“Truth,” according to the Times (2)

Late last week the New York Times celebrated the forthcoming release of the Rathergate film Truth, starring Robert Redford as Dan Rather and Cate Blanchett as Mary Mapes. The Times event featured all four of them. “The full catastrophe,” as I would like to think of it.

The Times convened the panel to discuss the film and the underlying story before an enthusiastic New York audience. Moderated by Times Magazine staff writer Susan Dominus, the discussion is memorialized in a video the Times has posted here and that I posted here yesterday along with my brief comments. Here I want to quote from imperfect notes I took watching it, so I am posting the video below again as well. It is an inexhaustibly rich document that warrants further comment and analysis.

Rathergate represents one of the great journalistic scandals of all time. Rather and Mapes were the chief culprits of the affair. Any reasonable person who bothers to read the Thornburg-Boccardi report will understand the deep disgrace Rather and Mapes brought on CBS News. John and I drew on it for the Weekly Standard article “Rather shameful.” Any reasonable person who reads the report will find Mapes guilty not only of appalling professional misconduct, but also of incessant lying to cover it up. She is relentless and intransigent.

Dominus observes to Mapes “how satisfying it must be to have a movie like this made about your experience told from your point of view.” Yes, Susan, and how great it must be to have the New York Times honoring the film with this festive discussion!

Yet, as Dominus herself somewhat warily observes, the film portrays Rather and Mapes as heroes. How does that work? Rather and Mapes were perpetrators of a scandal that, once understood, is truly shocking, but following Mapes’s Rathergate memoir, the film depicts Rather and Mapes as victims and martyrs.

Dominus asks on a couple of occasions whether Rather and Mapes acknowledge “mistakes.” Well, of course, mistakes were made. But what were they? Dominus doesn’t go there. In one of the Bartlett’s-worthy quotes that emerges from the discussion, Mapes renders this judgment: “We were within the normal journalistic range of bungle.”

As they do in their Rathergate memoirs, however, Rather and Mapes stand behind the 60 Minutes segment that gave rise to the scandal. They stand behind the authenticity of the documents. They stand behind the story in its entirety. “We reported the truth,” Rather says. “They didn’t attack us on the facts, they attacked us on the process,” he says over and over. The report to the contrary notwithstanding, Rather asserts: “Nobody has ever proved the documents were forgeries.”

He puts it this way: “The truth of the story was what it was.” And this way: “The basic facts of the story were true.” Now that is redundant, but it is also untrue. The story was both false and fraudulent.

Dominus only laments cryptically that they “left the door wide open for the right to drive through.”

Dominus gingerly recalls that Rather finally rendered an on-air apology for his inability to authenticate the documents on which the 60 Minutes segment had been based. On September 20, 2004, Rather apologized “personally and directly” to his viewers. Now, however, he takes it back. He didn’t mean it. His superiors — the movie’s villains — made him do it. Even heroes err.

Mapes is a hard, hard case. There’s something about Mary, indeed. As for any mistakes she may have made, she is noncomittal. She changes the subjects to the Niger uranium forgeries. She is content to let Rather do most of the talking. He believes in her!

When Dominus asks Mapes about the role played by her estranged father in the affair, Mapes goes off on Rush Limbaugh (at about 1:01:00). She knows how to play to this crowd.

What did Rush do? Mapes makes it sound like Rush brought on Mapes’s father for an interview. Mapes says: “Suddenly I’m driving down the road and there’s my father on Rush Limbaugh talking about me, about how I always had a radical feminist agenda.” She then addresses her father: “You know, shit, you haven’t talked to me for 15 years, how do you even know? That was the level of personal attack and personal pain involved in the no-holds barred attacks.” And that’s not all! She also had to put up with the Thornburgh-Boccardi panel — “27 white male lawyers” who don’t know anything about journalism. As I say, Mapes is one hard case who knows how to play to this particular crowd.

In her memoir, incidentally, Mapes describes Rush’s offense against her as follows: “‘Even her father says she is a liberal!’ Rush Limbaugh bellowed into the microphone.” That’s it. (Mapes is a self-proclaimed liberal and Mapes’s father obviously did not appear on Rush’s show.) Again in her memoir, Mapes adds this, moving beyond Rush: “Time and again, my father’s comments were referenced as as clear evidence that I was a feminist fool and a liberal tool.” Anyone familiar with the story, however, knows that Mapes is something much worse than a liberal tool.