Robert Redford Fights Dan Rather's Good Fight

"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 described 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 our phone call 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."

It would be even more surreal if art proves to be 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 network correspondent since Edward R. Murrow and a steadfast 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 had broken the story of Abu Ghraib on television, revealing that some American soldiers and intelligence operatives had tortured and abused prisoners in Iraq.

None of that counted for much 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 Democratic 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-camera admission by Ben Barnes, a former Texas lieutenant governor and House speaker (and a Kerry campaign official at the time). Barnes said that he had obliged a request to do the family of George H.W. Bush a favor in the late-1960s by recommending Bush's hard-playing son George W. for a spot in the Texas Air National Guard, where sons of influential Texans (Republicans and Democrats alike) could fulfill military obligations without the risks of combat in Vietnam.

Mapes, Rather 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 about Bush having failed to meet his obligations and having ignored instructions. Killian, CBS reported, also believed he and his immediate superiors were under pressure from higher-ups to overlook Bush's failings.

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 that 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 written or dictated by Killian for his personal files. The critics insisted that typographical details in the photocopies indicated that the originals had been produced via computer technology, not by the manual typewriters in use in the 60s and 70s.

Never mind that many of the critics' typographical claims were later undermined or even disproved by similar details found in official records from the era. Never mind that reaching solid conclusions about unseen originals based on multi-generations of photocopies further distorted by multiple fax transmissions is virtually impossible and, thus, a suspect practice generally avoided by experts in the field. Two of CBS' hired experts, for example, would say only that Killian's signatures and initials on the photocopies looked consistent with those on original documents in official files.

Never mind that Killian's superior, Hodges, had confirmed the photocopies' accuracy with respect to Killian's feelings and continued to do so even after the broadcast when he suddenly asserted the opinion that originals no one had seen were not genuine. Never mind that a week after the broadcast, Killian's squadron secretary/typist, Marian Carr Knox, likewise affirmed that the photocopies reflected Killian's true beliefs about Bush's service, although she said she didn't type the memos and expressed doubts about any originals.

And never mind that Mapes had subjected the content details referenced in the photocopies to an intense comparative review with official military records for consistency with 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 withered under the relentless assault and ordered Rather to read an on-air apology for having run the story. It cited an inability to authenticate the photocopies and said nothing about having confirmed the information contained in those photocopies.

CBS' corporate chiefs then hired a two-person panel to investigate how their own news division produced the report. One of the two people 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 leg work and prepared 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 sooner 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. But I also wrote, as did many others, that the documents had proved to be forgeries. I was wrong about that. No authoritative conclusion about the never-seen originals has ever been reached, as even the CBS-hired panel acknowledged.

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

A few months later, a stunning critique by former New York Times general counsel James C. Goodale ripped the report to pieces.

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 still care about the issues of fairness, independence, honor and courage the movie explores, even if it does get preachy in spots. But I know these things matter.

"Truth," Rather told me, shows "the bone and gristle of television reporting." And, I think, the heart.