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Redford Fights Rather’s Good Fight
November 5, 2015  | By Eric Mink  | 2 comments
 

[Editor's note: Eric Mink, one of my former colleagues at the New York Daily News and an emeritus contributor to TVWW, recently posted a story on the Jewish Light about the new movie about Dan Rather's controversial George W. Bush report on CBS, with a fresh interview with Rather as part of the story. We asked to reprint it, and Eric nicely said yes. So here it is… —David Bianculli]

“He didn’t try to do a caricature or an impression,” Dan Rather told me. “He just tried to capture some of the essence of the person.”

Rather was sharing his thoughts about Robert Redford’s performance in the role of Dan Rather in the movie Truth, which opened in theaters on Oct. 30. The film dramatizes real-life events detailed in the 2006 book Truth and Duty, by Mary Mapes, a former award-winning 60 Minutes producer at CBS News. Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett plays Mapes.

“I have not been involved in it [the production of Truth]," Rather said in a phone interview on Halloween — his 84th birthday. “I talked to Redford twice, once on the phone, during his preparations. I know he picked up some of my speech patterns, but I don’t know quite what to make of it. Seeing oneself portrayed on screen in film is a surreal experience.” (Rather and Mapes with Redford, left.)

It would be even more surreal if the art of Truth proves more potent than non-fiction has been so far in vindicating the reputations of two honored television journalists who were all but bludgeoned out of their positions in 2005 for reporting an important story.

Rather, arguably the most bull-dogged of network correspondents since Edward R. Murrow and a relentless advocate for journalism’s crucial role in a democracy, was forced to step down a year early after 24 years as anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News -– and more than 40 years at CBS News overall. Among other notable pieces, Mapes broke the story of American soldiers and intelligence operatives torturing and abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
 
None of that counted 11 years ago, after Mapes, Rather and a small CBS investigative team collaborated on a story that pursued serious questions about George W. Bush’s service in the late 1960s and early 1970s — during the Vietnam War — as a pilot with the Texas Air National Guard.

The report, for which Rather served as anchor and on-camera interviewer, aired as two segments of 60 Minutes Wednesday on Sept. 8, 2004, just two months before the election in which then-President Bush was seeking reelection against the Democrats’ candidate, Sen. John Kerry.

The segments built on background work Mapes had done years earlier and on published reporting by other news organizations that indicated Bush had received preferential treatment to get into the Guard; that, once in, Bush failed to maintain performance standards and abide by regulations covering pilots; that he was allowed to transfer to a Guard unit in Alabama for non-military reasons; that it was unclear whether he actually performed any Guard duties in Alabama; and that there were glaring gaps in Bush’s official military record.

The CBS segment added an on-the-record admission by Ben Barnes, a former Texas lieutenant governor and House speaker (and a Kerry campaign official at the time), that he had obliged a request to do the family of George H.W. Bush a favor in the late-1960s: He recommended Bush’s hard-playing son George W. for a spot in the Texas Guard, where sons of influential Texans (Republicans and Democrats alike) could fulfill military obligations without the risks of combat in Vietnam.

Mapes, Rather (with Blanchett and Redford, left) and their team also reported that the commanding officer of Bush’s Texas Air Guard squadron, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, who died in 1984, was angry with Bush for failing to meet his obligations and ignoring instructions. Killian, CBS reported, also believed he and his immediate superiors were under pressure from higher-ups to overlook Bush’s shortcomings.

One of those immediate supervisors, Maj. Gen. Bobby Hodges, had spoken to Mapes by phone and confirmed that those statements accurately reflected Killian’s beliefs and feelings, the story said.
Even before the program was over, the Internet had exploded in a firestorm of criticism, which focused on photocopies that a former Texas Guard officer had given CBS. They were copies of what appeared to be memos about the Bush situation Killian had generated for his personal files.

Although Hodges had confirmed their accuracy with respect to Killian’s feelings (and, a week later, so did Killian’s squadron secretary/typist, Marian Carr Knox, though she didn’t type them), the criticisms insisted that the photocopies contained typographical signs that the originals were produced via computer technology, not by the manual typewriters in use in the ’60s and ’70s.

Never mind that the multi-generations of photocopies on top of multiple fax transmissions made it impossible to say anything definitive about the unavailable originals. Never mind that many document experts won’t even examine photocopies or issue opinions based on them. Two of CBS’ hired experts, for example, would say only that Killian’s signatures and initials on the photocopies looked consistent with those on other original documents in official files.

And never mind that Mapes had subjected the content details of the photocopies to an intense comparative review of the consistency of time periods, names, locations, titles, abbreviations, chain of command and so on, and found no anomalies.

The Internet attacks, initially appearing on fiercely conservative websites, soon spread to traditional news organizations, which likewise concentrated on questions about the photocopies.

After days of fruitless and sometimes backfiring defenses, CBS news and corporate executives began backpedaling. The corporate side hired a two-person panel to investigate how CBS News produced the report. One of them was Dick Thornburgh, a former U.S. Attorney General appointed by President Ronald Reagan and reappointed by President George H.W. Bush, George W.’s dad. Thornburgh’s law firm staff handled the legwork and arranged questioning sessions that, oddly, were not transcribed.

Rather didn’t wait for the panel’s final report. In November 2004, he announced he would step down as Evening News anchor in March 2005, a year earlier than he had planned. He was told that he would continue working after that as a correspondent for 60 Minutes, but that assurance proved hollow.

After Rather’s announcement, I wrote in my St. Louis Post-Dispatch Op-Ed column that the underlying facts of the Bush story were still compelling, despite the documents having proved to be forgeries. I was wrong about the latter. No definitive conclusion about the never-seen originals has ever been reached, not even by the CBS-hired panel.

Mapes was fired and three senior news executives were forced to resign when the report came out in January 2005.

A stunning critique by former New York Times general counsel James C. Goodale ripped the report to pieces soon after.

And a 2012 investigation by Joe Hagen for Texas Monthly suggested that Mapes and Rather’s CBS News report barely scratched the surface of the political snake pit and deceptions surrounding Bush and the Texas Air National Guard story.

Truth, which grabbed and held me both times I saw it, obviously tells the story from Mapes’ perspective, and it’s also consistent with Rather’s account of the episode in Rather Outspoken, a memoir he released in 2012.

I don’t know whether many people care about the issues of fairness, independence, honor and courage the movie explores, but I know they matter. Truth, Rather told me, shows “the bone and gristle of television reporting.” And, I think, the heart.

 
 
 
 
 
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2 Comments
 
 
Wayne Schell
I do not know why this story is not being told. The former President trashed Kerry's military record during that campaign while hiding the facts about his own service record. I think it is outrageous.
Jul 12, 2017   |  Reply
 
 
Adrienne Gallagher
I saw the film, was captivated, and was convinced that this was the truth.
Nov 7, 2015   |  Reply
 
 
 
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