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Profile: Benjy Sarlin
Benjy Sarlin was a participant or observer in the following events:
Less than two hours after President Obama releases his “long form” birth certificate (see April 27, 2011) and posts a PDF (Portable Data File) copy on the Internet, Bryan Michael Nixon, an art director with an Atlanta advertising firm, makes a blog post about his initial examination of the PDF copy. Nixon says that after opening the file in the Adobe graphics program Illustrator, it is clear that the document is composed of “multiple elements.” He writes, “This in no way proves that anything on it is fake… [h]ow to interpret that is up to the viewer.” He opens his blog post with a capitalized declaration, “I AM NOT A BIRTHER!” [Bryan Keith Nixon, 4/27/2011] By the afternoon, Nixon’s post is a front-page headline on the conservative news and gossip Web site Drudge Report, sparks a storm of claims and counterclaims about the document’s authenticity, and is quickly picked up by radio host Alex Jones and a plethora of Web sites. The claims that the certificate is “fake” are based in part on Nixon’s observation that the PDF file contains “multiple elements,” or “layers,” particularly two separate “layers” of background image and foreground text. Within minutes of the Nixon post, a forum participant at the Free Republic, a conservative blog and message board, writes: “No, I am analyzing an eloctronice [sic] document and saying that there is no way that this was a scanned image [sic] It was made of LAYERS in software [sic]” Another poster writes: “I opened it in Photoshop Elements and saw those white areas behind the text. YES! That image was built up, not scanned from a document.” The claim that the “layers” “prove” the certificate is fake is based on what experts call a fundamental lack of understanding of how PDF files work. Many PDFs, including the Obama certificate image, use optical character recognition (OCR) to recognize and reproduce lettering, and place those letters into a separate image. Reporter Benjy Sarlin will write, “This explains why you’re able to highlight and copy raw text from some PDF files even though it’s actually not a word processing document.” Shortly after Drudge headlines Nixon’s blog post, the National Review, inundated with emails about the “layer” theory, issues a comprehensive debunking of the “fraud” claim. “We looked into it and dismissed it,” reporter Nathan Goulding writes. Goulding uses a scanned copy of his magazine’s cover to make a PDF file, and, opening the file in Adobe Illustrator, shows that the PDF scan contains multiple layers. He writes of the layers: “Quite simply, they look like they were created programmatically, not by a human. What’s plausible is that somewhere along the way—from the scanning device to the PDF-creation software, both of which can perform OCR (optical character recognition)—these partial/pseudo-text images were created and saved. What’s not plausible is that the government spent all this time manufacturing Obama’s birth certificate only to commit the laughably rookie mistake of exporting the layers from Photoshop, or whatever photo editing software they are meant to have used. It’s likely that whoever scanned the birth certificate in Hawaii forgot to turn off the OCR setting on the scanner. Let’s leave it at that.” Sarlin writes: “The fringe theory’s rapid spread within hours of the certificate’s release presents almost a perfect example of one of the White House’s justifications for taking on the birther issue—namely, that thanks to the Internet, conspiracy theories can migrate quickly from the fringe and into the mainstream if left unchecked. In this case, it took only hours.” He concludes, “[B]irthers have wasted no time in promoting alternate theories undermining the president’s legitimacy since the release of the long form birth certificate.” [Free Republic (.com), 4/27/2011; National Review, 4/27/2011; TPM Muckraker, 4/29/2011] Two days later, an Adobe Illustrator expert proclaims the certificate genuine (see April 29, 2011).
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