Fact Check

How the Dan Rather Movie ‘Truth’ Lies About Good Journalism

Dan Rather and his producer are portrayed as heroes by Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett. However, their real-life reporting failures show journalism at its shoddiest.

In Truth, Robert Redford portrays CBS anchor Dan Rather at the worst moment of his storied career, when Rather and his trusted producer, Mary Mapes—lashed together in a political hurricane two months before the 2004 presidential election—struggled to defend a catastrophically flawed 60 Minutes Wednesday segment concerning George W. Bush’s questionable stint in the Texas Air National Guard.

Redford hasn’t starred in a Hollywood movie about investigative journalism since All The President’s Men (1976), when he played Washington Post sleuth Bob Woodward, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on the Watergate scandal with Post colleague Carl Bernstein ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Sitting in a screening of Redford’s latest film the other day (and admiring the typically brilliant performance by Cate Blanchett as Mapes), it occurred to me that if Woodward and Bernstein had adhered to the same standards of fact-checking that Rather and Mapes are shown employing in Truth, Alan J. Pakula’s film would have been a breezy comedy of errors in which two brash young reporters repeatedly get things wrong, while their villainous target, Nixon, happily serves out his second term in the White House.

For while Truth offers the most sympathetic view imaginable of Mapes’s and Rather’s professional crucible—hardly surprising since it’s based on the former producer’s 2005 memoir Truth and Duty—it can’t quite erase the journalistic sins of its designated martyrs, the victims (or so the movie argues) of the crass corporate imperative of CBS and its parent company, Viacom, to advance and protect their business interests by placating the Bush White House.

Yet if naked greed was really the overriding consideration of Mapes’s and Rather’s bosses, why did they allow the damaging story—based largely on supposedly official documents whose provenance and authenticity were never properly vetted or confirmed—to be broadcast in the first place?

That’s a question left unasked—and, needless to say, unanswered—in Truth.

Nor does the movie contain any reference to a character named Leslie Moonves, then—as now—the chairman and chief executive of the CBS Corp.

It’s a revealing omission, especially considering that the cast even boasts an actor who plays Gil Schwartz, the actual identity of Moonves’s top communications exec and spin doctor.

“If there was an actor who played Leslie Moonves, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” a CBS News veteran told me, speaking on condition of anonymity, “because the movie never would have been made.”

It goes without saying that Moonves, a former actor himself, is one of the more powerful figures in the entertainment industry; any filmmaker who dared cross him would risk being added to some cosmic shit list.

Along with geriatric Viacom executive chairman Sumner Redstone (also unmentioned in the movie), Moonves was the prime mover of decisions: Rather’s on-air apology and retraction of the story; appointing an outside panel, headed by former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh and retired Associated Press President Lou Boccardi, to investigate what went wrong (PDF) with the segment; the firing of Mapes; the forced resignations of three other CBS News supervisors; the cancellation of 60 Minutes Wednesday, and Rather’s retirement from the anchor chair the following March, at age 73, after a quarter-century of presiding over The CBS Evening News.

Strangely enough, eight years later, nobody lost their jobs after 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan aired a dramatic—and it turns out, entirely fabricated—eyewitness account of the lethal September 11, 2012, attack on American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, a report that was critical of the Obama administration’s handling of the attack.

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Although the segment was arguably a far more serious breach of accepted journalistic practice, Logan and the segment’s producer, Max McClellan, simply took a leave of absence after a cursory investigation.

Rather hung on at CBS for more than a year after leaving the anchor desk, miserably trying and failing to get on air; he finally quit in a blaze of negative publicity, spending millions of dollars suing the company unsuccessfully for a variety of transgressions, especially the so-called “independent review”—co-chaired by a Republican who was appointed attorney general by the first President Bush—that Rather continues to claim was a politically motivated hit job.

Boccardi, for one, staunchly defends the panel’s detailed report—224 pages plus exhibits—that blamed the debacle on “a rush to air that overwhelmed the proper application of CBS News Standards…Everyone involved wanted the Segment to be right. But in journalism, no less than in other fields, wanting is not enough.”

Boccardi told me: “Imagine that when you were a cub reporter, as a kid, you told your city editor, ‘Look, boss, I know it’s true. I just don’t know where it came from. I can’t verify the documents. But I know that Bush was a draft dodger.’ Now what city editor is going to take that and try to slam it in the paper? That just doesn’t happen.”

Meanwhile, one detects the fine hand of Gil Schwartz in CBS’s official response to the movie: “It’s astounding how little truth there is in ‘Truth.’ There are, in fact, too many distortions, evasions and baseless conspiracy theories to enumerate them all.

“The film tries to turn gross errors of journalism and judgment into acts of heroism and martyrdom. That’s a disservice not just to the public but to journalists across the world who go out every day and do everything within their power, sometimes at great risk to themselves, to get the story right.”

In scene after scene of the screenplay for Truth, written and directed by James Vanderbilt, Rather, Mapes, and their CBS News colleagues continually take leaps of faith more appropriate to a religion than the reporting trade, whose skeptical catchphrase has always been, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Mapes—whose work on the Bush/Guard story four years earlier, during the 2000 presidential campaign, had abruptly ceased with the death of her mother (making the election of Al Gore far less likely, one of the characters in Truth argues)—is clearly invested in a narrative in which the future commander in chief, at the height of Vietnam War draft, benefited from political connections and string-pulling to get into a “champagne unit” of the Guard, populated by other sons of privilege, and thus avoided being shipped to Southeast Asia.

Yet many of young Dubya’s fellow Yale graduates had discovered any number of less complicated methods, including the sort of student deferments repeatedly utilized by Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, to circumvent the draft.

While the power and influence of Bush’s family might indeed have been the “truth” of the matter—and other mainstream media outlets going back at least to July 1999 had investigated the circumstances of his Texas Air National Guard service—hard facts would be required to get such a damaging story on a broadcast television network amid a presidential contest.

In the film, Mapes sweet-talks former Texas lieutenant governor Ben Barnes into going on camera to repeat his claim that it was he who arranged for Bush’s cushy billet.

Mapes, the character, credits every piece of evidence suggesting that young George was jumped to the head of a waiting list for the air guard unit, while shirking his pilot-training duties, receiving special treatment from higher-ups and going AWOL without consequence—obtaining an early release from his military obligations to attend Harvard Business School.

And she dismisses every contradictory bit of evidence —including a series of phone conversations, depicted in the movie, in which several of Bush’s former Guard comrades and supervisors insist over and over that “no strings were pulled.”

Much of journalism involves judgment calls, of course, and Mapes and Rather are certainly within their rights to have believed a former elected official willing to go on camera, like Barnes, over skittish retired Guard officers who nervously fielded questions before hanging up.

But with a five-day deadline to report and film interviews and make a September 8, 2004, air date—a foolishly risky rush job, the film makes clear, considering the colossally high stakes of such a report—Mapes receives a tip that a retired air guard colonel possessed a collection of damning documents, supposedly internal memos taken from the file of young Bush’s commanding officer, exposing the inadequacies of the future president’s military service.

She flies to Texas to coax the memos out of her source, retired lieutenant colonel Bill Burkett, a sick old man who breathes with the aid of an oxygen tank. He initially lies to her about the origins of the memos.

Then—later on, after the 60 Minutes Wednesday segment was falling apart amid fierce criticism from conservative bloggers and rival media outlets as the documents proved to be deeply problematic if not outright forgeries—Burkett spins a crazy yarn in a televised interview with Rather about how he acquired the memos from a dark-skinned mystery man at a livestock show.

To the filmmakers’ credit, Truth makes little effort to pretend that Mapes and Rather didn’t fall short on their facts, but the movie attempts to excuse these missteps on the grounds that they were well-intentioned; they might have administered a grievous self-inflicted wound and tarnished the reputation of CBS News, but at least their heart was in the right place.

“Of course we made mistakes,” Rather conceded last week during a TimesTalks panel discussion about the film featuring Redford, Blanchett, and Mapes, although he said that despite his long-ago on-air apology, he now believes the documents are authentic. “Journalism is not a precise science. It’s sort of a crude art. If the test is, you don’t run a story until and unless you don’t make mistakes…then very little quality journalism of integrity will be filed. The fact that we made mistakes, and didn’t do it perfectly, shouldn’t obscure the fact that we reported the truth.”

Mapes observed: “I think there was a tremendously strong perception that we bungled, bungled, bungled very badly. And I think we were in the normal journalistic range of bungle.”

A resident of Dallas, she said she continues to believe Bush used family connections to avoid the draft and received privileged treatment in the Texas Air National Guard.

“I guess, living in Texas, it is accepted fact that this is what happened, and everyone knows this,” she declared.

It reminds me of Stephen Colbert’s satirical standard of human knowledge from his old Comedy Central show—that truth is to be found “in the gut,” defined by feelings, not facts.

Perhaps a better title for this movie would be Truthiness.