Exclusive: Almost four decades after starring in “All the President’s Men,” Robert Redford returns portraying another famous journalist in “Truth.” But the world has been turned upside down. Mainstream media is no longer the hero exposing a corrupt president, but the villain protecting one, as James DiEugenio explains.
By James DiEugenio
In spring 2004, CBS news producer Mary Mapes was doing what journalists are supposed to do dig up facts that help the public understand important events and often make the powers-that-be squirm. She and Dan Rather, her colleague at the “60 Minutes” offspring “60 Minutes II,” had just exposed the U.S. military’s bizarre mistreatment of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison.
Documented with damning photos and direct testimony, the story revealed how U.S. military guards had stripped detainees naked and subjected them to sexual humiliations and severe physical abuse. The story forced President George W. Bush to claim that he was morally outraged by these practices and to demand that the implicated soldiers be court-martialed.
But the string that the Abu Ghraib case pulled eventually revealed that Bush and his senior advisers had authorized very similar treatment for detainees at CIA “black sites” and at Guantanamo Bay prison. In that sense, the Abu Ghraib prison story was one of the most important of the Iraq War in that it exposed the secret ugliness and grotesque criminality of Bush’s “global war on terror.”
Mapes had done other compelling stories for “60 Minutes” and its spinoff, including coverage of Karla Faye Tucker’s execution. The young woman was convicted of murder, but, in prison, became a born-again Christian and asked for a commutation from then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush. But Bush was eyeing political advancement and refused to grant it, letting her execution go forward.
In another powerful human-interest story, Mapes found the child of segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond, a child he had fathered with a black woman.
In other words, Mapes was the kind of producer who delivered hard-hitting stories that news organizations claim that they crave, the sort of reporting that not only makes for good journalism but good TV.
But Mary Mapes ran into a buzz saw of career-destroying trouble on Sept. 8, 2004, when she and her colleagues at “60 Minutes II” broadcast a segment on Bush’s spotty service in the Texas Air National Guard, the route that the Bush Family scion took to avoid the Vietnam War.
The segment posed the question of whether Bush had honored his commitment or got special dispensation to avoid a large part of his duty. Within minutes of the show being aired, actually before the hour was over, the report came under attack from right-wing bloggers who accused CBS of using forged documents as part of its presentation. The key claim of these Bush defenders was that some of the documents couldn’t have been typed in the early 1970s because IBM’s Selectric typewriters couldn’t produce superscripts (a claim that turned out to be false, since Selectric typewriters did allow for superscripts, such as the little “th” or “st” after a number).
Blaming the Messenger
Yet, caught off-guard by the ferocity of this attack and its amplification through the right-wing echo chamber and then back into the mainstream media CBS executives put Mapes on leave. Less than two weeks after the broadcast on Sept. 20, 2004 she left her office in New York, never to return.
She was told not to talk to any reporters about the segment, an order that she unwisely obeyed. She was also told by CBS News President Andrew Heyward not to do any work advancing the story. A few days later, Heyward announced the formation of a review panel. Former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, a Bush Family apparatchik, and former Associated Press chief Lou Boccardi headed it.
In January 2005, the panel issued its report critical of some journalistic procedures that Mapes and three other producers followed in putting together the segment, but the panel could not establish definitively whether the questioned documents were indeed forgeries.
On the day Heyward read the Thornburgh-Boccardi report without letting Mapes rebut its findings he called Mapes and fired her. Three other CBS employees involved with the production producer Josh Howard, vice president of prime time news Betsy West, and executive producer Mary Murphy were asked to resign.
Dan Rather was removed from his anchor spot at CBS Evening News in March of 2005. His contract was not picked up in 2006. Thus his association with CBS ended after 44 years.
But Mapes did not go quietly. Later in 2005, she wrote a book about her career at CBS and primarily about the whole Bush/National Guard segment she produced. Truth and Duty was a spirited defense of her and her colleagues’ performance on the story.
It was also a bare-knuckled reply to the workings and verdict of the Thornburgh-Boccardi panel, a report that most of the mainstream media and the unsuspecting public accepted at face value as being the last word on the whole issue.
Because Mapes had worked in Dallas for CBS News, she had heard many tales about Texas Gov. Bush’s National Guard service, or lack of such. In 1968, after George W. Bush graduated from Yale and without a student deferment, he was eligible for a tour in Vietnam via the draft. Though the Bush clan supported the Vietnam War in public, they understood that it was not at all a cause worth risking one’s life over. So to help Bush avoid getting shipped off to Indochina, the decision was made for him to join the National Guard but not just any unit in the National Guard.
The ‘Champagne’ Unit
Young Bush would join the 147th Fighter Wing of the Texas Air National Guard (or TANG). This Houston-based unit was a haven for the rich and powerful in Texas, so much so that it was nicknamed the “Champagne Unit.” Bush went in as a Second Lieutenant, even though he had not met any of the requisite requirements to merit such an officer’s position.
The 147th also trained Bush to be a pilot. Again, this was unusual because it was rather expensive to train a pilot from scratch. The usual route was to borrow trained pilots from regular Air Force units or to train young men who had some experience, which Bush did not have.
How did George W. Bush gain entry into the TANG? The Bush family cover story was that he had talked to Lt. Col. Walter Staudt, who told him positions were open. It later turned out that it was not at all that simple. What really happened was that Ben Barnes, state Speaker of the House, used some influence to gain entry for Bush, letting him leapfrog over many other applicants. In fact, one of the scoops that Mapes got for the “60 Minutes II” segment was that Barnes went on camera to talk about what he had done.
But getting in was just the beginning of the story. Young Bush was allowed to take “hiatuses” from active duty. For instance, Bush got a six-week leave to work on Sen. Ed Gurney’s campaign in Florida. He then seemed to lose his skills as a pilot. He had difficulty landing his F-102 fighter plane. Consequently, he was pulled from flight duty, his last sortie being performed in April 1972.
Then, with many months still left on his National Guard contract, he asked permission to work on another senatorial campaign for Win Blount in Alabama. Bush requested, and was granted, a transfer to the 187th Tactical Reconnaissance unit in Montgomery at Dannelly Field. But there was no credible evidence in Alabama that Bush ever showed up.
When Blount lost in November of 1972, Bush returned to Texas, but not apparently to Ellington Air Base in Houston as he was supposed to. He went to Florida and Washington DC, and then returned to Alabama. He then tried to go back to Texas to report, but his superiors did not want him there. Further, there was never any paperwork returned to Ellington from Alabama about his alleged alternative service.
As many who have examined the record have concluded, it is hard not to say that young Bush went AWOL and did not fulfill the last two years of a six-year military commitment. That should have gotten him kicked out of the TANG and made him eligible for the draft. His negligence should have meant no honorable discharge, but he got one nonetheless.
Finessing a Vulnerability
Years later when Bush launched his political career, it appears that his handlers understood what a liability this whole episode was. Karl Rove and Karen Hughes tried to intimidate local Texas writers like James Moore from questioning Bush about it. But then, as Moore noted, there were reports from TANG manager Bill Burkett that some of Bush’s entourage went into National Guard Headquarters to purge Bush’s files. Whatever one thinks of Burkett’s credibility, there were indeed several documents missing from Bush’s file, which should have been there.
The first time I ever heard about the Bush/TANG story was during the presidential campaign of 2004, which tells us something about the national news media’s insistence on ignoring it when Bush first ran for president in 2000. Back then, much of the mainstream press was enamored of George W. Bush, who gave out nicknames to his favorite reporters. The campaign press was also generally disdainful of Vice President Al Gore, who was deemed a boring nerd.
During that campaign, Walter Robinson of the Boston Globe brought the story about Bush’s shirking his National Guard duty outside of Texas. Robinson interviewed several of Bush’s commanders who did not recall seeing him in 1972 or 1973, either in Texas or Alabama.
But that well-documented story fell on deaf ears as far as the national press was concerned. Big-time political reporters were much more interested in making fun of Gore for supposedly saying, “I invented the Internet” although Gore never actually said that. In 2000, within the Washington press corps, there was a palpable yearning for a return of the Bush Family “adults” and the dispatch of Bill Clinton’s tawdry entourage.
However, four years later, in Campaign 2004, retired Gen. Wesley Clark was running as a Democrat and documentarian Michael Moore had framed a possible Clark-Bush race as “The General vs. the Deserter.” So, during an early debate, ABC’s Peter Jennings asked Clark about the charge that Bush had gone AWOL in Alabama. Jennings was clearly trying to embarrass Clark or get him to repudiate Moore’s comment.
As Amy Goodman later recalled this exchange on her show Democracy Now, it appeared to be a warning shot by the mighty MSM: We are not going to tolerate this kind of criticism of a sitting president. Mainstream journalists also were a bit touchy because they had ignored this important angle in 2000.
Ignoring Bush’s Past
In retrospect, it seems amazing that the MSM almost completely missed this story in 2000, even though they had the Boston Globe story in hand. As Mapes writes in her book, what could be more relevant than a man running for president who had escaped the Vietnam draft by having strings pulled to get him into the TANG and who then decided he did not need to fulfill his rather easy weekend commitment and thus reneged on the terms of his agreement? Does such an episode not speak to Bush’s character, especially his honesty and sense of duty?
Further, since Bush’s experience in the TANG seemed to be a fig leaf to avoid service in Vietnam, what would that say about how Bush regarded the seriousness of sending other men into combat? Not only did Bush never experience the danger, he actively avoided it.
Was this issue not even more relevant considering what Bush later did in Afghanistan and Iraq in dispatching National Guard units to repeated combat tours? But the American public never got a chance to fully debate this issue because the MSM largely hid it from public view in 2000 and then insisted on keeping it buried in 2004.
Yet, Mapes plowed ahead with her work on the Bush-National Guard story. She obtained documents from Burkett purportedly written by Bush’s immediate supervisor, the deceased Jerry Killian, that seemed to corroborate much of what had been said earlier about Bush’s avoidance of service. The documents were copies, not originals, so the ink and paper could not be tested though she used other means to seek to authenticate them, including pressing Burkett on where he got them.
She also interviewed another TANG officer, Bobby Hodges, who had served above Killian. Hodges backed up the complaints about Bush that appeared in the documents, namely that Bush refused to report for a physical, that his superior wanted to call for a panel before grounding him, and that there was pressure from above to not discipline Bush. But Hodges refused to appear on camera and did not want to see the Killian documents. (Mapes, p. 173, e-book edition.)
To further verify the documents, Rather and Mapes secured the services of four document examiners. Of the four, two vouched for the documents as genuine and signed by Killian. Two had reservations. Mapes put together what she called an overall “meshing document,” a collection of unquestionably genuine documents, which matched the information in the documents secured by Burkett.
She wanted to make a comparison graphic to include on the show, but senior producer Josh Howard vetoed that idea in favor of more from House Speaker Barnes. (ibid, p. 187) Josh Howard also deleted the off-camera audio interview with Bobby Hodges. Howard and news vice president Betsy West cut another interview with a military expert, Colonel David Hackworth.
In her book, Mapes wrote that after these deletions, she probably should have either delayed the story, or perhaps asked for it to be killed. (ibid, p. 188) But she did not.
Tipping Off the White House
But there was one other development that should have given her pause. Producer Josh Howard allowed the White House to look at the documents and comment on the show in advance. The White House had no comment on the documents, and only a mildly dismissive reply to the thesis of the show, responding that Bush had been released from his National Guard service with an honorable discharge.
The lack of both rigor and vigor in this reply, considering it was just weeks before the election, should have signaled that something ominous was being prepared. Because the online response was so fast and ferocious, it appears that Bush’s defenders were tipped off in advance, a possibility that gained more credence after Bush published his account in his 2010 memoir, Decision Point.
According to Bush, he was shown one of the purported memos by White House aide Dan Bartlett after stepping off Marine One late one night in September 2004.
“Dan told me CBS newsman Dan Rather was going to run a bombshell report on 60 Minutes based on the document,” Bush wrote. “Bartlett asked if I remembered the memo. I told him I had no recollection of it and asked him to check it out.
“The next morning, Dan walked into the Oval Office looking relieved. He told me there were indications that the document had been forged. The typeface came from a modern computer font that didn’t exist in the early 1970s.”
Though Bush does not specify exactly when these conversations took place relative to the program, they suggest that the White House had a more central role in launching the right-wing blogger attacks over “forged” documents than was known at the time. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush Gloats Over Dan Rather’s Ouster.”]
The counterattack from rightwing web sites followed the attack line laid out by Bartlett. The bloggers ignored the interviews about Bush being AWOL and focused solely on whether the documents were genuine or if a Microsoft Word program on a computer created them.
Once the first critiques were published, the attacks on CBS spread throughout the conservative blogosphere, then conservative talk radio, and next onto Fox News, before becoming a hot topic in the MSM.
The IBM Selectric
The bloggers’ claim was that the IBM Selectric typewriter that Killian supposedly used to type his memos lacked technical features regarding types of fonts, superscripting and proportional spacing. But the Bush defenders were wrong. IBM’s Selectric typewriters did possess those features, meaning that the documents could have been typed back then. (ibid, pgs. 194-203)
The CBS experts had anticipated this line of attack. But what shocked Mapes was that even though the critics were proved wrong, that didn’t seem to matter as the MSM joined in the rush to judgment against CBS. Again, the attacks did not focus on the substance of the report the interviews indicating that the sitting president of the United States had essentially been a wartime deserter but on the trustworthiness of the Killian documents.
Rather than resist the media stampede, CBS president Andrew Heyward joined in trampling his reporting team. Heyward decided to rid CBS of the problem and satisfy CEO Leslie Moonves who never cared much for investigative reporting by appointing a blue-ribbon panel that certainly couldn’t be criticized for being biased against Bush, quite rather the opposite.
Also, if the panel did its job correctly and issued a scathing critique of Mapes and her team Heyward could begin to reorganize the news department and swing the nightly news more to “infotainment,” supposedly a more profitable approach to “news.”
Though Rather first resisted the growing attacks seeing them as par for the course when trying to hold a powerful person accountable he soon saw the writing on the wall. He apparently hoped to salvage the situation by issuing an apology.
In her book, Mapes describes Rather’s call in which he informs her about his apology and the appointment of the Thornburgh-Boccardi panel. Mapes wrote she started weeping at the news, because she understood that she was finished. (ibid, p. 230)
And she was. The Thornburgh-Boccardi panel was anything but independent. It was an appendage of Heyward and Moonves — and protective of President Bush. The panel had a job in front of it: to convict those involved with the segment, no matter what the real facts of the case were.
Boccardi, known inside the AP as a careerist bureaucrat who also was uncomfortable with investigative journalism, was mostly a front, the token “journalist.” The other key participants in the inquiry were attorneys with Thornburgh’s law firm. Therefore, Mapes would not be judged by a panel of working journalists using journalistic standards, but by prosecuting attorneys chosen and paid for by Heyward and Moonves.
People who cared about real journalism noted the bias and flaws in the inquiry. New York Times former corporate counsel James C. Goodale, who argued landmark freedom-of-the-press cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, dissected the Thornburgh-Boccardi report in an article in New York Review of Books.
His article was so trenchant that Thornburgh and Boccardi made the mistake of replying to it. Goodale’s rebuttal was even more compelling. Suffice it to say that the panel never tried to determine if the Killian documents were genuine, probably because, as time went on, more and more evidence emerged that a computer or word processor could not have created the documents.
Extreme blow-ups revealed evidence of wear on certain letters of the typeface, a sign that a real typewriter, not some word-processing software, was used. (ibid, p. 329)
Mapes’s Truth and Duty was a strong and energetic reply to the forces that combined to torpedo her career, retire Rather from CBS, and intimidate network investigative reporting. Mapes argues that the last point was particularly effective. I wouldn’t go as far as that, since I think those forces were at work long before 2004. If they weren’t, then the whole Bush/TANG issue would have come up for serious examination in 2000.
Making a Movie
Screenwriter James Vanderbilt evidently liked Mapes’s book. His credits had included movies, such as Zodiac and The Amazing Spider Man. However, when he finally got a chance to direct a film, he picked Truth and Duty.
Vanderbilt also resisted the Hollywood impulse to overly fictionalize real events. He kept the script very close to the book. As far as I could tell, whatever alterations were quite minor.
Vanderbilt begins the film, entitled simply “Truth,” on the eve of the November 2004 election, well after Mapes had been banished from CBS, and the Thornburgh-Boccardi panel had been appointed. We glimpse her in her attorney’s office. I thought this was a good way to start the movie, since it left the implication that Mapes’s fate would be impacted by the election and also that her story, if properly handled, could have decided that election.
We then flashback to the days after the Abu Ghraib story appeared, when Mapes and Rather still had their careers. We see Rather getting an award and Mapes playing with her young son in her Dallas home.
After the success of the Abu Ghraib story, she’s approached by new “60 Minutes II” producers who want her to pitch them a story idea. She chooses whether Bush ducked out on his National Guard duty. We then watch as the story is built, including Barnes being caught on private video camera boasting about getting Bush into the TANG.
But as the film dramatically shows, there were two reversals to the story that proved disastrous to Mapes. First, Burkett apparently misrepresented where and how he got the Killian documents. He told her that they were given to him by a National Guard higher-up named George Conn, who worked at a level above Killian.
However, after the segment aired — and the controversy was swirling — Burkett told CBS executives that his earlier account was not accurate, a deception that he said was meant to stop Mapes from pestering him about the documents’ provenance.
In his revised account, he said he got the documents from a woman named Lucy Ramirez, who then asked him to burn the copies that she gave him after he had copied them.
Flipping the Script
CBS New president Heyward understood how badly this revision reflected on the story. So, he asked Burkett to do an on-camera interview discussing it. Burkett agreed to do so. But, as the film shows, Heyward, through prime-time news vice president Betsy West, used this interview to demean Burkett and take some of the stigma away from CBS.
We watch as West pens note after note to give to Mapes, who gives them to Rather, each one trying to transfer blame onto Burkett until finally Mapes will not cooperate anymore and finally neither will Rather.
After the interview is over, Burkett’s wife comes out of their room at the hotel and is asked how her husband is doing. We know he is not doing well because we just saw him taking oxygen for a neurological ailment that afflicts him.
The wife laces into the New York media bigwigs for taking advantage of people like her and her husband, pretending to be interested in their lives when they aren’t, for using them and spitting them out at the end of the process. This sequence is probably the dramatic high point of the film, and much of its power comes from the vivid performances of Stacy Keach as Burkett and Noni Hazlehurst as his wife Nicki.
The other reversal for Mapes was when Hodges finally did look at the Killian documents and gave his opinion that they were not genuine. He added that when Mapes first described their contents to him, he thought they were handwritten.
The obvious question is whether these later interviews were influenced by the initial misguided furor over the capabilities of Selectric typewriters and whether the political significance of the controversy affected what was said later. As Mapes wrote in her book, once her blood was in the water, it quickly became a maelstrom.
The Mapes Portrayal
In the movie, Mapes is portrayed by Australian actress Cate Blanchett, a versatile, technically sure actress who is always in control of what she does. Her best moment is when Mapes learns that her father, a Republican, has joined in the public pummeling of her by calling into a talk radio station. Blanchett/Mapes, in a desperate, plaintive request, begs him to stop participating in his daughter’s public humiliation.
In the movie, there are two other scenes that I thought were visually arresting. When Mapes and her lawyer are ushered into the Thornburgh-Boccardi panel’s office, the camera swirls quickly to show us just how large the panel is — so large that it takes up two levels of tables and chairs in front of the witness.
The second directorial flourish is when Rather played by Robert Redford calls Mapes to tell her that he is being removed as anchor of the CBS Evening News, a position he held for nearly a quarter of a century. He is calling her from the exterior balcony of his penthouse in New York and he gets to the point of the call circuitously. He recalls that CBS first understood that it could really make big money off the news department with the success of “60 Minutes” on Sunday evenings.
Mapes senses that something is wrong or why would he call her at night to tell her that. Then, Rather lets her in on his removal.
As the conversation ends, the camera pulls back to a panoramic shot of the New York skyline, as Redford/Rather slowly lowers his head. It’s a subtle visual strophe which epitomizes a man who has lost everything that is dear to him in the world.
Redford’s Two Roles
There is also poignancy in the choice of Robert Redford to play Dan Rather. Earlier in his career, Redford played Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men,” a rendition of The Washington Post’s famous Watergate investigation that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. That story, set mostly in 1972, represented a different moment for the mainstream news media, a brief period when U.S. journalism sought to hold powerful officials accountable and did a much better job of informing the American people about government wrongdoing.
Late in “All the President’s Men,” Woodward and his colleague, Carl Bernstein, make a mistake by assuming that a witness had mentioned a name before the Watergate grand jury when he hadn’t because he wasn’t asked. Yet, instead of throwing the two reporters to the wolves for this error, Post executive editor Ben Bradlee decides to stand behind his reporters.
The movie, “Truth,” is a counterpoint to that earlier, more heroic moment of American journalism. Instead of backing brave reporters who got the story right even if the process was imperfect and messy, the new generation of news executives simply protects the corporation, shields the powerful, and sacrifices the honest journalists.
It’s also interesting that “Truth” appears almost exactly a year after Jeremy Renner’s “Kill the Messenger,” the account of how investigative journalist Gary Webb was destroyed by the mainstream press particularly The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times for disclosing the impact of cocaine trafficking by President Ronald Reagan’s beloved Nicaraguan Contras.
In this Contra-cocaine case, the major newspapers had largely ignored the scandal when it was first reported by AP reporters Robert Parry and Brian Barger in 1985 and even when it was the subject of a Senate investigative report by Sen. John Kerry in 1989.
When Webb revived the story in 1996 for the San Jose Mercury News focusing on how some Contra cocaine fed into the crack epidemic the MSM refused to reconsider its cowardly bad judgment of the 1980s and instead made Webb and some alleged shortcomings in his three-part series the issue.
The demonization of Webb continued even after the CIA’s Inspector General Frederick Hitz issued two reports confirming that the Contras had been deeply involved in the drug trade and that the CIA was aware of the problem but chose to protect its clients for geopolitical reasons rather than blow the whistle on their crimes. The blacklisting of Webb from his profession led to his suicide in 2004. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “How the Washington Press Turned Bad.”]
The two films have outwardly different subjects, but share a similar theme: how hard it is to tell the truth about difficult subjects in today’s corporate-controlled MSM news centers.
In both films, the central characters are remarkably successful news reporters who decide to pursue a subject that is anathema to the interests of the Establishment. They fail to understand the power of the forces arrayed against them, even when the counterattacks begin to pick up steam. They end up being victims of the corporate bureaucracies that they work for.
Although both stories are sad tales — no happy, triumphant endings — the fact that the films were made is encouraging because the public now can see how difficult it is to be an honest reporter in today’s environment. The powers available to stop serious investigative journalism in America are awesome and intimidating. Mary Mapes didn’t stand a chance.
James DiEugenio is a researcher and writer on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and other mysteries of that era. His most recent book is Reclaiming Parkland.