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

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.

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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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