‘Truth’ puts its namesake on trial

“Truth” (2015). Cast: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood, Stacy Keach, John Benjamin Hickey, David Lyons, Dermot Mulroney, Rachael Blake, Andrew McFarlane, Noni Hazlehurst, Philip Quast, Nicholas Hope, Steve Bastoni, Helmut Bakaitis, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, Tom Brokaw (archive footage), George Stephanopoulos (archive footage). Director: James Vanderbilt. Screenplay: James Vanderbilt. Book: Mary Mapes, Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power. Web site. Trailer.

Getting to the heart of a matter seems like it should be a fairly simple, straightforward process, correct? Not necessarily. As a leading news organization found out in a very high-profile (and subsequently embarrassing) investigation, definitive conclusions may be more elusive than one might think, a story reconstructed in the recently released docudrama, “Truth.”

On September 8, 2004, the CBS News magazine 60 Minutes II aired an investigative report that held the potential to be a real bombshell. The report, researched and written by longtime producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) and presented by veteran anchorman Dan Rather (Robert Redford), purported to reveal evidence proving that President George W. Bush had allegedly shirked his duty during his service as a Texas Air National Guard pilot from 1968 to 1974. The piece asserted that Bush had not only exploited family connections and political privilege to avoid fighting in the Vietnam War, but that he had also failed for many months to fulfill his most basic Guard obligation ‒ showing up on base.

Mapes and her team of researchers (Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss) had scrambled under a tight deadline to put the story together, combining on-air eyewitness testimony and information from newly disclosed documents to make their case. At the time of the broadcast, Mapes and company felt confident that the story was solid. And, in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, the “Bush-Guard” story was seen to have potentially profound ramifications.

But, within days of when the story broke, Bush’s military service record was no longer the focus of media and public scrutiny. Instead, 60 Minutes, Mapes and Rather came under question. The documents supporting the investigation were denounced as forgeries, and the 60 Minutes staff was accused of shoddy journalism or, perhaps worse, of being duped.

The firestorm of controversy immediately placed CBS News under the microscope, causing a public relations nightmare for publicity chief Gil Schwartz (Steve Bastoni), senior vice president Betsy West (Rachael Blake) and news division president Andrew Heyward (Bruce Greenwood). An intensive independent investigation was subsequently launched co-chaired by Richard Thornburgh (Helmut Bakaitis), former US Attorney General under President George H.W. Bush, father of the then-sitting chief executive, and Louis Boccardi (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), former CEO of the Associated Press. The panel’s findings led to a sweeping housecleaning at CBS News, including Mapes’s firing and Rather’s premature retirement. This change effectively altered the landscape of American journalism, rearranging it in ways from which it has never fully recovered.

How did this happen? Essentially, the story that plays out in “Truth” hinges on what we believe, the basis of how our reality comes into being through the conscious creation process. Analyzing the situation involved posing some key questions: Was Mapes’s investigation an example of solid journalism, as she contended? Or was it a case of sloppy research without adequate confirmation or attribution?

Given Mapes’s track record, she was considered a stellar producer, having earned widespread acclaim for breaking such blockbuster stories as the infamous Abu Ghraib military prison abuse scandal involving US troops serving in Iraq. And Rather, the veteran anchor famous for his reporting of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, was considered one of American journalism’s most respected icons. Their work typically went unquestioned, and, for the most part, such was the case with the “Bush-Guard” story as it was being put together.

But, as elements of the report came under scrutiny after its broadcast, so, too, did the research methods of the 60 Minutes team. The testimony of one of the report’s principal sources, Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach), a former Guard lieutenant colonel, came into question when it became apparent he told different stories to different CBS investigators. And, given that Burkett was also the source of the alleged damaging documents, their authenticity came into question, especially when it was revealed that they contained typographical elements not common at the time of their supposed creation and were more likely produced using contemporary word processing software. Burkett’s dislike of Bush didn’t help CBS’s case, either.

Suddenly, the story was not about Bush’s service record but about the legitimacy of the evidence condemning him. Public sentiment quickly shifted in support of the President and against CBS. The beliefs driving this change thus altered the overarching nature of the story as it unfolded. And this occurred in spite of the research team’s contentions that producing the supposed forgeries (as many critics now claimed the documents were) would have required Herculean efforts beyond all reasonable credibility, a central contention behind the investigators’ belief that their story was solid.

This is where the power of discernment comes into play where beliefs are concerned. In this case, the key belief question for the public was, which argument do you believe? Did the CBS team do its job and draw the correct conclusions? Or did some unseen supporter/protector of the President lay a trap for the news organization, concocting fraudulent evidence of a fabricated claim in an effort to discredit it and to squelch its dissemination of any information that might possibly harm Bush’s reelection bid? (This second scenario is not entirely implausible, especially if word of CBS’s efforts had somehow leaked to those backing the President. As Rather confides to one of his colleagues during the investigation, Mapes had actually been on the trail of this story as far back as 2000 ‒ before Bush was initially elected ‒ but was prevented from following through due to the death of her mother at the time. Had Mapes’s mother not become ill and died, Rather then adds, Al Gore might very well have been elected instead.)

Similarly, one might rightfully question the motivations of the organizations and individuals at work here. Was 60 Minutes’ story an attempt by the so-called “liberal media” to unfairly brand a conservative politician up for reelection with a stigma that would be difficult to counter? Also, given Mapes’s upbringing as the daughter of a father who allegedly abused her (and her self-acknowledged vocational penchant for taking on those who would willfully bully others, as many contended characterized the Bush presidency), isn’t it possible that her own experience may have turned the story into a de facto vendetta, one that she would want reported at all costs, even if the evidence didn’t necessarily bear it out, simply because of what she thought it symbolically represented to her personally?

Those who defended the President in the wake of this report – either in an official capacity or otherwise – naturally took a different tact. They believed (or at least convinced others to believe) that Bush was a victim of unfair and inaccurate reporting. In doing so, they also deflected attention away from the President’s supposed military record, focusing instead on the credibility of the minutiae of the investigation. Rather than promoting a dialogue about the truth or falsity of the report’s contentions, Bush’s supporters instead turned the story into a conversation about type fonts, letter spacing and Burkett’s reliability. The public was thus asked, are these seemingly incidental matters enough to undermine the larger claims put forth by 60 Minutes?

In all of the foregoing instances, the public’s beliefs ultimately determined the outcome, a classic example of a mass-created event. They were apparently convinced that doubt about the validity of the evidence was sufficient enough to call the CBS report into question, regardless of the strength of the research team’s overriding arguments. This, of course, raises the crucial question, why? Why was the general public so willing to dismiss the findings of a long-respected news organization over what some would say was a counterargument that was just as flimsy as the evidence that CBS’s detractors called into question? Indeed, how does one outlook prevail in the face of two equally potent, yet ultimately diametrically opposed viewpoints?

To answer this question, one must look at the predominant perspective of the masses at the time. In a country still railing from the anguish of the 9/11 attacks and relishing its “victory” in the Iraq War, many likely believed it would be difficult to withdraw their support for a leader who they contended got the US through those difficult times, especially when the evidence attempting to take him down could arguably be looked upon as specious at best. This is not to suggest that there weren’t those who disagreed with this outlook; however, the belief power of the masses supporting the dominant view was obviously strong enough to hold sway in the face of the opposition, even when such supposedly damning evidence was promulgated by a news organization as respected as CBS.

In light of that, then, one can’t help but ask why those who came out on the losing end of this controversy contributed to the scenario’s creation as they did. Perhaps it had something to do with helping to draw attention to the erosion of journalism as a profession. Given the decline in investigative reporting that had been escalating in the years leading up to this debate, one might contend that the manifestation of a high-profile controversy such as this was necessary to draw attention to (and hopefully to help curtail) this unfortunate trend. If a news organization as esteemed as 60 Minutes could fall prey to such an assault, then investigative journalism itself was being put on trial. And, if that could happen to such a valuable watchdog of truth, then maybe concerned citizens had better pay attention to what’s really going on with the flow of information coming out of mainstream media outlets, especially with regard to how effectively such organizations are able to do their jobs.

Based on the outcome of the foregoing, it would seem that the public was not ready to deal with this issue at that time, no matter how in your face it may have been. But, given the ongoing decline that has occurred in the profession since then, perhaps this is something we had better start paying attention to while we still have the time to address it. Maybe this film will help to generate renewed awareness of this question, even if the initial incident itself did not.

“Truth” is a generally engaging autopsy of one of the most controversial news stories of the 2004 presidential election campaign, with a narrative that fuses elements of such docudramas as “The Insider” (1999) and “Fair Game” (2010). The film is as much a eulogy for modern journalism overall as it is for the particular incident in question here, truly sad (but hopefully motivating) in many respects. Admittedly, the picture would have benefitted from a better script, one that was a little clearer in telling its story and that employed a less heavy-handed approach (despite its heart being in the right place). This shortcoming aside, though, the film features a fine ensemble cast, with a particularly noteworthy performance by Blanchett, who proves once again that she can do virtually whatever she wants on screen and succeed brilliantly.

Truth can be a tricky concept to get our hands around, mainly because it’s governed by our beliefs. Because of that, “truth” arguably could be said to be relative for each of us. Nevertheless, when we seek to determine the “real” character of what we consider to be the truth, we must earnestly employ our power of discernment to discover what really matters most, putting distractions, diversions and red herrings in their place (especially when they’re intentionally employed to promote beliefs that obfuscate key considerations). By engaging in this practice, we should be able to uncover what we’re meant to find in order to create a reality that ultimately benefits us all, one genuinely based on truth.

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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