National Commentary

‘Truth,’ the Film: Why It Matters

nfbenton-mugA film on limited screens across America now, “Truth” is a powerful indictment of how partisan political pressure brought down the nation’s most revered television journalist and his team to ensure the re-election to a second disastrous term of George W. Bush in 2004.

Starring Cate Blanchett, in another Oscar-worthy performance, and Robert Redford, the stark title of the movie is taken from the book it is based on, Truth and Duty: The Press, The President and the Privilege of Power, written by Mary Mapes, the executive producer at CBS’ “60 Minutes” played in the film by Blanchett.

It concerns the events that led to the downfall of the revered Dan Rather as anchor of the nightly CBS News. He is played by Redford in the film.
Two things served as the backdrop to what happened, and its portrayal in “Truth.”

The first concerned allegations that became the center of the controversy when the “60 Minutes Wednesday” segment in September 2004 was aired, namely that Bush had received special favor in avoiding the draft to serve in Vietnam in 1968 and that for much of the time he was in the Army National Guard he was, in fact, AWOL.

Those allegations were not new in 2004, but had been swirling around for decades, from Bush’s earliest years as governor of Texas to his first campaign for president. No one before had the resources or the guts to put together a documented case to explode it before a national TV audience.

The second concerned the long-standing antipathy that the GOP held for Rather due to his alleged “liberal bias” dating back to his days reporting on the Watergate scandal.

The baked-in notion of his bias contributed to a willingness of many, including in his own network, to be skeptical of the so-called “Killian documents” purportedly from the lieutenant colonel who was Bush’s commending officer in the national guard.

The film follows Mapes’ book to recount the events surrounding the fateful September 8 broadcast, replete with the efforts of Mapes and others to authenticate the “Killian documents” ahead of time, the pressure from the network to air the report with too little time to fully vet the facts, the uproar the televised report caused, the almost immediate assault, led by Karl Rove, to challenge the authenticity of the report, the recants from earlier claims by some of the story’s sources, Rather’s crow-eating apology for airing the report before a national TV audience, CBS’ own “internal investigation” of the incident led by a former Republican attorney general, Dick Thornburgh, the firing of Mapes and others, and the eventual demise of Rather at CBS.

Mapes and Rather, in subsequent years, have stood by their story, but as the film makes clear, the entire subject of that TV news report shifted overnight from the questions about Bush’s military service to CBS’ inability to conclusively affirm the authenticity of the documents it had been provided.

The dramatic nature of that shift was a testament both to the weakness of the CBS news organizations’ commitment, or lack of it, to independence from political influence and to the shrewd use of obfuscation, smoke-screening and diversion from hard-ball political operatives such as Rove to achieve their goals.

Of her accusers on the investigative panel, Mapes wrote in her book, “They didn’t want to listen, and more important, they just plain didn’t get it – whether that was intentional or not I can’t say. They didn’t seem to understand what I had done to demonstrate that the Killian memos were most likely real and deserved to be reported. The panel’s lawyers may have been high-powered legal minds, but as journalists they were a bust.”

It became like the Army-McCarthy U.S. Senate hearings of 1954. Asked is she were a “liberal,” Mapes replied, according to her book, “You mean, are you asking me, ‘Am I now or have I ever been a liberal?”

“Why were they even considering my politics when they were supposedly just trying to get to the truth of a story?,” she wrote.

Oh yeah, “truth!” That’s what the movie is called.