The new Fox Nation subscription service posted the documentary Black Eye: Dan Rather and the Birth of Fake News at 6:00 a.m. (Eastern) this morning. The documentary revisits the Rathergate scandal from its origin in the 2000 presidential campaign to the 2015 film Truth and slightly beyond. I have now watched the documentary and want to offer a few notes with my impressions on it for what they may be worth.
The producers made a house call on John and me at the outset of their work on the documentary. Clips of our interview appear in the documentary several times. I feel too close to the story to judge it fairly. Please take everything I have to say with that reservation. I hope Power Line readers will view the documentary. It memorializes an important piece of history that has already receded into the mists of the ancient past.
• It’s an excellent documentary. It runs for 90 minutes, but it is incredibly fast-paced. It is interesting throughout. I think I know a lot about the Rathergate story, but I learned from the documentary while finding the whole thing of interest from beginning to end. The pell-mell pace makes me wonder whether the documentary should have been longer or extended into several parts. In any event, I am grateful that the film Truth will not be the last word on the scandal in video form.
• The producers tracked down principals and witnesses including Harry MacDougald (“Buckhead”), Bill Campenni, Dan Bartlett, Karl Rove, Michael Meehan, Joseph Newcomer, Emily Will, David Van Os, John Roberts (then of CBS News, now with FOX News) and Howard Kurtz (then of the Washington Post, now with FOX News). Bill Burkett gave the producers a written statement. With the exception of Burkett, they all contribute something to an understanding of what went wrong. Dan Rather and Mary Mapes were not interviewed for the documentary, nor was any executive of CBS News.
• Certain of those who were interviewed for the documentary are given privileged narrative positions. They speak with the voice of authority. Foremost among them is Walter Robinson, editor at large with the Boston Globe. He serves as something like a Greek chorus in the production. I think Robinson is accorded more screen time than any of the witnesses. Robinson is left free to render apparently definitive judgments that in my view are mistaken. He pretends to knowledge that he doesn’t have. He is an unreliable narrator and something of a blowhard. I found his place in the documentary incredibly annoying.
• The first half of the documentary runs up to the broadcast of the Rathergate segment by CBS News on the evening of September 8, 2004. The Rathergate segment is broadcast at about 00:45:00 of the documentary. The context is valuable and interesting, but the proportion of the documentary devoted to the run-up seems off to me.
• The documentary takes off at 00:45:00, with the broadcast of the Rathergate segment. I found the following 12 minutes riveting, perhaps the highlight of the show, but my perspective may be warped.
• The viewer needs to watch attentively to understand this: there is absolutely no doubt — none, zero, zilch — that the Rathergate documents are frauds. CBS’s Thornburgh/Boccardi Report of the Independent Review Panel obscures this fact, but even there it can be seen in the analysis of Peter Tytell in the appendix and endorsed in the text. See, e.g., John’s and my Weekly Standard article “Rather shameful.”
• In the documentary John Hinderaker makes the key observation on the otherwise invaluable Thornburgh/Boccardi report: the report was the work of lawyers for a client. The client was CBS.
• The documentary leaves the accusation that President Bush shorted his service obligation lingering. According to Walter Robinson, this is “the real story” that Rathergate unfortunately — unfortunately, from his point of view — obscured. Bill Campenni is a retired colonel in the Air Force/Air National Guard. He served alongside President Bush in the same unit of the Texas Air National Guard. He knows what he is talking about based on his own experience. His judgment: “George Bush did request an early out from his enlistment contract and got it, legally and honorably.”
• The documentary draws frequently on archival FOX News footage. The two or three excerpts of Brit Hume covering the story on Special Report are highlights. He seems to have a glint in his eye that conveys his own understanding of what had transpired.
• The documentary rightly addresses Mary Mapes’s 2005 memoir Truth and Duty to reveal her intense animus against against President Bush. I felt like cheering when the documentary drew attention to it.
• The documentary overlooks Dan Rather’s 2012 memoir Rather Outspoken to the same effect. Rather seethes with hatred for Republicans and conservatives. Despite his fake September 20, 2004 apology “personally and directly” to the viewers of CBS News, Rather pleads guilty only to “putting a true story on the air.” According to Rather in his memoir, “There is a through-line, a long and slimy filament that connects the ‘murder’ of Vince Foster to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and to the discrediting of the Killian memos.” That “slimy filament” is “a dirty thread” that “stretches all the way . . . to the birther movement.” Rather Insane would be more like it.
• The documentary recalls that on September 4, 2004, four days before the Rathergate broadcast, Mapes urged Kerry campaign adviser Joe Lockhart to contact Burkett. Hey, politics is a team sport and CBS News is on the Dem team. Still the Thornburgh/Boccardi report found no bias in the Rathergate story, just shoddy journalism.
• “Fake news” is as old as the republic. In this case Mapes sought to influence the outcome of the 2004 presidential campaign with her fraudulent story. Watching the documentary, one can’t help but wonder how many times something like this this has happened before or since without detection.
• As always, FOX News gives no credit to the producers/writers responsible for the show. I think this is wrong. They deserve to be recognized for their work on this fascinating documentary.