Ordinary folks may not care and the presidential campaigns have moved on to health care and the unbanned assault weapons. But the only topic of conversation in the media world remains whether CBS's National Guard documents are real or fake.

Either the memos are genuine, and the avalanche of criticism is unwarranted, or they are bogus, and "60 Minutes" has stumbled into one of the worst journalistic fiascos of modern times.

Which is why Dan Rather was back on the "CBS Evening News" last night, defending his work. And proportional font spacing has never gotten so much attention, probably in history.

One thing is clear: The controversy over the "60 Minutes" documents has now overshadowed the questions they purport to raise about George W. Bush's military service.

I'll come back to the campaign trail later in this post, but first, from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution | http://www.ajc.com/news/content/news/election/0904nation/14polcbs.html?UrAuth=x :

"His credibility under attack, CBS News anchor Dan Rather on Monday again stood by his report raising questions about President Bush's military service during the Vietnam War era . . .

"Rather broadly acknowledged criticism of the documents.

" 'But CBS used several techniques to make sure these papers should be taken seriously, talking to handwriting and document analysts and other experts who strongly insist the documents could have been created in the '70s,' Rather told viewers as video of an unidentified man examining enlarged versions of the documents was aired."

That man was Marcel Matley, whom I interviewed for this piece. | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A18982-2004Sep13.html The New York Times | http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/14/politics/campaign/14guard.html pulls back the camera a bit:

"While Mr. Rather's initial '60 Minutes' report was considered a journalistic coup, coming in the peak of an election year and in the twilight of Mr. Rather's career, the network has found itself under unrelenting pressure from within and without to prove that the documents were genuine amid charges that they could only have been produced by modern-day word processors.

"The controversy over the documents has been propelled by a volatile mix of fierce election-year rancor, daily disclosures pointing to potential weaknesses in CBS's report and the network's steadfast refusal to explain how it got the documents.

"Even inside CBS News there was deepening concern. Some of Mr. Rather's colleagues said in interviews that they were becoming increasingly anxious for him to silence the critics by proving the documents' validity and as new questions about their origin arose. Most declined to be quoted by name."

Even within the New York Times there is deepening concern. William Safire | http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/13/opinion/13safire.html says CBS, in the spirit of Murrow, should agree to an independent investigation.

Andrew Sullivan | http://www.andrewsullivan.com has pretty much moved into the forgery camp:

"It seems pretty clear to me that CBS's documents were forged; and that Dan Rather's Rainesian excuses are getting lamer and lamer. This strikes me as a big deal for CBS. It's not just that they made awfully big claims on documents they obviously failed to check out thoroughly enough; but Rather subsequently blustered about their legitimacy. Shouldn't he quit after such a display of recklessness? What would Rather be saying if an Internet site had pushed these docs?

"Nevertheless, it seems to me that the basic issue here is: did a president happy to see his opponents' war-medals dragged through the mire get some easy passes during the Vietnam war? The answer is obviously yes. . . . Does this matter? Not to me. I always assumed that Bush got cushy treatment his entire life in everything he did from military service to business to politics. I don't see how that really affects the important question of whether he'd be a the best pick to lead the country for the next four years."

Josh Marshall | http://talkingpointsmemo.com/ doesn't exactly defend CBS:

"The questions raised about these documents seem very compelling. And though those points above are telling about the underlying story, I can't see where they tell us much meaningful about the authenticity of these documents.

"Over the last twenty-four hours I've received literally hundreds of emails that point out that each specific criticism, on its own terms, doesn't quite hold up. Thus, for instance, there definitely were proportional type machines widely available at the time. There were ones that did superscripts. There were ones with Times Roman font, or something very near to it.

"But that only means that such a document could possibly have been produced at the time; not that it's likely. And taken all together, the criticisms raise big doubts in my mind about their authenticity. Adding even more doubt in my mind is that the author of this site was so easily able to use MS Word to produce a document that to my admittedly untrained eye looks identical to one of the memos in question. Identical.

"That combined with the individual criticisms mentioned above seems very hard to get around."

Slate's Tim Noah | http://slate.msn.com/id/2106630/ says the warning flags were there from the start:

"The documents CBS News' 60 Minutes released last week concerning George W. Bush's National Guard service -- to view them, click here -- ought to have aroused suspicion from the start. The giveaway was not some obscure typographical anomaly that only an expert could spot. Put fonts, superscripts, and proportional spacing out of your mind.

"What should have set klaxons ringing in the minds of every non-expert TV viewer was the following sentence: 'But 60 Minutes has obtained a number of documents we are told were taken from Col. [Jerry] Killian's personal file.' "We still don't know whether the documents are forgeries. But in the universe I inhabit, 'we are told were taken from Col. Killian's personal file' does not constitute responsible verification of a document in any situation in which somebody might have a motive to forge said document. Say, for instance . . . a closely contested presidential election."

Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum | http://www.realcities.com/mld/krwashington/9633633.htm begins with the following Knight Ridder | http://www.realcities.com/mld/krwashington/9633633.htm piece on the Swifties:

"Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was registered with the IRS on April 23. Its early expenditures included money for a Dallas-area private investigator, Tom Rupprath. Hoffmann said Rupprath's job was to find vets and collect their stories so that a single account could be presented to the public.

" 'If everyone was saying something different it could be confusing. We wanted one version of the truth," Hoffmann said. . . .

"In a defining moment, on July 9 and 10, dozens of veterans, the group's top advisers and a film-making crew descended on a Marriott hotel in Rosslyn, Va., to film raw material for later commercials.

"Swift boat veteran Larry Thurlow flew in from Bogue, Kan., after the group offered to pay his and his wife's expenses. Thurlow said he was hesitant to become involved but Hoffmann kept asking him to join the group.

"'The admiral helped me to see in hindsight what was really going on with Kerry,' Thurlow said.

"Amazing. It's practically an admission that they just made this stuff up. 'One version of the truth' sounds like something Stalin might brag about, and 'helped me to see in hindsight what was really going on' is a remarkably bald acknowledgment that Thurlow's own memories were rather different until Hoffman coached him a bit.

"But so what if their stories are inventions that have been thoroughly discredited? They've made a name for themselves, they've raised nearly $7 million, and they're busily moving on to greener pastures. The fact that they're serial fabricators is yesterday's news."

The Wall Street Journal carries this ominous comment:

"'If the documents are proven to be fake, it will be a terrible, devastating blow,' says Larry Grossman, former president of NBC News. 'People will be fired, the program loses its credibility and Dan Rather ends a distinguished career with his reputation besmirched.' "

At the Buzz Machine, Jeff Jarvis | http://www.buzzmachine.com/ is sick of the Purple Heart and National Guard controversies:

"I still don't care. It's all about mud. I don't care about the mud . . . and it's only distracting from the debates we should be having. It's just mud...

"The mudslinging is coming from media, campaigns, 527s, and bloggers -- they're all guilty of slinging crap instead of debating issues. I had hoped that we bloggers would be holding them all to a higher standard."

As for the "60 Minutes" documents, "Yes, bloggers should be proud of exposing what, indeed, looks like a hoax. This is a great power of blogs -- and I wish they would do it more often. Fact-checking the asses of media and politics should be part of our mission.

"Yes, CBS should not only quote those reports and link to them but also respond more fully and immediately. Every second that clicks by on that 60 Minutes stopwatch is another degree of credibility shot.

"Yes, CBS should now put its investigative powers toward finding out and revealing who perpetrated the hoax. I do not assume it was CBS; I assume instead they were dopey and duped.

"Yes, if anyone in the news organization is found to be complicit with a hoax in any way, it is a scandal that tops Jayson Blair by miles and harms the credibility of not only the network but also the industry. I doubt this will be the case but who knows?

"Yes, CBS should vow to get to the bottom of this and make that vow quickly and publicly.

"But, no, I still don't care about the would-be Bush or Kerry military scandals. I still say it's all about mud. I still say it's distracting and destructive."

The Baltimore Sun | http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/elections/bal-te.guard14sep14,1,2535401.story?coll=bal-election-headlines reminds us that the Guard is hardly the cushy dodge it was once perceived to be:

"When President Bush and Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry address the National Guard convention in Las Vegas this week, they will find a vastly different part-time soldier than they remember from the Vietnam War era.

"Nearly 40 percent of the U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan -- some 51,500 soldiers and airmen -- are members of the National Guard. Those numbers are expected to rise with the next rotation of troops. Only 7,000 Guard soldiers deployed to Vietnam, a tiny percentage of the more than 2 million U.S. troops who served there.

"Moreover, the National Guard has been thrust to the fore in the presidential campaign, with charges by Kerry that the 'stop-loss' policy that prevents Army soldiers, including Guard troops, from leaving right before or after deployment overseas amounts to a 'backdoor draft.' There also are allegations that Bush failed to fulfill his duties as a member of the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War."

As if we could forget.

On the campaign trail, Bush is banging on health care:

"Tackling one of the few issues on which polls suggest voters trust him less than his Democratic challenger, President Bush on Monday said Sen. John F. Kerry's plan to improve health care would cost taxpayers trillions of dollars," reports the Los Angeles Times. | http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/2004/la-091304bush_lat,1,4799096.story?coll=la-home-headlines " 'I'm running against a fella who has a massive, complicated blueprint to have our government take over the decision-making in health care,' the president said.

"In separate campaign stops in closely contested Midwestern states, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney used a new report by the American Enterprise Institute, a Republican-leaning think tank in Washington, to bash Kerry's proposal to overhaul health care as too costly and cumbersome. The report put a price tag of $1.5 trillion on Kerry's plan-far beyond the $650 billion cost that others had estimated."

Which is very much open to dispute, as I report in this ad watch | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A19246-2004Sep13.html.

Have you noticed that the media, with a few exceptions, hardly wrote or talked about yesterday's expiration of the assault weapons ban until Kerry started talking about it? It was only one of the most hotly contested laws of the past decade. Now, of course, it's just about the blame game.

"Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry said yesterday that President Bush was directly responsible for terrorists and murderers who try to buy AK-47s and other assault weapons at U.S. gun shows and stores or who move into unsuspecting neighborhoods," says the Boston Globe. | http://www.boston.com/news/politics/president/articles/2004/09/14/bush_broke_vow_to_police_on_weapons_ban_kerry_says/ "Kerry, who has accused Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney of using the threat of terrorism to scare Americans into reelecting them, used some of his darkest language to date as he came to a working-class Washington neighborhood to mark the end of the decade-old ban on assault weapons. Surrounded by police officers and victims of gun violence, Kerry accused Bush of caving into the gun lobby and not asking his congressional allies to extend the ban, which the Republican endorsed during the 2000 campaign.

"'George Bush gave [police officers] his word that when it came time, he was going to extend the ban,' Kerry said at the Thurgood Marshall community center in Washington. 'But when it came time to do it, when it became time to make a phone call, when it became time to fight, when it became time to lead, when it became time to stand up and ask America to do what was right, George Bush's powerful friends in the gun lobby asked him to look the other way, and he couldn't resist, and he said, Sure.' "

"Some Republican leaders in Congress and gun manufacturers have pointed to studies that the ban did little to keep such weapons out of the hands of criminals and instead denied Americans an opportunity to select weapons of their choosing at gun stores and shows."

Dick Polman | http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/9641456.htm deconstructs Kerry's problems in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

"As evidenced by raw rhetoric, the race has devolved into a duel in the dust between two caricatures: a reckless, truth-impaired warmonger (as Democrats see President Bush), versus a risk-aversive, waffling wuss (as Republicans see Sen. John Kerry).

"None of this is entirely new. The terrorist attacks have merely heightened the traditional fear factor in American politics - an impulse triggered whenever voters feel imperiled by enemies foreign or domestic. In times of crisis, voters want to feel safe, and that urge generally spells doom for candidates who make them feel scared. This is why, ever since the Cold War, political strategists have sought to sow fear about the opposition.

"The Bush charge of Democratic wimpishness - witness Vice President Cheney's warning that, if Kerry is elected, 'the danger is that we'll get hit again' - is in sync with GOP attacks since 1952, when vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon charged that Democrat Adlai Stevenson would expose America to the Soviets because he was an alumnus of the 'College of Cowardly Communist Containment.' "

Makes you kinda miss Tricky Dick.

"And the Kerry campaign's charge of Republican recklessness - framed by Kerry's argument that Bush has made America unsafe because he 'rushed to war . . . in the wrong place at the wrong time' - seems reminiscent of President Jimmy Carter's 1980 contention that candidate Ronald Reagan was a 'scary' and 'dangerous' militarist who would 'shoot from the hip' as a first resort.

"So which traditional caricature will prevail? Right now, Kerry is in peril."

The New York Daily News | http://nydailynews.com/front/story/231913p-199098c.html reports on the Kitty Kelley/Sharon Bush dispute that played out on yesterday's "Today" show.

This morning, Kelley charged that Bush had admitted to a Yale professor that his father used pull to get him into the Guard -- and that, more recently, White House communications director Dan Bartlett had asked that the prez's Guard file be scrubbed.

"A complete fabrication," says Bartlett, and Matt Lauer noted that the source, a former guardsman, had sued the Texas Guard and may have had a grudge.

In a parting shot, when Lauer asked why the book was so negative, Kelley said, "Matt, you play golf with former president Bush." Lauer said he has never done that.

There's no escape!