The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg has been busy covering the awards race, the Toronto Film Festival and the Emmys. But he’s taken time out to cast aspersions on the new James Vanderbilt film, Truth.
Feinberg says he feels an affection and allegiance toward 60 Minutes because he once toured the studio when he was in Junior High, thanks to a family connection. This is part of his explanation for why he felt it necessary, before Truth has even opened, to launch the first of what is sure to be many assaults on the film from the right — and apparently from the left as well.
This is how it goes now. Too many people covering this race, too many people trying to claim a slice of the pie, and before long every daring and provocative movie is savaged and attacked until there is nothing left but the most blandly inoffensive films — because no one can complain about them. Usually, though, this sort of thing happens a little later in the game. Truth, after all, hasn’t even been reviewed by any major outlets. But apparently it is not too soon for the Hollywood Reporter.
Truth tells Mary Mapes’ own first-hand account of events — thus, it is obviously told from her point of view. Feinberg appears to be objecting to the (deserved) skewering 60 Minutes got by not even remotely standing by its reporter. Choosing instead to kowtow to extreme right-wing bloggers who claimed that Mapes was using falsified documents to try to smear Dubya Bush on the eve of his re-election. It should be noted, the story of Bush’s cushy play-date assignment in Texas during the Vietnam war is a fact that remains a fact, even if one piece of evidence cannot be substantiated.
The truth of it is that Mapes had been working on this story for five years prior to the airing of the 60 Minutes segment, which is proof in itself that the story existed with or without the questionable documents. She had two sources do an about face when the shit came down because they were — say it with me now — pressured to do so. Yes, this was a mistake. CBS should probably not have run with the story. But what happened afterward, how Mary Mapes was subsequently treated, how 60 Minutes reacted and made her the scapegoat, is what Truth is ultimately about.
Imagine if Ben Bradlee had bowed to the pressure coming down from the White House while The Washington Post was investigating and reporting on Watergate. Imagine if when Woodward and Bernstein made one mistake (which they do in the film) Bradlee had listened to hysterical extremist bloggers and shut the whole thing down. Worse, what if the Post had assembled a conservative panel to “investigate” the reporters? Imagine if Bradlee has been as weak-willed as the producers at 60 Minutes and fired everyone involved to cover their asses? Yeah, imagine that.
When we see Carl Bernstein verifying names, he needs to have one person he’s calling simply hang up before he finishes counting. That is how he vets the story. Bob Woodward is relying on information from a guy who won’t go on record and calls himself Deep Throat. They were being stalked by thugs from the Nixon administration. Their phones were being tapped. But they had two things on their side: the truth and Ben Bradlee. Mapes had only one thing on her side, the truth. What did she have against her? The internet and all that it has done to help kill journalism in every way imaginable. This story of Mapes and Rather can, in fact, be seen as the final death rattle.
Now imagine 60 Minutes standing behind Mapes and Rather. Imagine them taking a brave stand and working with their reporters to find out if the story really was true or not — let’s say, giving Mapes the benefit of the doubt. Who knows what they might have uncovered. You see, mistakes are made in investigative journalism. The question that needed to be asked was: is the story true? That is what Woodstein believed and why they kept searching for more. If you cut the story off at the first mistake? Well, how can you ever get to the truth?
Or, as this piece in New York Magazine says better:
Unfortunately, in the new world of media, they might have to. Unlike other recent media scandals—Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, USA Today’s Jack Kelly—in which star reporters spent years weaving fake narratives out of whole cloth, the CBS document mess rests ultimately on a mistake, a source who lied, danger signs that were foolishly ignored. Thanks, however, in no small part to CBS’s uniquely favored position as conservatives’ most-hated network, and Dan Rather’s even more distinctive claim to being the right’s most-hated newscaster and unquestionably the oddest duck of the three network anchors, the fact that it is a mistake at the root of the scandal has given CBS not an ounce of reprieve. Which is too bad for Rather and CBS, but maybe worse for investigative reporting. If it has taught the public anything, it might be that the new standard for the media is one in which mistakes are as bad as lies. It is a standard that investigative reporting might find ever harder to live up to, until it is finally swept off the field by the ever-rising tide of commentary, risk-free and mistake-proof.
We’re all about noise these days. Outrage is consumed like Starbucks, then tossed the next day in favor of another outrage. It all becomes so much noise that the original story gets lost in the details. And people who seek to manipulate the media narrative know this all too well.
Mapes eventually endured the modern day equivalent of a witch being burned — cast her out and you cast out all evil in the village! It was a savage witch burning that needed to obliterate her good reputation and all the fine stories she’d already done, and guaranteed that she would never work in network news again.
No one, including Feinberg, bothers to ask: were the memos real? More importantly, is the underlying story still true, even if some of the memos could not be substantiated
That’s the question people should be asking. Mary Mapes vetted the story with two different people, both of whom later reversed their original statements — under duress. Everything else was just wild speculation. She was a good enough reporter to make sure the story was right before it went on the air.
Scott Feinberg says if you go at the King you can’t miss. He says Mapes missed. I say, bullshit. The deceptions spun by the Bush administration and the people who surrounded him make what Nixon did seem like child’s play. This was a coordinated attack. The message then becomes don’t go after the King if his name is Bush because he will go after you. And they have the power to make sure you lose everything.
We see in Truth a precarious situation that became too big to ignore. Once doubt was cast on the documents, and Mapes by association, there was no putting the toothpaste back in the tube even though they DID prove both by logical common sense (who would have forged these documents at that level of detail only to then type them up on a computer), and then by discovering that a superscript “th” was a typical peculiarity frequently found on typewritten documents at the time.
Scott tries to explain why he feels CBS is treated unfairly in the film. I hope we can agree, 60 Minutes doesn’t come across too well in The Insider either, but isn’t it good that Michael Mann made that movie? It’s been 11 years since “Rather-gate.” There’s no new Bush who can interfere with our conversation now. So let’s have one.
60 Minutes had already long ago tarnished its reputation with the Big Tobacco story. Once you cross that line — that line that says profit matters over everything else? There’s really no going back.
“None of this is the fault of the actors,” Feinberg reassures us at the end of his piece. No kidding. In fact, it’s to the credit of the actors, the director, and to Mary Mapes herself that they have tackled the task of telling the other side of this story, a story they knew would get their integrity targeted all over again.