Midway through Truth, the new film about the infamous report that CBS aired in September 2004 questioning President George W. Bush’s service in the Air National Guard, producer Mary Mapes finally cracks. After spending days in the crosshairs of media, politicians and her own bosses all taking aim at the story—and at her—she lashes out.
“They do not get to do this!” she cries, peppering the line with an expletive. “They do not get to smack us just for asking the question.”
As many smacks as there are, verbal and otherwise, in Truth, it is not an action movie. More of an inaction movie—a story about an implosion that sounds dull and dated on paper but comes alive on screen. The cascade of events following the Bush segment Dan Rather reported on 60 Minutes II has the ring of contemporary relevance no matter your view of the central issue. This unlikely Oscar contender, due to Cate Blanchett’s performance as Mapes, additional star power from Robert Redford and the supporting cast and positive early word of mouth, is apt to stay in the cultural conversation through the fall.
But more than the movie, it’s the moment that deserves a closer look. A decade on, it stands as an important milestone for several reasons, some of which rushed by the country as it processed the post-9/11 march into Iraq, the Web 2.0 explosion and the coarsening and bifurcation of politics. The scandal put an ignominious cap on Rather’s CBS career and effectively brought the curtain down on the broadcast-anchor-as-star era (though the schadenfreude over Brian Williams this year has perhaps been the final coffin nail). NBC’s Tom Brokaw left the chair in 2004. ABC’s Peter Jennings died in 2005. No longer would Uncle Walter filter events and bring them into America’s living room.
In these years, the atomization and mob mentality of the Internet began to put down roots. The furor and online attacks on Mapes (who was vastly more central to the reporting than was Rather) rapidly metastasized in public forums. Those hateful broadsides are shown fleetingly in Truth as she scrolls through online comments (a far cry from the all-out social media invasion she’d face today). But the outrage over Mapes and her perceived bias presaged the fuller-tilt tumult of recent cases like the vitriolic “Gamergate” threats against female videogame reviewers or the ouster of Reddit CEO Ellen Pao after that community rose up in misogynist revolt. In a flash, the familiar, avuncular figure of a single news reader in conservative dress, the paradigm for decades, was overrun by the masses gathering “the real news” online.
Rather, at the time in his early 70s, was said to be already discussing his next act with management when the Bush National Guard story surfaced. The basic outline was that Bush allegedly was given preferential treatment in 1972 due to his wealthy family’s influence and Ivy League connections and allowed into light Guard duty in exchange for exemption from Vietnam. Mapes and Rather had used four documents they said were authentic based on the review of experts on and off camera and the corroboration of military sources. When conservative bloggers and mainstream media immediately started questioning the fonts and other details about the memos, a key source recanted and doubts emerged about the legitimacy of the documents’ supplier; the difficult questions raised about Bush’s integrity got squelched two months before his re-election.
Truth won’t change too many hearts and minds as an unabashedly partisan retelling based on Mapes’ book, Truth and Duty: The Press, The President, and The Privilege of Power. It will certainly grate on those who consider Rather, Mapes & Co. to be, at best, left-wing activists who screwed up and, at worst, collaborators with the John Kerry campaign using a bully broadcast pulpit to ambush a sitting president with phony documents. The NewYork Post has already denounced the film as “delusional” and “wacko” and others have joined the chorus, most noting that Rather lost a $70 million lawsuit against CBS in 2009.
And a significant question looms over the whole exercise: Why go back now? Why turn back the clock after so many years and still no verification of the documents or any other grassy-knoll revelations? Precisely because it remains one giant gray area, the media’s Area 51. It’s a place where questions are raised and batted away, evidence is introduced and withdrawn. A swirl of speculation and smoke lingers in the air—is that fire or just steam exhaust? We won’t know if we don’t look closer.
In fact, America should get more comfortable with the gray, and not just in our hair. Ours has become a reflexive, binary culture, swiping left or swiping right. There are red-states and blue states, thumbs up or thumbs down. Comedians’ jokes are funny or offensive. The instant replay is seldom inconclusive; the referee either blew the call or got it right. The Dan Rather saga was absorbed that same way. People, to the extent they have spent any time thinking about it in recent years, recall it as a pretty cut-and-dried affair. The fonts didn’t match. The source turned out to be shaky. Rather exited stage left. Those fragments are what we retain from of all of those boxes of documents, those months on the trail of a story whose stakes could hardly be any higher.
The core truth of Truth, in that way, is that ambiguity is a condition we are all living in and need to get used to. The splintering of the news business—and, on a bigger level, all media content—means we can no longer think that a superficial glance at a font on a document, a GIF in our Twitter feed, gives us an understanding of a story. We have to train ourselves to look deeper and determine the truth. Just as we developed sophistication and filters as TV matured from three networks to 300; so also is it our challenge as the Web 2.0 becomes Web 2 Gbps. When a font is plastered on a blog, take a little time to consider who the memo written in said font was written to and why. This gets more important as everyone shares photos and video. The “objectivity” of images, too, can turn out to be less than that. Our “authentic selves” often become distinctly untrue on social networks.
Beyond these shades of gray, “Rathergate,” as it was then lamely glossed, is also the most vivid example in modern times of how much control corporate owners exert over broadcast news divisions. This profiteering is vividly captured in a Rather monologue (see sidebar) that will irk his critics to no end—but the scene is staged on the terrace of his Park Avenue townhouse. Even sympathizers can look at his Brooks Brothers suspenders and tony hotel-bar scotches throughout the movie and think, You profited too, Dan. That antipathy, in fact, is what fueled the investigations of dozens of top-tier reporters at ABC, CNN, NBC, Fox News, The NewYork Times and many others as soon as doubts emerged about the 60 Minutes piece. Throughout their reporting, they tapped a source that they’d previously kept at arm’s length: the political blogosphere. (A much smaller pool than it is today—Huffington Post and Mashable launched in 2005, BuzzFeed in 2006, Politico in 2007.) Today, the distinction between “legitimate outlets” and websites is more faded than ever. Traditional players long for the street cred of bloggers. Willing to peer over the backyard fence and pick the sweetest fruit from their online neighbors’ trees, they went after Rather, seen by some as smug and aloof, and his whole Tiffany Network team.
CBS certainly hasn’t held back in assessing the film. “It’s astounding how little truth there is in Truth,” a CBS spokesman told B&C in a statement. “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.”
CBS corporate communications chief Gil Schwartz (played by Steve Bastoni) appears in one scene in the film, leaning on Mapes and her team. “Due respect; did you f--- up?” he asks. Intriguingly, though, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves is never mentioned or shown on screen. (Ditto for CBS executive chairman Sumner Redstone.) The blackest hat by far is worn by former CBS News president Andrew Heyward, who left the company in 2005 and is now a media consultant. He fires Mapes by telephone after an independent committee convened by CBS releases its damning findings. (She has not worked in TV news since.) Heyward told B&C he had not seen the film, and did not seem particularly keen to relive the event through the filmmakers’ perspective. Based on what he’d heard of it, he cited the heroes-and-villains nature of movies, dismissing his corporate weasel portrayal as “a piece of Hollywood hocus-pocus.”
The film’s producers issued a response of their own, which read in part, “Although we understand CBS wants to put this episode behind them, it’s disappointing that they seem to be so concerned about our film. The events depicted in Truth are still vigorously debated, and that’s a good thing.”
Rather, who had no formal role in producing or advising the filmmakers, is helping publicize Truth but has also moved past the episode it depicts. He is getting set to launch his new music-themed interview series on AXS and has said that he is at peace with the way his CBS tenure ended. Still, at the film’s world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September, Rather choked up when asked by an audience member what he would have done differently. “Journalism is not an exact science,” he conceded, adding that there were “plenty of things I would do over.”
‘TRUTH’ IN MONOLOGUES
Lines from film show its take on real events
“Do you know when the FCC repealed cross-ownership laws, a single company could own 45% of the national market share? 45% of the national market share? People f---in’ flipped. They lost their s---. They actually sat down and wrote their local congressman. So in the 2003 appropriations bill, guess what? Congress overturned it. Whoo-hoo! Hooray for democracy, right? Nope. The president wouldn’t sign it. Bush threatened to veto the entire bill unless a compromise was found at 39%. And why 39%, you ask? Because that’s the exact percentage at which Viacom wouldn’t have to sell off any of their stations. The president of the United States of America was prepared to take down the entire budget of the United States of America so that Viacom wouldn’t lose any money.”
—Mike Smith (Topher Grace), member of the investigative team
“Did you know that 60 Minutes was the first news program to make money? Before that, all news divisions operated at a financial loss. When the government gave the networks the airwaves, it was with the stipulation that they be used in some capacity for the public good. That was the news. They made their money elsewhere on the schedule, but reporting the news was a duty. It was a trust. When Don Hewitt started at 60 Minutes, it was in 1968 and it built to enormous ratings. God, it was wonderful. People were really watching the news. They cared. And we figured out a way to give it to them. I was there, Mary. I was there the day they figured out that news could make money. After a while, it dawned on them, how come the evening news wasn’t a profit center too? Why aren’t the morning shows earning more? When you interview Survivor contestants instead of survivors of genocide, your ad rates go up. Pretty soon, we won’t run down our own stories because it’s too expensive. We’ll just pay someone else to do it and then read them on the air for a show. It was a public trust once. I swear to you it was.”
—Dan Rather (Robert Redford)
“Our story was about whether Bush fulfilled his service. But nobody wants to talk about that. They want to talk about fonts. And forgeries. And conspiracy theories. Because that’s what people do these days if they don’t like a story. They point and scream. They question your politics, your objectivity—hell, your basic humanity. And they hope to God that the truth gets lost in the scrum.”
—Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett)