The New York Times made itself a fool for the Rathergate film Truth. The Times not only published Stephen Holden’s breathless review of the film, the Times celebrated the film in a TimesTalks event featuring Robert Redford, Cate Blanchett, Dan Rather, and Mary Mapes, hosted by Times Magazine staff writer Susan Dominus. Holden also included Truth in his year-end best-of-2015 list (it’s number 7!). The Times went all in for this tribute to the greatest journalistic fraud of our era, as I noted in the City Journal column “Truth and the New York Times.”
In its year-end review of possible Oscar contenders, however, Times op-ed columnist Joe Nocera stumbles onto the truth and blurts it out. Doesn’t this require some kind of a trigger warning for Times readers?
Nocera observes that Truth is a tribute to “bad reporting.” Of course, Nocera is right about that. We tried to help Holden and Dominus out on this point in our Weekly Standard article “Rather shameful.”
Nocera contrasts Truth with Spotlight, a film that depicts the Boston Globe’s investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Nocera is right about that too. Spotlight is an excellent film.
As for the contrast between the two films, Nocera makes this elementary observation:
[W]hile “Spotlight” shows reporters at their best — tackling a huge, important story while taking on Boston’s biggest sacred cow — the journalism that “Truth” views as heroic is anything but. In her eagerness to run a tough story, Ms. Mapes didn’t bother to nail down the authenticity of those documents. Nor did Mr. Rather push her to do so. And while the film’s writer and director, James Vanderbilt, nods at their errors, his underlying message seems to be that the larger truth they were trying to tell — the suggestion that Mr. Bush was given preferential treatment during his National Guard service in the early 1970s — should not have been undermined just because they were fooled by a few fake documents. Hence, I suppose, the movie’s title.
“They weren’t attacked about the substance of their story,” Mr. Vanderbilt told me recently. “They were attacked on the documents.” Which suggests that even though he wrote the screenplay for a previous film involving journalism — David Fincher’s 2007 thriller, “Zodiac” — he really doesn’t understand the difference between good reporting and bad.
Nocera seems not to be aware that Mapes and Rather got the substance of the story regarding Bush’s alleged preferential treatment wrong too. In Mapes’s case, this was no error. She certainly knew better about Bush’s alleged preferential admission to serve in the Texas Air National Guard, as the Thornburgh report establishes beyond a reasonable doubt. But at least Nocera recognizes the anomalous nature of Truth, in which knaves and fools are turned into heroes.
Now, I guess, the truth can be told, more or less. What still can’t be told — can’t be told in the Times anyway — is how the Times has made itself a fool for Truth.