This past October 16 the Rathergate film Truth opened in more than a thousand theaters around the country. John and I warned viewers not to take the film at face value in the Weekly Standard article “Rather shameful.” On the film’s opening weekend the Star Tribune also carried my column reminding readers of the film’s factual background. The column was published as “Lies upon lies: The sad state of the movie ‘Truth.'”
Now the film is out on DVD and in rotation on cable television. I watched it again yesterday on Starz. If you know anything about the “truth,” so to speak, it is an utterly infuriating film.
Despite the film’s commercial failure, I think the lies of Truth matter. They are intended to rewrite the historical record and to vindicate an audacious journalistic fraud committed with the intent of influencing the outcome of an American presidential election. The left simply does not give up in its efforts to rewrite history. It is unrelenting. And it has highly effective tools of persuasion at its disposal.
The New York Times of course made itself a fool for Truth. I wrote about that here in “The Times stumbles onto…” and in the City Journal column “Truth and the New York Times.” In the matter of Truth, the Times has earned itself special recognition in the hall of shame.
On the weekend of the film’s release I posted my notes on the film here. In retrospect, I think these notes explore certain elements of the film from angles that others have overlooked and that they warrant repetition in the context of the film’s current distribution.
• The film is based on Mary Mapes’s 2005 memoir Truth and Duty: The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power. I provided my take on the book when it was published in 2005 in the Weekly Standard column “Second Time’s a Charm?” I thought it was an egregiously bad book.
• What about the film? It’s not as good as the book.
• The best reviews of this bad film may be the ones by the Atlantic’s Christopher Orr and the New York Post’s Kyle Smith. Orr’s is “A terrible, terrible movie about journalism.” Smith’s is “Wacko Dan Rather movie still insists forged Bush-National Guard documents were real.”
• The movie dramatizes the scene in which Mapes answers a query from the Thornburgh panel about the use of the nonexistent abbreviation O.E.T.R. in one of the fabricated Killian memos. It’s in Mapes’s memoir at pages 277-278. In the book and the movie, Mapes triumphantly cites the copy of an authentic Air National Guard document with the abbreviation. William Campenni served in the same unit as President Bush. He explains why the abbreviation in the fabricated Killian memo is like seeing a digital wristwatch on a supposedly authentic portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. Campenni’s column is “The truth about Dan Rather’s deceptive reporting on George W. Bush.” The column was only recently posted online at the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal site. I highly recommend Bill’s column for advanced students of Rathergate and viewers of the film.
• Like a Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western, the film is full of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
• The good: Dan Rather, Mary Mapes and Mapes’s team of disinterested seekers of the truth.
• The bad: The evil forces around President Bush who scared off those in the know in Texas from disgorging the deep secrets of President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. CBS/Viacom management. The “bloggers.”
• The ugly: They’re bad too! But they’re also ugly: the lawyers who made up the Thornburgh panel commissioned by CBS to issue the report determining how that 60 Minutes story ever got on the air. I think Mapes is lucky that the lawyers feel constrained from commenting on their portrayal in the book or in the film.
• CBS appointed Richard Thornburgh to conduct the investigation. In the film Thornburgh is described inaccurately as a twice-defeated candidate for Congress whose campaign was managed by Karl Rove. The implication is that the investigation will be in the service of Rove’s interests. Karl Rove: he’s bad.
• Thornburgh was a former United States Attorney, a former two-term governor of Pennsylvania, and former Attorney General of the United States. It’s an impressive résumé that is elided in the film’s ludicrous description of him.
• Thornburgh resigned as Attorney General to run a losing campaign for the United States Senate. Rove conducted direct mail advertising for him in the campaign. With an unpaid bill of nearly $170,000 at the end of the campaign, Rove sued Thornburgh personally on the debt. So if you want a buddy of Karl Rove who can be counted on to do Rove’s bidding, Thornburgh is your man. Obviously.
• The conceit of the film is that Mapes and her band of happy warriors were just “asking questions.” The phrase is the film’s central motif. Orr writes, for example: “[M]y notes include, among others, the lines ‘Questions help us get to the truth,’ ‘You stop asking questions, that’s when the American people lose,’ and ‘You’re supposed to question everything, that’s your job[.]’” The 60 Minutes story asked a couple of questions, alright, but it’s the answers that failed spectacularly. The answers were fraudulent duds.
• Both the book and the movie depict the investigation conducted by Thornburgh as a McCarthyite witch hunt. Mapes uses the term in her book. The film gives us one of those insufferable throw-down-the-microphone speeches in which Mapes challenges the Thornburgh panel: “Are you saying am I now or have I ever been a liberal?” In the book, Mapes describes the taunt as a joke. In the film, she is as earnest as Billy Graham on one of his crusades.
• Although the book and the movie disparage the Thornburgh investigation, they both draw on the Thornburgh report’s finding that the 60 Minutes story’s deficiencies were not attributable to political bias. In the movie, the statement runs as a graphic postscript before the credits roll. The Thornburgh report also notes in this connection, however, that “certain actions” could support charges that political motivations prompted CBS News to report and air the story. Fortunately for Mapes, the Thornburgh panel didn’t have Mapes’s then unwritten memoir to draw on. It is full of crazed political animus that belies her absolution by the Thornburgh panel.
• So the Killian memos: real or fake? The film has it both ways. It’s in “fake but accurate” territory, but it also leaves Mapes with the last word defending the documents’ authenticity in her concluding speech.
• The film has someone referring to the documents’ typeface as “New Times Roman” (rather than Times New Roman). It’s the only reference to the Killian documents’ typeface in the film. You’d think they would get it right.
• In her memoir Mapes denies that the typeface is Times New Roman. In the film, someone triumphantly asserts that, contrary to the claims of ignorant bloggers, “New Times Roman” was available as of 1931! True. It just wasn’t licensed to typewriters. Its ubiquity is a tribute to Microsoft Word and the era of computerized word processing.
• Bill Burkett was the source of all the fraudulent documents purportedly from the “personal file” of Col. Jerry Killian on which Mapes based the second part of the Rathergate segment. Before the segment was broadcast, Burkett told Mapes that he had received the documents from an unknown source in the mail. He subsequently told Mapes that he had been given the documents by one George Conn, an assertion which Mapes was unable to confirm. After the story was broadcast and the provenance of the documents became an issue critical to CBS News, Mapes pressed Burkett on the source of the documents. At this point Burkett served up his laughable cock-and-bull story involving “Lucy Ramirez.” In her memoir Mapes says of the “Lucy Ramirez” story: “I believed it was quite possible that Bill Burkett was finally telling the truth, the whole weird truth, and nothing but the truth.” By contrast, the movie portrays Mapes as rolling her eyes and mouthing “bullshit” as Burkett tells his final story. Even the producers of Truth know that only a fool would buy what Burkett was peddling then. Only a knave would peddle it now.
• The film is all about rewriting history. Thus the celebration of the film by the New York Times at the TimesTalks event hosted gingerly by Susan Dominus this past October, just before the movie went into commercial release. The left is unrelenting in its support of the myths that sustain its political religion. Truth runs 121 minutes, but it’s an Orwellian Two Minutes Hate for the ignorant, the gullible, and the true believers.
• Andrew Heyward was president of CBS News at the time of Rathergate. He hasn’t spoken much about the scandal for public consumption, but he talked about Truth to the New York Times for its story on the TimesTalks celebration of the film. Heyward commented to Times reporter John Koblin that the film “takes people responsible for the worst embarrassment in the history of CBS News, and what was at the time a grievous blow to the credibility of a proud news organization, and turns them into martyrs and heroes. Only Hollywood could come up with that.” That’s one truth missing from Truth.