The Rather scandal as nerdy, 80s-style “wild comedy”

September 10th, 2004  |  Tags:

Convicted child rapist and Academy Award-winning director Roman Polanski made a movie called The Ninth Gate several years ago. I thought that the premise was great: Johnny Depp played an unscrupulous “book detective;” people hired Depp’s character to confirm the provenance of manuscripts, but he typically wound up stealing the best ones for himself and replacing them with good-enough forgeries. The idea that someone would make a movie — a thriller, even! — about a forensic book expert appealed to my strongest nerd tendencies. Unfortunately, the movie was dismal: the plot grew incoherent and became unraveled well before the third act, and the narrative’s continual dependence on bizarre occult activity (not least in the diabolus ex machina ending) became increasingly tiresome.

This Dan Rather “forged memos” scandal (search technorati for blog articles or search google news for mass-media reports) has most of the elements of a delightful nerd controversy as far as I’m concerned. Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not it will end as confusingly and poorly as the Polanski movie. (If you’ve seen The Ninth Gate and can imagine Dan Rather, that’s a terrifying picture indeed.) A better model for this fracas is that of a crossover “wild comedy” that combines the cult appeal of unvarnished nerdism with the mass appeal of the antics enabled by limitless human stupidity. This is the case for at least the following reasons:

  1. It hinges upon both common knowledge and obscure minutiae. The longstanding ubiquity of high-quality computer typesetting has had two effects. First, it has encouraged a widespread typographical dilettantism: in a world where office-automation software encourages people to apply a variety of typefaces to routine workplace communications, everyone has a favorite font. However, because so much of the typesetting process is automated by reasonable algorithms, more specialized typographical knowledge is of interest only to professional practicioners or hobbyists with a zeal for abstruse, largely-historical topics. The physical evidence that these memos were forged falls under two categories: general-knowledge topics like choice of font or word-wrapping behavior and (slightly) more specialized issues like hinting vs. kerning and the presence of ligatures. As a result, this scandal has both broad and deep appeal.
  2. It’s an underdog story. Like a slobs-vs-snobs movie, this scandal sees a grassroots network of independent authors firing pebbles at Viacom’s Goliath. The mass media have largely exhausted the virtue that enabled their rise to their current prominence and hold their position by sheer corporate inertia. On the other hand, the weblog authors that broke the story-behind-the-story depend on the veracity of their every claim and the cogency of their every argument for their credibility, relevance, and community standing.
  3. It’s an underdog story that targets one gargantuan corporation and makes fun of another. Everything that tinfoil-hat conspiracists claim about the government is actually true about the corporations that run our mass media. (It may also, of course, be true about the gov’t, but it’s demonstrably true about the media.) Because of the 24/7 news cycle, the media is able to silence dissent, decide what stories people are exposed to, determine what voices are heard, and even prove — by repeated assertion alone — the truth or falsity of various propositions.
    Delightfully, because these forgeries apparently involved Microsoft Word, this scandal has enabled a tsunami of “Clippy” parodies, reviving a great nerd humor meme. (Mine, which I tacked on to the end of another post shortly after this scandal broke — and have also reproduced here — was the first one I saw; better-executed ones have cropped up since.) It’s too bad there wasn’t a similar Microsoft-stained forgery scandal in 1996; the attendant nerd humor could have involved Microsoft Bob. Clearly, there’s a wasted opportunity there.

It’s obviously a great scandal. To get ultimate mass appeal, there will have to be plenty of pointless detail for fanboys to argue about on internet fora AND a crowd-pleasing comic ending. The pointless detail is already abundant, as a quick googling will show. This leaves the simple task of coming up with a great conclusion to this farce.

I’m on the job, but the endings I can come up with all involve fully-clothed people getting defenstrated into swimming pools or Dan Rather winding up face-first, kicking at the knees, in a truck full of manure. People will get pies-in-the-face, too. Finally, I have a feeling that some mistaken-identity-driven romantic encounters will occur before the second reel.

Of course, you can’t cut right to the dramatic, hijinks-filled ending; a good slobs-vs-snobs scandal requires a nail-biting plot twist before denouement. My vote is for this scenario: Rather could show (perhaps with the assistance of a moustache-twirling office-automation-application expert) that the Microsoft’s Times New Roman font and the word-wrap algorithm in Microsoft Word were derived from careful analysis of Texas Air National Guard internal memos from the early 70s. That would rule.