David Zurawik

'Truth' be damned in film about CBS, Rather and Memogate

Director James Vanderbilt says his film about Dan Rather, CBS and the "Memogate" affair is titled "Truth" because "that's the thing everyone is after" in the movie.

Aren't we all?


The problem with this docudrama — closely based on the book "Truth and Duty: The Press, The President and the Privilege of Power," which was written by former CBS producer Mary Mapes — is that instead of truth, what it primarily delivers is revisionism, ideology and even more confusion about the role of the press in a free society.

And more confusion is the last thing American journalism or democracy needs these days, notwithstanding the iconic presence of Robert Redford as Rather and a compelling performance by Cate Blanchett as Mapes.


The potent combination of technological, lifestyle and economic change has already driven the journalistic community to a place somewhere beyond addled when it comes to any clear sense of mission and standards. "Truth," which opens nationally this weekend and Oct. 30 in Baltimore, uses that confusion and the intense political polarization of American life to try and rewrite history in favor of Rather, Mapes and the rest of the team that delivered a deeply flawed report on the military career of George W. Bush.

Mapes was fired for her role in producing that report, which aired Sept. 8, 2004, on the now-canceled "60 Minutes II." So were three members of the senior management team of CBS News. Rather and CBS News President Andrew Heyward left the network in 2005 in the wake of a network-commissioned investigation that was harshly critical of the kind of journalism that allowed the Bush story to be broadcast. That's serious fallout by anybody's standards.

The film suggests those firings and resignations were the result of pressure from right-wing political forces and corporate greed and cowardice on the part of CBS — not of any journalistic malfeasance on the part of Rather, Mapes and company.

Their report said Bush received special consideration in being allowed to join the National Guard instead of going on active duty during the Vietnam War because his father was a well-connected congressman.

Furthermore, it questioned whether Bush ever completed his National Guard duty honorably or "simply walked away because his family's status meant that he could" — to use Mapes' language from her book. I cite the book because during a question-and-answer session Wednesday night following a screening of the movie in Washington, both Rather and Vanderbilt said the film is "very true" to Mapes' version of events.

Before we go down the rabbit hole of this infamous report and get lost, here's what matters: Support for the CBS report on Bush came primarily from copies of documents purportedly written by Bush's commanding officer at the time of his National Guard duty.

Except Mapes never ascertained the provenance of those documents beyond the person who gave them to her. She also had only one person corroborating the information in the documents — and she failed to videotape him providing that confirmation, which was standard operating procedure at CBS News. Making matters worse, that one source flipped on her shortly after the report aired and said he now believed the documents were forgeries.

Did I mention that one of the network's own experts had questioned the authenticity of the documents before the report aired?


Not surprisingly, the documents immediately came under fire once they were shown on air. Bloggers challenged their authenticity based on typeface, fonts and other typographical characteristics. And in 2004, bloggers were a relatively new force to be reckoned with — one that folks high atop the turrets of legacy journalism at places like CBS News had yet to understand.

They soon learned to fear them, though.

"As I watched the postings pile up and saw the words become more hateful, it dawned on me that I was watching the birth of a political jihad, a movement conceived in radical conservative back rooms, given life in cyberspace, and growing by the minute," Mapes recounted in her book. "It fed on political anger and the deep-seated belief that CBS News was a longtime political stronghold out to get the president."

That's the ideological lens through which she and the film view the entire affair.

"I was incredulous," she further noted, "that the mainstream press — a group I'd been a part of for nearly twenty-five years — was falling for the blogs' critiques."

As a member of that mainstream press who reported extensively on this story at the time, I did not and do not feel now like I was "falling" for anything in condemning the report she produced.


Here's my ethical and moral reasoning on the matter, and I believe it cuts out all the politics, partisanship and spin connected to how you feel about Bush, Rather, CBS, bloggers, God, country and the universe.

One of the only principles most mainstream journalists can still agree on says: "The purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing."

That's straight from "The Elements of Journalism" by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, one of the few books on which there is any positive consensus in the field. That principle is the foundation of the profession, the touchstone you reach for when lost in the woods of confusion and spin.

Kovach and Rosenstiel go on to describe journalism as a "discipline of verification" aimed at making sure the information given to citizens is vetted and trustworthy. Such information is essential to democracy and self-governance.

By those standards, airing a report as explosive as the one Mapes and Rather did without solid corroboration is one of the worst journalistic sins you can commit. They clearly failed to verify the documents on which they based their report and, worse, it was the kind of information that could have affected a national election just weeks away.

Airing such charges about one of the two contenders for the White House without even knowing where the documents they are based on ultimately came from qualifies as reckless in my book — no matter what your political orientation.


And in the end, it doesn't even matter whether the documents were forgeries or not — something that is still contested. The sin was in airing such a story based on documents that you did not verify.

For all my friendly conversations with and praise for Rather over the years before 2004, I was one of the media reporters calling for his firing or resignation in the wake of Memogate. And seeing the film and hearing him in Washington on Wednesday night didn't change my thinking one bit.

I was surprised at his repeated claims that while their "process" of reporting the story "wasn't perfect," the "facts" of it were accurate and it absolutely captured the "truth" of Bush's military career: that "his father's influence got him into the National Guard as a way to avoid going to Vietnam" and that he "disappeared for a year" while he was supposed to be on duty, according to Rather.

If that's true, Rather was asked, why did you apologize on air for the story?

"The apology on the air was not an apology for the story," he said at the screening. "The apology on the air was about the documents. If you read the transcript, it says, 'Listen, our original source has changed his story, and under those circumstances, neither CBS nor I can any longer vouch for the documents. … We didn't apologize on the air for the story."

But that is not what the transcript from Sept. 20, 2004, says.


"I find we have been misled on the key question of how our source for the documents came into possession of these papers," Rather told viewers. "That, combined with some of the questions that have been raised in public and in the press, leads me to a point where — if I knew then what I know now — I would not have gone ahead with the story as it was aired, and I certainly would not have used the documents in question."

He "would not have gone ahead with the story as it was aired." What part of that sounds like him standing behind the story and only apologizing for the documents?

"I owned that apology," Rather said Wednesday. "I wrote some of it. At the time, what was put to me was, 'Dan, you love the institution, you love the people here. We're bleeding metaphorically. …This is what needs to be done if you want to save the peoples' job who are with you.' … I'm paraphrasing. 'You need to do this for CBS News.' And I stepped forward at that time. Now this was before the decision was made at a very high level that we have to find a scapegoat and we have to separate ourselves from Dan and the team."

History matters. If you rewrite the past to suit an agenda, you only add to the kind of deep cultural confusion in which we now find ourselves mired.

I hate it when filmmakers and TV producers play with our national past for purposes of ideology or entertainment — and this incident is an important part of our national past.

Because this is film, the images count as much or more than the words. And the money shot in "Truth" is the one near the end that shows Redford as Rather in profile looking off into the distance with a sense of purpose and courage as the bad guys carry the day.


It is the moment in the film that elevates Rather to status of hero by cinematically exploiting the power of Redford's screen image and all those memories filmgoers carry around in their heads of him playing such epic characters as Bob Woodward in "All the President's Men" and Roy Hobbs in "The Natural."

Rather as hero, Mapes as martyr. And truth be damned.