The Truth Behind ‘Truth’: Journalists Work Without a Safety Net

Hal Wallis, the great, grizzled producer, once told me that no one should ever pitch a movie that can’t be summed up in a single sentence — one without commas or clauses.

I pondered his advice after I saw the new film “Truth.” Setting aside its portentous title, its pitch would sound like this: A tough news producer who seeks to derail a presidential candidate creates a TV expose built around a squishy document and scared news sources and gets fired for her effort, in the process also destroying the career of her superstar news anchor.

Wallis would have killed this pitch as a feel-bad story — he never liked journalists anyway. Having said all this, “Truth” is a very compelling movie featuring star turns by Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford. And it’s true to its facts to the point of being marginally self-defeating.

There a newsroom adage that says, “News is what someone doesn’t want you to know — the rest is advertising.” (The New York Times’ Margaret Sullivan reminded me of it this week). The nitty gritty of Dan Rather’s downfall, which is central to “Truth,” also falls into the “they don’t want us to know” category.

But it’s riveting stuff, and especially relevant at this moment when network news organizations are trying to avoid the traps and potholes that await them during the coming presidential campaign. Will viewers learn the candidates’ true agendas or will the anchors simply hit the headlines and run for cover?

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In the movie, writer-director James Vanderbilt picks up the story of gifted news hound Mary Mapes who, among other things, had produced the remarkable TV expose on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, as she discovers evidence that George W. Bush evaded his military service during the Vietnam War.

Both Mapes and her producing partner, anchor Rather, feel pressure to get their story out. The presidential race between Bush and John Kerry is tight. A piece about how Bush used family connections to take refuge in an elite unit of the Texas National Guard (and didn’t show up most of the time) would help offset the anti-Kerry swiftboat campaign. The CBS executives supervising “60 Minutes II” decide to greenlight the story despite worries about time for fact-checking.

The story promptly blows up in everyone’s face. A key source succumbs to pressure and changes his story. Arguments about the validity of documents become embroiled in technical challenges about typefaces and superscripts. Mapes is fired, despite her brilliant track record (she has not worked since in network news). And Rather’s distinguished career as a CBS anchor is obliterated.

This is not one of those procedural thrillers where the audience emerges knowing who’s right and wrong. Vanderbilt (in his first directing gig) wanted it that way. “Everyone was trying to do their job,” he reflects. True, the reporting was solid, but there was trepidation from the outset that key sources would cave under pressure. There was also recognition that the documents were replicas, albeit valid replicas.

To my view, the CBS executives who decided to rush the show on the air compounded their bad judgment in banishing Rather and Mapes. In revealing this, the movie poses a disturbing question: Do the profit-making network news divisions have the autonomy and muscle to perform investigative journalism?

During the course of “Truth,” its protagonists are transformed from stars into victims. Theirs is a disturbing journey made only more so by the passage of time.

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