Why ‘Truth’ Fails to Get to the Truth of Dan Rather, Mary Mapes’ CBS Story

Truth TIFF
Courtesy of TIFF

UPDATED: President George Bush was fighting in a close race for reelection 11 years ago when he got an unexpected gift from an unlikely quarter: CBS News and anchorman Dan Rather dropped a story that was supposed to show that Bush shirked his duties as a young officer in the Air National Guard.

Trouble was, CBS used sloppy reporting to back up a good story. The ensuing furor cost Rather, star producer Mary Mapes and three CBS executives their jobs. And it created a diversion whenever Bush or his handlers were pressed by other news outlets about the president’s less-than-heroic military record.

Now the movie “Truth,” set for release Oct. 16., arrives with the promise of shedding new light on one of  the modern news business’s most epic unravelings. The Sony Pictures Classic film has received acclaim, particularly for performances by Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford. But what it doesn’t reveal is how many other news outlets were finding gaps in Bush’s military records that would be all but forgotten because of CBS’s epic plotz.

I know something about the story at the heart of “Truth,” because in 2004 I was working on a team at the Los Angeles Times that — like the one at CBS and several others at news organizations around the country – was taking a deep dive into President Bush’s Vietnam era military service. Our story found that Bush had missed a key physical, stopped flying, went missing from months of training and opted out of a six-year commitment early to go to Harvard Business School.

In other words, the L.A. Times and others raised plenty of doubts, without relying on any of the un-authenticated memos that would prove the downfall of Rather (played in “Truth” by Redford) and Mapes (Blanchett.) So had an investigative team at another newspaper, the Boston Globe, that is about to get its share of cinematic attention. (More on that later.)

Once the CBS story exploded in September, 2004, other news outlets gave chase, thinking they had been scooped, only to spend weeks trying to unravel whether the memos were real.  Even without the suspect documents, though, the L.A. Times, Boston Globe, USA Today and others had enough real paperwork and interviews with contemporaries to establish the portrait of Bush as a once-promising pilot, who lost interest and commitment.

Records showed that the future president failed to take a mandatory flight physical and didn’t report for duty for six months when he shifted posts from Texas to Alabama, so that he could work on a political campaign. By one point system for measuring guard duty, he met the minimum requirement, but an expert told our team at the Times that Bush had fallen short by another measure.

Credit for the earliest and best reporting on Bush’s military service goes, however, to the Globe. The paper’s initial story, in 2000, landed after it reviewed 160 pages of military documents and talked to one-time Guard commanders. The Globe reported that the son of then-Congressman George H.W. Bush had given up flying abruptly after being transferred to the Guard unit in Alabama. It also noted that found contemporaries who even recalled Bush reporting for duty in Alabama were hard to come by. Bush’s commanders back in Texas found the gap in duty so pronounced that they could not even give the young lieutenant a standard annual performance evaluation. Later, the paper would report another shortcoming: The future commander-in-chief did not sign on with a Guard or Reserve unit when he arrived in the Boston-area, to begin his MBA studies at Harvard.  The lapses meant commanders could have ordered Bush into active duty — with the potential for deployment in Vietnam. But that never happened.

An irony for film fans of the moment? The investigative reporter who got the Bush reporting started was Walter V. Robinson. The team that followed up was the Boston paper’s investigative outfit, Spotlight, including reporters Michael Rezendes and Sacha Pfeiffer.  Less than two years earlier, the same group had uncovered widespread child molestation and a cover-up of abusive priests by the Catholic Church.

So you will find the Globe reporters represented in the multiplex. But not in “Truth” and not for their fine work in showing how the president came up short during his days as a weekend warrior. Their moment will come a few weeks later, when this fall’s other journalism movie debuts. It tells the tale of the Globe’s investigative team and its Pulitzer Prize-winning work in uncovering the Catholic Church’s troubled history of condoning sexual abuse. “Spotlight” arrives in theaters Nov. 6.

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  1. Daniel Robertsont says:

    It looks like it’s happening all over again with the lies about PRESIDENT DONALD J TRUMP

  2. bill wirstrom says:

    At the time Bush went to AL Guard duty was extremely murky. If you moved to a different state you could apply for transfer to that unit. Bush was an F102 pilot, the unit there was F84. The two aircraft had different missions. At the time, units were begging for members and would look the other way just to get numbers in order to maintain their C status. I can say this with some creditability, during the same time I left my unit in New Orleans and went to work in KS city for TWA. My old unit kept me on the books, no flights, no medicals and no attendance at drills. This was for eight months, they needed bodies for the C rating. This was a bogus letter from a ground Guard officer who had a chip on his shoulder [non promotion] for then Gov Bush. It turns out the letter was typed on a word processer which the Guard did not have at that time. Mapes and Rather took the bait hook line and sinker.

  3. Brad Krull says:

    Your lie you political hacks! Bush never told the truth about anything ever! For you can’t ever tell me just ONE TIME HE DID!

  4. Will Smith says:

    It took me until the credit began to roll before I realized this was not a comedy!

  5. George Kerr says:

    I thought the story is that George Bush got out of going to Vietnam because he father George Bush pulled strings.
    These leaders have no problem sending other people children off to die but not their own. Variety should make sure it has its moral compass aligned

  6. Robert Torsdale says:

    This Variety story, is a disgraceful piece of misguided propaganda, without a shred of the truth.

  7. Willow says:

    I’m sorry…was this intended as a review of the film….or a rehash of journalistic grudge?

  8. Constance Walters says:

    Excellent movie. I do believe cbs was wrong with the corporate way they handled their team if employees. Instinct reveals that’s journalism gone. Now we see journalism being biased and swaying Americans as with this presidential elections. So frightened by the loss of freedom of speech, journalist not being able to report the Truth, or being censored –

    • Will Smith says:

      Put that thing you are smoking and back away! If you think there is anything meaningful or worthwhile in this movie you disconnected from reality a number of years ago! This movie is just as misguided as CBS, Rather and Mapes who lied about this story from beginning to end. It is even more hilarious that Rather is still on TV anywhere. Rather could not look up journalism in the dictionary.

  9. Frank Mitchell says:

    At the time the original story broke i was a lawyer in Texas. It was well known in many political circles that Ben Barnes and others helped the Shrub (a Molly Ivans term) avoid going to Vietnam through the National Guard loophole that was accessible to the politically connected. The sad part of the story was that there was an evidence weakness (the memos) that allowed Bush and Rove to avoid answering the real question — did Bush use his political connections to avoid going to Vietnam? The answer to that question is yes. But because CBS backed off of the conclusion because of some of the evidence Bush was able to avoid the question. At the same time Kerry got wrongfully trashed by the Swift Boat liars. Kerry did have an opportunity in the Presidential debates to take Bush out on this point but was not able to do it. Mary and Dan told a true story —- but because of the evidence problem the truth got sadly lost. The truth is that Bush did use his political connections to avoid Vietnam. The unbelievable result was that Bush won a second term despite his decision to invade Iraq despite any legitimate basis for doing so. When the American public re-elected him I became very cynical about the republic.

    • Johnny Cowart says:

      Did you also feel the same way about Bill Clintons efforts to avoid the draft?

      • John Phillips says:

        Why even ask this question? The original comment came from someone who is very clearly a conservative- see his defense of Kerry.

  10. Rene says:

    I just watch this movie truth, & I thought it was phenomenal. Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford did remarkable jobs in this movie. Any condescending low ratings for obviously come from a bias opinion ignore those including this article from variety.

  11. What kind of a “review” is this? It immediately calls into question the quality of reporting of the service scandal (which seems pretty good since 60 Minutes came up with many of the same conclusions as the other news outlets you mention; they simply had documents that are not 100% authenticated (there are so many more questions that need to be asked about those documents) and then the reviewer drops the film all together for a reflection on who did the reporting “first” — which actually isn’t the point of the film “Truth” —

    Both Spotlight and Truth are important films for a variety of reasons. Good films? That’s a different standard — but important films for their message and their snapshot of a world we no longer exist in — people asking questions and investigating who is in power and what they’re doing with that power.
    What is the point of this review? #CrapReview

    • Steve Kalbach says:

      Quite the contrary. We still live in a world like that to this very day. I remember when the story broke. It was covered up very quickly and proves that if you have the right connections and money that you can get away with pretty much anything. Bush was bad from the beginning. Even though absolute proof wasn’t there in the 60 minute doc on Bush and his lies and cover-ups it still should have thrown enough light on him to maybe keeping him out of the presidency. Unfortunately it didn’t and America is still paying for his blunders today. Excellent film by the way.

    • Donald Incardona says:

      i really don’t get what you are trying to say.you ramble. and that report had a lot to do with what we are experiencing today . we are still at war and many still believe bush went awol.

      • Dave Mabesa says:

        Unless Iam way off base here, the article is arguing that Mapes aggressiveness in pushing this story took away from the other journalists who were coming up with legitimate evidence to discredit Bush’s military service.
        It might of meant less votes for Bush in 2004.

  12. JohnF says:

    The TRUTH remains that Bush’s family connection got him into the Texas Air Guard and he didn’t fulfill his military commitment. From this we got the Cheney/Bush Iraq war disaster and the 2008 economy crash and 9/11 after Bush’s received an intelligence briefing “Bin Laden Determined To Strike in US”
    Worst president ever!!!!!

  13. Eric says:

    SwiftBoater attack dogs read Variety, I see.
    Defending the indefensible (W) — by diversion — is their specialty.

  14. Damion Blackthorn says:

    Hard to make a movie look good, when it’s based upon lies…….Liberals just don’t get it !! When you’re caught in a lie, you can’t lie yourself out of it. This movie is such a pile of crap…..Mapes and Rather will still be liars for the rest of their lives….
    Maybe this will finally put Redford out to pasture with his liberal B.S. too !!

    • Carl Logan says:

      As John McCain has said: “I felt safe in the Hanoi Hilton know George was guarding the Gulf Coast of Texas”

      My friend’s name is on panel 12; drafted and home within 6 months.

    • Donald Incardona says:

      liars? nixon, reagan, bush. now those were liars. care to tell me why there not.

  15. News flash there Jimmy; Bush ain’t been pres for 7 years. How about a story on Obama’s military record, there’s a pretty gaping hole there.

    • Lee Snarr says:

      This is newsworthing NOW because a movie; TRUTH has reminded us of how this shady character was handed the Presidency after so many lies. LIES is where Bush started and ended. We are still engaged in his actions and we are paying dearly – NEWS FLASH.

  16. S Page says:

    Well very nice..George Bush is no longer President and cannot be elected President, why don’t you hone your investigative skills and resources and direct them at current candidates for president? Or if you have a thing for former Presidents, why not look into Bill Clinton and the charges of sexual abuse?

    • Lee Snarr says:

      Mary Mapes and Dan Rather will be remembered forever by those of us who still want the facts. CBS failed. Just rented the movie: TRUTH. I felt the same anger (again) as when CBS let Rather go. Today the news is a joke – mostly fluff – entertainment. Just like our public education, some of us remember when it worked and some of us remember REAL NEWS. Couldn’t help but wonder what our world might be like today had that spoiled, little rich boy not been handed the election. He and Cheny gave us the mess we have today.

    • abe says:

      Are you really asking this seriously? Do you not realize that few would care to see a movie about “candidates” who were never president?

  17. Milton Morris says:

    By 1972, the 147th Fighter Wing of the Texas Air National Guard was beginning to phase out the F-102 (the plane Bush was trained to fly) in favor of F-101B and F-101F two-seat long-range interceptors. The F-102 pilots transitioned to training Air National Guard pilots from other units or retired from service. Bush did not have enough flight hours to qualify as a flight instructor.

    Bush had not been trained to fly any of the planes at the Air National Guard facility in Alabama, so there was not much for him to do there either. So, like most normal human beings, he opted for early retirement.

    • Donald Incardona says:

      nice try. but you don’t just walk off the post. you put in for retirement. which he did not do. there is the story. the rest that you wrote is smoke and mirrors..

    • Milton Morris says:

      Truth requires proof, not speculation.

      The Bush Texas Air National Guard story is now almost 50 years old. Every fact has been considered; every shred of evidence has been sifted through; every witness has been interviewed.

      And what did all those investigations & inquiries yield?

      Nada! Nothing! Zilch!

      Anything new would have been front page news. It would have been talked about incessantly on all the news channels. But it hasn’t. And it won’t. So, its time for people to bury their fantasies.

      CBS tried to vindicate Rather’s & Mapes’ story. Rlather was the biggest star in news broadcasting & Mapes was making a name for herself.

      CBS lost reputation, rankings, & prestige over this debacle & had to let one of the biggest stars in broadcast news (a potential media legend) go. CBS did everything it could to save Mapes’, Rather’s, & its own reputation. If CBS could prove that Bush had done everything the forged documents said, Mapes & Rather would have been lasting heroes. But despite CBS’s best efforts, it could not substantiate Bush’s neglect of his national guard responsibilities.

      News stars & ratings make big money for corporations in the broadcast news business. When CBS lost the biggest star in the business & lost ratings, that was bad for profits & bad for everybody at CBS.

      It was a major loss for CBS and one it would have done everything in its power to avoid. But there was just no way CBS could spin the story in a way that the public would not have quickly seen through.

  18. tommy says:

    you left out how you also have no facts and the internet geeks are the ones who found out about the bad doc’s. before the boston globe took over.

  19. Betty Boop says:

    Gee, more liberal smears to justify lousy journalism. Gutter rats stick together. No surprise.

  20. Eden says:

    What a joke. Libs at CBS trying to alter the Lie after the Lie was exposed. “We LIED because this and that.” Really? This movie sounds like a 5 year old explaining why they ate mommy’s cigarettes she left on the night stand.

    • abe says:

      and which part are you claiming was a lie? That GWBush did not show exemplary service? Nooo. That GWBush was put into that guard position because strings WERE pulled? Noooo. That the GWBush administration used CIA tactics and bullied the media as well as ordinary americans including the Dixie Chics? Of course not. But do you believe the documents in the movie were actually fake? Only if you are a fool.

  21. Beth C. Pfohl says:

    Mr. Rainey. Since you have a particular amount of knowledge of this contentious story from your work at the LA Times, I am sincerely curious. Have you ever tried to personally approach Mr. Bush and ask/confront him about this event in his life? And if he were to grant you that request, would you be able to honestly relay his responses objectively, especially if they were to be very different from what the Boston Globe, LA Times, Rather and Mapes turned up? Please know this is not a trick question.

    • abe says:

      Do you not remember GWBush dodging that question left and right for years?
      And now you ask if someone tried to ask him? Get real sweetheart.

  22. Anyone familiar with proportional spacing and typewriters knew immediately that the letter could not have been typed on any typewriter available on August 18, 1975. That’s when the letter was supposedly typed. Even if someone wants to believe that routine correspondence was typeset, what are the odds that any font available back then would have exactly matched Microsoft Word’s “Times New Roman” default font? Microsoft Word didn’t come out until 1983.

    A comparison between the letter and Times New Roman is available here:

    The letter was an obvious forgery.

  23. KVDavis says:

    It wasn’t that he went AWOL – many young men with his connections gamed the system similarly. And my outrage wasn’t event just that he was a chicken-hawk (Mission Accomplished, my eye).

    But the Swift-Boating of John Kerry in this context was pretty low. Don’t get much lower. Lower than a rattlesnake’s belly, as Dan Rather would say.

    Kerry lost by only a few points. I attribute 1/3 to African-American Christians concerned about gay marriage; 1/3 the Swift-Boating slur; and 1/3 his Eastern seaboard elite persona.

    • You didn’t need “connections” to get out of the military in those days. The Navy asked me to go to college for 4 yrs (because I was at the top of my Nuclear Submarine Class), come out as an officer with an additional 6 yr commitment. I turned it down and got an honorable discharge after barely 2 years. What Bush did was common.

      The “Mission Accomplished” banner was placed there by the crew of the Lincoln. Navy Commander and Pentagon spokesman Conrad Chun said the banner referred specifically to the aircraft carrier’s 10-month deployment (which was the longest deployment of a carrier since the Vietnam War) and not the war itself. In retrospect the Iraq War would appear to have been a mistake and mishandled by both Bush and Obama.

      You mean the same John Kerry who threw medals away in protest. Not all his medals mind you but some other poor saps medals. He has told many different versions through the years. He was a traitor who should have been tried for treason. And I was very much against that war; started as it was by a lie told by the president.

      • Donald Incardona says:

        if you listened to bush’s speech he said COMBAT OPERATIONS IN IRAQ WERE OVER. now you can try to revise history all you want but the tale is in the tape. and you lose.

  24. Bill says:

    Let’s see, even now the case against Bush seems to be that they were able to dig up a standard by which they felt he didn’t fully serve (even though the military states he did) and that finding people who remember one random soldier showing up at one post are hard to come by.

    Still not really “news” just more press Bush-hatred.

  25. David Chardavoyne says:

    What the media seems and seemed to have missed is that the nation today is filled with men who either did what Bush did or found some other way out of the draft (including Bill Clinton). I was drafted in 1970 and spent two years in the Army far from Vietnam Nam. If I had been offered a Reserve position I would have taken it, as would have most of the draftees I knew.

    • Donald Incardona says:

      no, no, no. clinton didn’t do what bush did. clinton got a deferment and went to college. bush went AWOL. two very different things. bush leaving the way he did should have disqualified him from being president. how do you go AWOL then send troops off to war when he didn’t want to fight cause he was scared to die? that’s sacrilege. h e was a punk. so don’t go there.

  26. Ron Hatfield says:

    Nobody cares, except maybe Dan Rather.

    • Sherman says:

      Dan Rather was exposed as a fraud. He had a political agenda & grudge against the Bush family. He played fast & loose with documents to create a narrative to cost G.W. Bush the election. It blew up in his face, along with his henchwoman, Mary Mapes. They are both liars & no amount of left-wing media whitewashing will cover up their actions. This just confirms the lies the liberal media spews daily.

    • H.M. says:

      Maybe the families of the dead soldiers care to an extant.

  27. dji says:

    bush went AWOL. rather is not a liar. he was/ is a respected reported. maybe not in your right wing eyes. but facts are facts.

    • Eden says:

      Unless you know the facts, which you don’t….and obviously the idiots that funded the Lie to cover the Lie, you probably shouldn’t put money into it, unless it’s our Taxes like Libs like to spend on crap.

      • Donald Incardona says:

        really? bush racked up 9.99 trillion in debt because he didn’t want to pay for the wars and every spending bill the gutter rats in the GOP sent him. talk your way out of that.

        On Mon, Oct 19, 2015 at 9:49 AM, Variety wrote:

        > Eden commented: “Unless you know the facts, which you don’t….and > obviously the idiots that funded the Lie to cover the Lie, you probably > shouldn’t put money into it, unless it’s our Taxes like Libs like to spend > on crap.”

  28. Emma Morrow says:

    Oh, please. Dan Rather is a damn liar. Not even Hollywood can save his deserved bad reputation.

    • DrDigital5 says:

      Ms Mapes and Dan Rather were journalists who told a controversial story that was important to the time. My position on journalists is that they often favor a liberal view too often. In the case of this particular story, there was too much time spent on the authenticity of memos when the issue was whether the former President was where he said he was. Those facts got lost in this story. Dan Rather was a career journalist with more credentials to support him as an icon of journalism than the top ten who have ever held the position of reporter, anchor, managing editor. If the issue is whether Ms. Mapes or Mr Rather ever made any mistakes in their careers should not be the issue, there is no perfection in journalism and there is no perfection in life. Both Rather and Mapes spent decades as journalists operating by the highest standards. Most people can’t appreciate the tireless commitment that journalism excellence requires. I do. Rather and Mapes should be celebrated as professionals who set high standards in their trade. Andrew Heyward is also an accomplished executive who was collateral damage in corporate PR. In all of my experiences where Heyward was measured as a news leader, he belonged at the top of the class. Good people, capable professionals, are sacrificed for the good of publicly traded companies who won’t hesitate to throw honest, committed, career executives under the bus when times get tough.

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