Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein weren't just journalistic heroes in the normal sense. Their work on Watergate redefined the journalistic world they inhabited, making them more like heroes in the classic mythical sense, as culture-founding figures, whose creation the rest of us merely live inside of. Everyone wanted to be the next Woodward and Bernstein.
That stature was underscored by the stars who brought them to the screen — Robert Redford as Woodward, Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein. Four decades later, Redford has returned, in a sense to close out that era (a la his earlier role in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"). Redford plays Dan Rather in a new film, "Truth," about the September 8, 2004 "60 Minutes II" report on George W. Bush’s dodgy record in the Texas Air National Guard, which effectively ended Rather's career at CBS, after he and producer Mary Mapes were unable to prove the authenticity of six memos which played a central role in their report. The connection was duly noted by author and activist Glenn W. Smith at Huffington Post:
By casting Redford as Rather, the filmmakers hinted at their intentions. Redford, of course, played Bob Woodward in "All the President's Men," the superb 1976 film about Watergate and the Golden Era of Independent Journalism. Now Redford appears as Rather in a film about the death of that Golden Era.
The juxtaposition is startling. On one side we have the courageous, muscular leadership of the Washington Post's editor, Ben Bradlee, during Watergate. On the other there are the media moguls of Viacom and CBS during the Bush/National Guard affair.
As Smith quickly goes on to point out, Woodward and Bernstein could well have suffered Rather's fate, because they, too, went too far, on an occasion that figured crucially in the film, as well as in real life. They reported that a federal grand jury had been told that Bob Haldeman controlled Nixon's campaign slush fund — which he did, but the grand jury didn't ask who controlled it. That was just the opening Nixon had been hoping for to derail the Post's reporting, but Ben Bradlee stuck to his guns. As Smith quotes from "All the President's Men":
Bradlee said he had never seen anything like this before. Skeptical but shaken, he said that the problem was no longer just journalistic. He mentioned something about the state and the future of the country.
Naturally, the movie embellished it (See "Hollywood Reporter" clip here):
Nothing's riding on this except the, uh, First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys f... up again, I'm going to get mad. Good night.
The parallel here should be underscored. Rather's career with CBS was ended because he built his story on apparently fraudulent memos — their actual status remains undetermined — from Lt. Colonel. Jerry B. Killian. The most notable one, labeled "CYA" for "cover your ass," claimed Killian was being pressured from above to give Bush undeserved better marks in his yearly evaluation. However, shortly after the original airing, Killian’s secretary, Marian Carr Knox, placed the memos' status in an almost exact parallel to Woodward and Bernstein's false reporting of an underlying true fact. “I didn’t type them,” Knox said in a broadcast interview, “However, the information in those is correct.”
Smith's point here is simple:
Even if the documents could be criticized (falsely, it turns out), we can draw a close parallel with Woodward and Bernstein's story on Haldeman: the story about Bush abandoning his service in the Air National Guard was also true.
Indeed, the gaps in Bush's service record were undeniable. They were reported, but virtually ignored four years earlier, in the 2000 election cycle, when the media was monomaniacally focused on their self-fabricated narrative of Gore being the untrustworthy one who told tall tales about his past.
On May 23, 2000, Boston Globe reporter Walter V. Robinson reported finding a "one-year gap in Bush's Guard duty,” saying that “22 months after finishing his training, and with two years left on his six-year commitment, Bush gave up flying — for good.” Beyond a momentary flurry, there wasn't much other corporate media interest in that cycle, though Martin Heldt published a detailed analysis of Bush's guard records at the Online Journal in September 2000. Fast forward to the morning of the "60 Minutes" report, and Robinson wrote another story “Bush fell short on duty at Guard,” with “Records show pledges unmet,” as the subhead. The framing had shifted from Bush's attendance gap, to Bush violating his sworn duty — and getting away with it:
Bush fell well short of meeting his military obligation, a Globe reexamination of the records shows: Twice during his Guard service — first when he joined in May 1968, and again before he transferred out of his unit in mid-1973 to attend Harvard Business School — Bush signed documents pledging to meet training commitments or face a punitive call-up to active duty.
He didn't meet the commitments, or face the punishment, the records show. The 1973 document has been overlooked in news media accounts. The 1968 document has received scant notice.
The Globe's analysis was supported by two other independent analysts. The first, retired Army Colonel Gerald A. Lechliter, wrote a highly detailed 32-page analysis, which the New York Times put on its website, but never seriously built upon in its reporting, or its editorial page. Lechliter was also interviewed by the Globe.
The second was a civilian analyst, Paul Lukasiak, whose website the AWOL Project, [Sept 2004 web.archive version] had attracted considerable attention online, and was discussed at length by Eric Boehlert here at Salon the day after the 60 Minutes report. Both Lechliter and Lukasiak placed the Bush documents in the framework of contemporary military rules, regulations, policies and procedures, which were absolutely crucial for understanding what was really going on, and not being easily spun by Bush apologists. All three of these analyses reached similar conclusions, without any reliance on the "60 Minutes" memos. I summarized the broad outlines of these misadventures in a story three weeks later:
Bush’s problems began in late Spring on 1972, when he first tried to transfer to a non-flying unit — a back door way of breaking his signed service agreement approved by his Texas superiors, but rejected at the federal level. He then failed to take a mandatory flight physical and was suspended from flying, stopped attending drills for at least six months, and was not observed by his superior officers for a full year. (He never took another physical again, and was, apparently, never disciplined for it.) A hurried spate of training unlawfully packed into a brief two-month period was then followed by his discharge from the Texas Air National Guard (TXANG), but he never fulfilled his obligation to finish his service at a unit in Massachusetts when he returned to New England to get an MBA at Harvard Business School.
In the context of this larger story, the memos were clearly important for "60 Minutes" as a scoop, but they were hardly essential for disproving Bush's claims that he had met his military obligations, or that his honorable discharge closed the book on the story.. The documentary record alone already disproved these claims conclusively. As the Globe reported:
''He [Bush] broke his contract with the United States government — without any adverse consequences. And the Texas Air National Guard was complicit in allowing this to happen," Lechliter said in an interview yesterday. ''He was a pilot. It cost the government a million dollars to train him to fly. So he should have been held to an even higher standard."
In the conclusion of his own analysis, Lechiliter struck a similar tone:
His commander’s connivance at ensuring Bush paid no penalty for his flagrant violation of regulatory requirements for attendance at training and taking a flight physical in no way excuse Bush’s disgraceful, selfish behavior.
In the final analysis, the record clearly and convincingly proves he did not fulfill the obligation he incurred when he enlisted in the Air National Guard and completed his pilot training, despite his honorable discharge. He clearly shirked the duty he undertook in 1968 upon enlistment and in 1969 upon completion of his flight training at Moody AF Base.....
We have not yet heard a satisfactory explanation by the President for his abandoning a profession he purportedly loved passionately ... As a self-proclaimed “wartime president,” this President owes the U.S. public, especially the military and veterans, no less. He certainly cannot rely on his military record to answer these questions.
In his September 9 story, Boehlert explained:
The detailed research from Lukasiak, a Philadelphia caterer, deals strictly with the contents of Bush’s military service documents, particularly those after April 1972, when Bush decided — on his own — to stop flying. But what’s fascinating is that when recent news reports from Salon, the Associated Press, CBS and the Boston Globe are layered on top of the AWOL Project research, they fit together almost seamlessly, revealing a vivid portrait of Bush as a young man who evaded his military service.
Again, this can't be stressed enough: the controversial memos that Rather and Mapes relied on were just part of a much larger mosaic. Take them away, and the larger mosaic still remains, with all of its other damning details.
And yet ... “The CBS story, and the furor that caused, buried the story so deeply that you couldn’t possibly disinter it in 2004,” Robinson told Texas Monthly's Joe Hagan for a comprehensive retrospective story in 2012. “Inevitably, the only candidate who ended up with a serious credibility problem about his military service was John Kerry, who had absolutely nothing to hide or be ashamed of,” Robinson said. “To me, in a close election — and it was a close election — who knows, that could have been the difference.”
So why were the memos so important? The short, obvious answer is that they were concrete objects which had been elevated as talisman objects, capable of delivering truth in a fragmented, polarized media environment. What happened with them clearly proved this was wrong. Polarized interpretation is not nearly so easily set aside. The authenticity of the memos was challenged almost immediately, and many (probably most) people assume they were quickly shown to be fakes. But this is not the case: their authenticity was easily placed in doubt, but nothing more. The “independent” investigation CBS initiated (headed by former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, who was appointed by Bush's father — no ethical conflict there, right?) could not say if the memos were authentic or not. As NPR reported after Rather decided to sue CBS:
Rather's attorneys also point to public statements by Michael Missal, a lawyer in Thornburgh's law firm who helped conduct the investigation.
"It's ironic that the blogs were actually wrong when they had their criticism," Missal said in a speech back in March at Washington and Lee's law school.
"We actually did find typewriters that did have the superscripts, did have proportional spacing, and on the fonts, given that these are copies, it's really hard to say," Missal said. "But there were some typewriters that looked like they could have some similar fonts there, so the initial concerns didn't seem as though they would hold up."
Elements of those findings cropped up deep in the report. But given the firestorm online, Rather questions why they were not prominently placed among the report's key conclusions.
This does not mean that Rather and Mapes were right. We still don't know that and we probably never will. But it does mean that the first wave of criticism from rightwing blogs — the criticism that stopped the story in its tracks — was wrong, based on false assumptions. In fact, in 2007, Texas author and journalist James Moore pointed out that this was evident almost immediately. Superscripts were a major reason given for claiming the memos were fakes, that they weren't available on typewriters at the time. But the very last release of Bush guard records disproved this:
The last document dump occurred about a week after Dan Rather's apologia on his former network's newscast. This was a single page memo promoting 2nd Lt. George W. Bush to 1st Lt. and it used superscript. The media took no notice that this piece of evidence completely contradicted the most powerful criticism of the Rathergate memos.
So the documents weren't obvious forgeries. But they were contestable—as was almost everything, then. After all — as Robinson alludes to — this was all taking place at the same time as the multi-million-dollar Swiftboat Veterans attack on John Kerry's war record. Essentially you had two political coalitions, one branded as pro-military, ultra-strong on defense, the other not: The “daddy party” vs. the “mommy party.” The facts be damned, it was just too discordant to have the Democratic candidate be the war hero, and the Republican candidate be the deserter. And so the facts themselves had to be changed to fit the cultural narrative. That is exactly what happened.
What we're talking about here is the dominance of myth over fact, mythos over logos. But, of course, a movie like "Truth" — or "All The President's Men" — is nothing if not a powerful piece of mythos itself. They tell a story that gives meaning to the world, and to our place in it. Some myths are far more factually accurate than others, but what gives them power as myths is not their accuracy (that's the realm of logos), it's the power of the meaning they create.
In one sense, Smith is right to say Redford's roles in these two films mark “the Golden Era of Independent Journalism” and “the death of that Golden Era.” But the era itself was a myth — though one that required at least some measure of accuracy in order to survive. As the accuracy seeped away out of the corporate media's center, and began showing up in places like Lukasiak's AWOL project, the old myth withered even before it died. A new myth is out there, waiting to be told. Or perhaps, just to be repeated, so everyone can hear this time.