Journalism is too hard for Hollywood: Dan Rather, George W. Bush & the misunderstood media scandal of the century

A decade ago, a major journalistic scandal cost Dan Rather his job. A new film doesn't seem to understand why

By Jack Mirkinson
Published October 18, 2015 4:00PM (EDT)
  (Reuters/Peter Morgan/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Peter Morgan/Photo montage by Salon)

It's no surprise that "Truth," the new movie about the journalistic firestorm that took down Dan Rather, has caused so much controversy. In its retelling of the scandal that engulfed Rather, his producer Mary Mapes and CBS News after their botched story about George W. Bush's time in the Texas Air National Guard blew up in their faces, "Truth" touches on one of the most politically and personally charged moments in recent media history. CBS is incensed enough about the film that it has refused to air any ads for it on its network. The people behind "Truth" have defended it as a movie that seeks to go beyond the particulars of the saga and raise broader questions about reporting and corporate America.

The reality is that neither side has covered itself in glory. CBS is guilty of, at the very least, massive corporate overreach, but "Truth" is so conspicuously one-sided that it was bound to provoke a heated reaction.

The outline of the story "Truth" tells is familiar enough to anybody who was around in 2004. Mapes, a star producer for Rather at CBS, got her hands on memos that seemingly confirmed rumors about the special treatment Bush had received during his military days, and built a "60 Minutes" report for Rather around them. The memos, however, were torn to shreds almost instantly, with both conservative bloggers and experts disputing their authenticity. CBS ultimately retracted the story, apologized, fired Mapes, made three other producers resign, and forced Rather out of his anchor chair at the "CBS Evening News."

Ever since then, the toxicity of the scandal has lingered. Rather and Mapes insist to this day that the central contention of their story--that Bush shirked his military duties and got away with it because of his connections--is true, and that they were railroaded by a panicked team of corporate suits. Mapes recently said the errors fell within the range of "normal journalistic bungle."

That, of course, is a quite generous reading of events. When you mess up on a highly damaging story about the president of the United States two months before an election, you're out of the realm of normalcy, no matter how much you did or didn't bungle. But that's the story "Truth," which was based on Mapes's memoir, wants to tell. And that's the biggest flaw in the movie.

Delve even slightly into the "Rathergate" scandal and you will tumble down several simultaneous rabbit holes. The story of Bush's military service is decidedly murky. There's a boatload of evidence to suggest that he received preferential treatment for years, but that evidence is tied up with so much history, hearsay and rumor that it's a far cry from the tidy report that "60 Minutes" presented to the world.

"Truth" does not exactly shy away from detailing the mistakes Mapes and her team made in pursuing the Bush story, but it definitely soft-pedals them. There's a central problem that, despite the film's best efforts, it can't overcome: The "60 Minutes" report was partially centered around documents that the producers couldn't reasonably authenticate.

It's all well and good for Rather and Mapes to complain, as they have done for over a decade, that the focus on the memos obliterated any consideration of the rest of their story, which included on-camera interviews with people who said they had intervened to help Bush out during his time in the military. But that is a problem entirely of their own making. All these years later, it remains a wonder that so much caution was abandoned on such a sensitive story.

The report that CBS commissioned after the scandal has itself proven contentious, but it makes clear that the producing team barreled past a series of red flags about the documents in its rush to get the story on air. "Truth" somewhat acknowledges this, but moves past it in its effort to cast Mapes and Rather as noble victims of a corporate purge. In doing so, it weakens its own cause.

It's hard for us to take the very pertinent questions the film raises about the connections between CBS and the Bush administration--as well as its broader points about the sanitizing of TV news--when the nagging problem of its hagiographic storytelling keeps intervening.

In a way, the biggest letdown of "Truth" is that it fails to grapple with some of the more mundane issues that the Rathergate mess illuminates. Apart from anything else, the scandal should remind us of the inherent limitations of broadcast news. Television demands dramatic revelations and firm conclusions. A news interview has to point conclusively in one direction. It is not enough to merely raise questions. Mapes and her team did not just err because their journalistic eyes were too big for their stomachs. They were also trying to stuff an unwieldy, muddy story into a neat 13-minute package, because that's exactly what "60 Minutes" is supposed to do.

Content aside, "Truth" holds few shockers as a piece of filmmaking. It's an almost old-fashioned piece, sturdy, formally conservative and unsubtle. It's never boring—though it's about 25 minutes too long—but it never reaches past any of the familiar tropes of this kind of movie. Writer/director James Vanderbilt lets his actors, especially Cate Blanchett, who plays Mapes, and Robert Redford, who plays Rather, shoulder the burden of the work. The results are a mixed bag. As Mapes, Blanchett is typically electric, a wounded bird of prey whose life spirals out of control as her report unravels. Blanchett is never the most relaxed of performers, and her intensity is a natural fit for the hard-charging Mapes.

Redford is, well, Redford, so Rather comes off as the saintliest of saints—an almost amusingly worshipful take on one of the more controversial and psychologically complex icons of journalism. The film only hints at Rather's almost total lack of involvement in the architecture of the doomed report, turning him into a reassuring father figure who honorably goes down with the ship. It's no wonder Rather and Redford have been doing interviews together.

Despite its title, "Truth" does little to get at the truth of what happened at CBS News—or, for that matter, during George W. Bush's wayward youth. It was probably impossible for anything to really do that, of course. There are too many disputed stories, too much bad blood for that. But it's quite disappointing that something better wasn't made out of a such a compelling story.

Jack Mirkinson

Jack Mirkinson is a writer living in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @jackmirkinson.

MORE FROM Jack Mirkinson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2004 Elections 60 Minutes Cbs News Dan Rather Elections 2004 George W. Bush Journalism Media Criticism