They say truth is the first casualty of war. And a variety of interests, from Viacom and CBS to Bush family loyalists and right-wing zealots, hope the same fate awaits the provocative new film, Truth.
Directed by James Vanderbilt, Truth tells the story of 2004's controversial 60 Minutes II broadcast questioning George W. Bush's military service record. It stars Robert Redford as Dan Rather and Cate Blanchett as producer Mary Mapes. This time, Truth prevails.
The film is not so much about Bush's tarnished record and his uncertain number of days served in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. Those issues are revisited, of course. But the movie instead focuses on the poignant personal stories of Rather, Mapes and others involved in the 2004 news broadcast. And the film shines an unflatteringly bright light on news media ownership in the Era of Corporate Media Consolidation.
By casting Redford as Rather, the filmmakers hinted at their intentions. Redford, of course, played Bob Woodward in All the President's Men, the superb 1976 film about Watergate and the Golden Era of Independent Journalism. Now Redford appears as Rather in a film about the death of that Golden Era.
The juxtaposition is startling. On one side we have the courageous, muscular leadership of the Washington Post's editor, Ben Bradlee, during Watergate. On the other there are the media moguls of Viacom and CBS during the Bush/National Guard affair.
In one of their Watergate stories for the Post, Woodward and Carl Bernstein made an assertion that the Nixon White House immediately seized upon in an effort to discredit Watergate reporting generally. They reported that a federal grand jury was told that Bob Haldeman controlled Nixon's notorious campaign slush fund. But Haldeman hadn't been named. That particular grand jury hadn't asked the question.
Still, it turned out to be very, very true that Haldeman controlled the slush fund used to pay for the Watergate burglary and other covert operations. In other words, Woodward and Bernstein's story was true even if a piece of their reporting was vulnerable to attack.
Bradlee remained undaunted. "We stand by our story," he said publicly. In the film he says to his team, "F... it. Let's stand by the boys." In their book, All the President's Men, Woodward and Carl Bernstein recall Bradlee's reaction at the time:
Bradlee said he had never seen anything like this before. Skeptical but shaken, he said that the problem was no longer just journalistic. He mentioned something about the state and the future of the country.
The movie gives Bradlee a more dramatic version of this speech, one many say earned Jason Robards, who played Bradlee, an Acadamy Award (The Hollywood Reporter has a clip of this powerful scene on its web site):
Nothing's riding on this except the, uh, First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys f... up again, I'm going to get mad. Good night.
Flash forward to the Sept. 8, 2004 60 Minutes II report on Bush and the Guard. The report included some memos that added to the overwhelming evidence that Bush had simply walked away from his sworn duties and responsibilities to the Guard in 1972. The memos were immediately attacked as forgeries, first by right-wing bloggers. Just like the Nixon White House, the Bush White House moved immediately to use these accusations to discredit all reporting on Bush's tenure in the Guard. Let's just say that the Bush effort was far more successful than Nixon's effort. The times had changed.
Even if the documents could be criticized (falsely, it turns out), we can draw a close parallel with Woodward and Bernstein's story on Haldeman: the story about Bush abandoning his service in the Air National Guard was also true. (For those who would like to examine the evidence against Bush, the publicly available documents on Bush's Guard service are reprinted in my 2004 book, Unfit Commander.)
In her book, Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power, Mapes reports the reaction of CBS News President Andrew Hayward to the forgery accusations, and Hayward wasn't exactly Bradlee-esque: "...if someone f...ed this up, they'll be phoning in from Alcatraz." CBS President and CEO Les Moonves apparently agreed. Subsequently, CBS empanelled its own private Star Chamber to investigate the reporting. No record was made of its meetings. Predictably, the panel's work criticized the Bush reporting and led to the firing of Mapes and others. Rather later resigned.
A few points need to be made. First, the accusations of forged documents were based upon assertions that they were typed with fonts and proportional spacing that didn't exist back in the 1970s when they were said to have been typed. This accusation subsequently proved false. Here's what Mike Missal, a lawyer who worked for the CBS panel, said publicly later on:
It's ironic that the blogs were actually wrong... We actually did find typewriters that did have the superscript, did have proportional spacing. And on the fonts, given that these are copies, it's really hard to say, but there were some typewriters that looked like they could have some similar fonts there. So the initial concerns didn't seem as though they would hold up.
As journalist Joe Hagan reported in Texas Monthly in a 2008 story summarizing the controversy, "...the CBS documents that seem destined to haunt Rather are, and have always been, a red herring."
At the time Viacom and CBS had a lot riding on their relationships with the Bush White House and his Federal Communications Commission. This was a time of unparalleled corporate consolidation of media. Viacom/CBS majority owner Sumner Redstone, who liked to brag that he was a liberal Democrat, endorsed Bush over Sen. John Kerry in 2004.
"A Republican administration is a better deal" for Viacom, Redstone said when he endorsed Bush. Redstone, apparently concerned about the White House reaction to the CBS reporting, said he was "talking daily to top CBS officials and to Viacom board members about the controversy" over the Guard memos," according to a report in Forbes at the time.
Why the concern? Consider that at the time that Bush's FCC was in a deregulation frenzy, as Redstone himself had noted. By 2004-2005, Viacom's various corporate moves had netted it 26.26 percent of prime time television viewing hours and 17.39 percent of 60 million plus cable and satellite services.
A study of corporate media consolidation reported:
At the start of the 2004-2005 season, the five corporations with ownership of a studio and network - Disney, NBC Universal, News Corp., Time Warner, and Viacom - held a financial interest in 93.94 percent of the hours broadcast on the networks with attributable ownership.
And, as one of that report's authors wrote elsewhere of Bush's approach to media consolidation:
Multiple Congressional acts require the Federal Communications Commission to review its ownership rules or measure the degree of competition in the television marketplace in various intervals. The FCC under the Bush Administration did not adhere to the most basic element of those mandates...
The war goes on, and the truth remains vulnerable. Attacks on Truth from CBS, Viacom and Bush allies have already begun. The Bush family has gone to great extremes over the years to try to hide Bush's National Guard secrets. That the man who led the nation into the disastrous war in Iraq had himself shirked his military duty when young is not something they will leave unchallenged. This is especially true in a year in which his brother, Jeb, is running for president.
Partisans who by 2004 already hated Rather will continue to claim the documents in question were forged, despite the fact that CBS's own investigators refute their evidence.
CBS will not want their integrity questioned. They ought to stay quiet. The best way to promote their integrity would be with the work of today's CBS reporters. Viacom split from CBS in 2005 although Redstone still owns a majority of both companies. It would prefer its cozy relationship with Bush and its lobbying for deregulation not be revisited.
Back in 2004, the national political press gave great attention to a provably false attack from Bush on Sen. Kerry's war record. And they seemed more interested in covering the attacks on Rather than the fact that Bush, whose Iraq war cost thousands and thousands of human lives, had himself gone AWOL from military service. But like I said, 2004 was different than the early 1970s. Woodward and Bernstein inspired many of us to go into journalism. I suspect Viacom and CBS have inspired just as many to choose a different calling.