Playing now in theaters across the country is a film called “Truth.” If truth-in-labeling laws applied to Hollywood, the film would be called “Lies” — or the producers would be trying to work out a plea agreement to avoid jail time. Starring Robert Redford as former CBS News anchor Dan Rather and Cate Blanchett as former CBS News producer Mary Mapes, the film purports to tell the story behind the “Rathergate” scandal from the inside.
The film premiered to favorable reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 12 and to mixed notices when it opened in New York and Los Angeles on October 16. Some reviewers take the film at face value. That is a mistake.
The episode known as Rathergate represents one of the great journalistic frauds of our time. The scandal erupted from a “60 Minutes Wednesday” segment rushed to air on the evening of Sept. 8, 2004, in time to influence the approaching presidential election pitting George W. Bush against John Kerry, as it was clearly intended to do. The segment consisted of two parts that didn’t quite fit together except in their antipathy to Bush.
In the first part, based on an interview with Ben Barnes, the former Texas lieutenant governor — and at the time vice chairman of Kerry’s national finance committee — Rather essentially claimed that political influence had been brought to bear to secure Bush’s admission to the Texas Air National Guard as an interceptor jet pilot in 1968. In the second part, based on documents supposedly from the “personal file” of Bush’s commanding officer, Rather reported that Bush had defied an order to take a physical necessary to maintain his flight status and, among other things, thus failed to discharge his military obligations. The segment was produced and written by Mapes.
In researching the story, Mapes had interviewed witnesses with firsthand knowledge of the Texas Air National Guard’s personnel needs. She was told that they needed pilots at the time and that no influence would have been necessary to secure Bush’s admission.
The documents on which Rather based the second segment proved to be fabricated on Microsoft Word in the computer era, not typewritten in the early 1970s by Bush’s commanding officer or anyone else. The content and format of the documents also betrayed their fabrication.
The story began to fall apart within a few hours of its broadcast. On Sept. 20, 12 days later, Rather extended an apology “personally and directly” to viewers for his inability to authenticate the documents.
To investigate what happened, CBS commissioned a panel chaired by former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh and former Associated Press President Lou Boccardi. The report, released in January 2005, provides evidence proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the entire segment was false and/or fraudulent. It finds that CBS News was at the least grossly negligent in airing the story. As CBS puts it, the report finds that “CBS News failed to follow basic journalistic principles in the preparation and reporting of the Sept. 8, 2004 broadcast.”
Mapes was promptly fired, as were three other executives with responsibility for the story. Rather stepped down from “CBS Evening News” in March 2005 and was let go from the network the following year.
Both Mapes (“Truth and Duty,” 2005) and Rather (“Rather Outspoken,” 2012) have written memoirs standing by the story. “Truth” is based on Mapes’s memoir. Despite Mapes’s responsibility for perpetrating a shocking journalistic fraud, the film portrays her as a heroic figure. Mapes not only gets a stellar actress to play her, she is portrayed as a martyr to the First Amendment and a victim of corporate cowardice.
Calling the film “Truth” suggests confidence that public memories have faded. The lapse of 11 years is apparently sufficient time to allow for the rewriting of history.
Back in 2004, writing about the “60 Minutes” segment on the morning after the broadcast on the Power Line site, I posted a brief item linking to the “60 Minutes” story and the PDF copies of the documents that CBS had made available with the online version of the story. Thinking there might be something more to be said about it than what “60 Minutes” had reported, I called my post “The 61st Minute” and published it on Power Line at 7:51 a.m.
Together with my colleague John Hinderaker, I updated the post with additional information provided by readers and fellow bloggers through the early afternoon. By noon, anyone following along online could see that the “60 Minutes” segment had been based on fabricated documents and thoroughgoing falsehoods. The segment, reported with great earnestness by Rather, had been produced by knaves or fools or both.
Rather and Mapes nevertheless persuaded CBS News to stick with the story for nearly two weeks before Rather rendered his on-air apology. Now Rather reveals that he apologized with fingers crossed behind his back. He didn’t mean it; both he and Mapes stand behind the story and the authenticity of the documents. In a Bartlett’s-worthy quote, Mapes asserted before a festive audience convened by the New York Times last month in Manhattan, “I think we were within the normal journalistic range of bungle.”
Andrew Heyward was president of CBS News at the time of Rathergate. He hasn’t spoken much about the scandal for public consumption, but he talked about “Truth” to the New York Times last month. Heyward told the Times that the film “takes people responsible for the worst embarrassment in the history of CBS News, and what was at the time a grievous blow to the credibility of a proud news organization, and turns them into martyrs and heroes. Only Hollywood could come up with that.”
One might say that truer words were never spoken.
Scott W. Johnson is a Minneapolis attorney and contributor to the site Power Line, named “Blog of the Year” by Time magazine in 2004.