There are many things that real people do to become the subject of sympathetic movies. Make a flawless emergency landing in the Hudson River with a disabled passenger jet full of passengers. Survive a devastating storm atop Mount Everest. Become the most lethal sniper in the history of the U.S. military.
Before the advent of the movie “Truth,” no one would have thought broadcasting a shoddy and immediately discredited report that ruined the careers of the journalists involved and gave their storied network a black eye would make the list.
“Truth” is “All the President’s Men” for reporters who botched their story about the president.
In their perversely titled film, Robert Redford plays Dan Rather and Cate Blanchett plays Mary Mapes, the erstwhile CBS News anchor and producer who collaborated on a spectacularly flawed September 2004 story about George W. Bush’s National Guard service. Their report should be taught at journalism schools for a long time to come as an object lesson in how not to attempt journalism.
Rather and Mapes sought to prove that Bush got his spot in the National Guard through political favoritism and then went AWOL. They rushed to air with a story that was too good — i.e., too potentially damaging to Bush — to check. It fell apart under the slightest scrutiny, although Rather and Mapes continue to maintain that they got it right. Given their dogged resistance to all contrary evidence and their attachment to their pet theory, a better title for the movie would have been “Truthers.”
John Hinderaker and Scott Johnson, writers at the Power Line blog that did so much to unravel the story at the time, recall how the report was deconstructed in a piece for The Weekly Standard.
The independent investigation commissioned by CBS concluded that there was no reason for Bush to need to rely on a political favor to get into the Guard, since it needed pilots. And the purported documents demonstrating Bush was AWOL were a disaster.
The source of the documents, Bill Burkett, repeatedly changed his story about how he had come into possession of them. First, he said that they showed up in the mail; then, that he got them from a man named George Conn; finally, that an alleged woman named Lucy Ramirez hooked him up with a “dark-skinned man” at the Houston Livestock and Rodeo Show (why not go all the way and say he found them on the grassy knoll?).
The characteristics of the documents were consistent with Microsoft Word, not a typewriter in the early 1970s, and whoever wrote them made basic mistakes, like referring to an officer who had already retired. CBS had no choice but to summarily fire Mapes and ease Rather out of one of the most prized seats in journalism. This wouldn’t seem to be natural material for spinning a tale of reportorial glory, but the revisionist machinery of the left has done more with less.
Last week, The New York Times hosted a TimesTalks with the actors and the lionized journalists that was like a dispatch from another planet. In their telling, the implosion of the National Guard report is story of corporate cowardice (Viacom, the owner of CBS, couldn’t take the heat) and of politics triumphing over the facts — never mind the actual facts. Dan Rather actually says that the focus on the documents in the report being a forgery is a distraction.
In a better world, the bloggers who exposed the malfeasance of these seemingly untouchable mandarins of the media would be the ones to get the feature-length film. Not only did they uncover the truth — to borrow a term — they were plucky underdogs whose exertions to prevail against a broadcasting behemoth signaled the beginning of a new, more democratic era in the history of the country’s media.
But the victory wasn’t complete. What CBS couldn’t defend, the Hollywood left now seeks to rehabilitate.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com.