Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Just let it go, man...

Last Friday, the new film Truth opened in theaters across the country, six of them to be precise. The film is based on the book Truth and Duty: The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power by Mary Mapes, the former CBS News producer who was sacked in 2005 in the aftermath of "Rathergate" (what a stupid name for a scandal), i.e. the Killian documents controversy.

For those who may have forgotten, the controversy revolved around some memos obtained by CBS News in 2004 and supposedly written by Colonel Jerry B. Killian, George W. Bush's commanding officer in the Texas Air Guard from 1972-1973. The memos painted an unflattering portrait of Bush, insofar as they indicated he wanted and received special treatment in the Guard, but had also been grounded for failing to meet certain requirements.

All in all, these were hardly mother-of-all-scandals kinds of accusations, but given that this report aired just a few months prior to the tightly contested 2004 Presidential Election, they were viewed as potentially very damaging, if not devastating to the Bush campaign. But shortly after the Sixty Minutes II segment on the documents aired—with Dan Rather doing the reporting—the story began to fall apart. It turned out that the documents had been supplied to CBS—to Mapes—by a long-time critic of Bush, retired Texas Air Guard Colonel Bill Burkett. And Burkett, conveniently, faxed the documents to Mapes and then later claimed to have destroyed the originals.

The story within the story here is that of a reckless pursuit of a scandal on the part of Mapes, Rather, and others at CBS News. When shots of the memos were made available, it was immediately noticed by many that the typeset was inconsistent with manual typewriters, which was odd since the memos dated from the early 70's. Instead, the typeset was wholly consistent with the default settings of Microsoft Word, circa 2004. Obviously, the memos appeared to be forgeries and even a cursory attempt to authenticate them would have made this clear. A point of additional convenience was that the supposed author of the memos, again Colonel Jerry Killian, had recently passed away.

Nonetheless, Mapes and Rather decided to run with the story, apparently based on some interviews with others who served with Killian and who declined to declare that the documents were false. Let's be clear here, this was the standard used by Mapes and apparently allowed by Rather: no independent verification of the documents, just interviews with people who essentially said "yeah, I guess they might be real."

The aftermath of the airing of the story is well known: CBS apologized for it, Mapes was sacked, and Rather and a few others involved were forced to resign. Yet even after everything in the story had fallen apart, even after Burkett had admitted to lying to Mapes, both Mapes and Rather stood by the story, with Rather infamously proclaiming that he still believed the story was true, even if the documents were false. Rather even filed a $70 million lawsuit against CBS News, claiming that the company had scapegoated him (it was eventually dismissed in full by the New York State Appeals Court).

For her part, Mapes chose to defend herself with an entire book on this episode, as noted above, though much of the book is just polemical. And she apparently still insists that she did nothing wrong, still insists that the memos have not been proven to be forgeries, obliquely unaware that it is impossible to prove anything in this regard, given that no one has ever actually seen the originals. But a portion of her book is worth quoting here:
It was another day of exhausted exultation [the day after the story first aired]. I got congratulatory e-mails, phone calls, and pats on the back. Other reporters called repeatedly as they worked to catch up to my story. I was thrilled.

All that changed about 11:00 a.m., when I first started hearing rumbles from some producers at CBS News that a handful of far right Web sites were saying that the documents had been forged.

I was incredulous. That couldn't be possible. Even on the morning the story aired, when we showed the president's people the memos, the White House hadn't attempted to deny the truth of the documents. In fact, the president's spokesman, Dan Bartlett, had claimed that the documents supported their version of events: that then-lieutenant Bush had asked for permission to leave the unit.

Within a few minutes, I was online visiting Web sites I had never heard of before: Free Republic, Little Green Footballs, Power Line. They were hard-core, politically angry, hyperconservative sites loaded with vitriol about Dan Rather and CBS. Our work was being compared to that of Jayson Blair, the discredited New York Times reporter who had fabricated and plagiarized stories.

All these Web sites had extensive write-ups on the documents: on typeface, font style, and peripheral spacing, material that seemed to spring up overnight. It was phenomenal. It had taken our analysts hours of careful work to make comparisons. It seemed that these analysts or commentators -- or whatever they were -- were coming up with long treatises in minutes. They were all linking to one another, creating an echo chamber of outraged agreement.
Granted, this was 2004, but even then the internet was something of an investigative force (and of course a font of misinformation). With so many people having so many different levels of expertise and prepared to analyze things like documents and pictures, the fact that these documents were exposed so quickly is just not all that surprising. Mapes appears to not have understood this at all. And again, her claim that her analysts had done "careful work" to validate the documents doesn't hold water.

Because of the spectacular and costly nature of this scandal, there were rumblings of gaslighting almost immediately, rumblings which live on today and are still acknowledged or at least not denied by Mapes, Rather, and others. In this tin-foiled version of events, Karl Rove or someone like him set this all up to bring down Rather; the documents were forged by conservative operatives and passed on to a dupe—Burkett—who could be counted on to pass them to someone in the media (how it was known he would choose Mapes is, of course, never explained). Thus, the response to the story from the "hyperconservative sites" was all prepared beforehand. They were just waiting for the report to air so they could "expose" it as a pack of lies.

The scandal consequently has a two-pronged criticsim: 1) no one ever proved the documents were false and the story was actually true, and 2) it was all an ingenuous set-up.

So, like many great political scandals, this one lives on for some. But for none moreso than Mapes and Rather. And from this rather pathetic refusal to accept reality springs Truth, the movie.

Fair enough, I haven't seen it yet. I might, if it ever gets to a theater near me, though I'm not holding my breath in that regard.

The film stars Robert Redford as Rather and Cate Blanchett as Mapes. By all accounts, the movie is largely a panegyric to both, as it presents them simultaneously as warriors for truth and victims of the powers-that-be, regardless of whether the reviewer likes or dislikes the movie. The people at CBS don't think much of the movie at all, having said in a statement:
It’s astounding how little truth there is in Truth. There are, in fact, too many distortions, evasions and baseless conspiracy theories to enumerate them all. The film tries to turn gross errors of journalism and judgment into acts of heroism and martyrdom. That’s a disservice not just to the public but to journalists across the world who go out every day and do everything within their power, sometimes at great risk to themselves, to get the story right.
To which the filmmakers have replied:
Although we understand CBS wants to put this episode behind them, it’s disappointing that they seem to be so concerned about our film. The events depicted in Truth are still vigorously debated, and that’s a good thing. It’s a fascinating story at the intersection of politics, media and corporate America and features powerhouse performances from Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford and the rest of the cast. We hope people will see the film and judge for themselves.
Which is a bunch of self-congratulatory bullshit, pardon my French. The events aren't "still vigorously debated," except on fringe websites and at dinner parties attended by Mapes and Rather. And there's no intersection of forces here, just an improperly vetted story rushed on to the air by people looking to score with a big scandal in the middle of a presidential race. And the really funny thing here is that the scandal wasn't really much of a scandal. If the memos had actually been authentic, they would have amounted to very little, in my opinion (which, of course, feeds the gaslighting twist).

I'm sure Redford and Blanchett play their parts well, both being fine actors, but they're not playing real people, they're playing obvious caricatures, for the purposes of mounting holier-than-thou soapboxes in a film that can only preach to the choir (the choir being the left wing lunatic fringe). To me, it looks like Redford is imagining reliving the glory days of All the President's Men, only he's trying to do it through a prism of stupidity, driven on by a couple of people who just can't let things go. It's actually a little sad.

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