Ten years after he stepped down from CBS Evening News, Dan Rather watched Robert Redford in “Truth” re-create his on-air apology for a 2004 “60 Minutes II” report – an experience the newsman described as painful.
It was painful because that scene reminded Rather of the aftermath. “The great lie being spread by people who didn’t like the story was Number One, ‘well you know they retracted it,’ ” Rather told Variety. “The story was never retracted. What Redford read, which I had read on the air, was that a principal source had changed his story — so what we did was apologize for that, but not for the truth of the story.”
Rather felt “pleased and relieved” after seeing “Truth,” which writer-director James Vanderbilt adapted from Mary Mapes’ book. Rather still stands 100 percent behind the “60 Minutes II” report on President George W. Bush’s time in the Texas Air National Guard, saying that the facts stand true to this day.
“Everybody’s entitled to their own opinions, but they’re not entitled to their own facts,” Rather said in an interview at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. “And the fact is we reported a true story, and we lost our jobs because of that. They got that part of it right.”
In the film, Mike Smith (Topher Grace) says Rather was the reason he pursued journalism. In talking with Variety, Rather was teary-eyed as he said it’s not unusual for this to happen, but he tries not to take it too seriously. “I’ve made my mistakes,” Rather noted. “I still got the scars to show for most of it, some of them open scars, some of them self-inflicted scars. I don’t see myself as inspiring anybody, but I can understand because I went through it in my childhood and young adulthood.”
In his youth, Rather idolized Edward R. Morrow, and he now realizes aspiring journalists probably admire him in the same manner – the news anchor becomes the representation of the life they want to live. “Young minds, young eyes and ears, they like the idea of doing something that’s bigger than themselves. They like the idea of doing something that counts,” Rather said.
Broadcasting into family living rooms every night for 24 years makes Rather more than just recognizable. The 84-year-old was at first shocked, and now grateful, that Redford took on what he calls a monumental challenge in portraying a well-known news anchor. “Look, I’m a lifetime reporter,” said Rather, who worked at CBS for 44 years. “I’d like to think I’m a throw-no-punches, play-no-favorites reporter who sticks by the people with whom he works and tries, however imperfectly, to do quality journalism with integrity. I think Redford got that essence for better and for worse in the film.”
Impressed with Redford’s performance, Rather noted he barely spoke with the actor about the role, able to recall only a couple of phone conversations. One thing he does remember they discussed: loyalty, both with his coworkers and with CBS. In 2004, Rather was sure CBS would back their Bush story. Now, he wishes he had looked after his team better, warning them of dwindling corporate support.
Looking back, Rather realizes CBS’ support dropped almost immediately after Bill Burkett admitted to lying about who gave him the Killian documents. “Contrary to CBS News’ history and tradition, even though they knew this story was true, they weren’t going to take the heat. Having been at CBS News for 44 years, being the anchor for 24 years, I thought I knew the institution. The institution changed.”
Regardless of Burkett’s changing story, Rather said he thinks what Burkett said originally was true, only changing who his source was due to heavy pressure. “That’s what I believe. That was my first reaction. He’s gotten pressure from the source he revealed to shut up and change his story.”
With the subsequent downpour of criticism around what’s now called the Killian documents controversy costing Rather and Mapes their careers and tarnishing their reputations, Rather acknowledges his reporting process in putting together the story wasn’t perfect, but questions what investigative journalist can report without flaws.
CBS still doesn’t seem to agree, refusing to air ads for “Truth.” “It’s astounding how little truth there is in ‘Truth,’” a CBS spokesman said in response to Variety’s inquiry. “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.”
Rather’s thoughts? “Don’t take my word for what it is, don’t take CBS’s word for what it is, go see it and make up your own mind.”