typewriters in 1973, although other versions of Times were. My general impression is that this is way too tricky to call without seeing the original documents or, possibly, excellent scans. At the same time, after very close study, I don't think this is MS Times New Roman. It's not Bembo either, but it could be a bastard version that I think combines elements of Times and Bembo (or a similar face). It might be either Aldine or Press Roman, which were created by IBM for the Selectric Composer.

A world-reknowned authority on type who wishes to remain anonymous at this time assures me that based on his mathematical calculations of character widths (an unerring type identification fingerprint, he says), the memo face is MS Times New Roman. He's probably right about that. In a media urination contest, however, which will be more effective -- a mathematical formula or a visual image?

When it comes to trust, Bush just got hit with a faceful of unrecycled horse manure. It's worse than the Swift Boats. Kerry had plenty of documentary and eyewitness evidence to demonstrate not only that they were lying, but also that he was a hero.

Here the preponderance of the evidence is that Bush never showed up for duty, even if you discount the Killian memos, which are now related to the category of hearsay. Arguing about the authenticity of the Killian memos just keeps bringing the subject back to four little letters: AWOL.

It is possible that the documents were forged. If so, maybe some Democrats learned a lot from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. I don't approve, but it does make me smile.

I was talking about some of this with my beloved bride, the beauteous Anita Brown. She's more conservative than I am. I mentioned the right wing argument that this is all old stuff, that even if Bush committed youthful indiscretions, they have no bearing on the election. She replied, "If he is to be forgiven for his youthful indiscretions, why should the youth of today go to prison for the same offenses?"

-- Jules Siegel is a writer and graphic designer whose works have been published in Playboy, Best American Short Stories, Library of America's "Writing Los Angeles," and many other publications. He administers Newsroom-l, one of the Internet's principal email discussion lists for journalists.

Posted: September 11, 2004

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