Two films coming out this year deal with getting the story out to the public. Both deal with the press and the internet, either directly or indirectly. One is being hailed as an Oscar frontrunner, the other is trying to maintain itself amid clear attacks coming from journalists and right wingers. Journalists are proud to be associated with one, but not the other. What is the key difference? Spotlight is about wanting to get the story right because old school newspaper writing wasn’t in a rush. Truth is about wanting to get the story out because television news is about ratings and timing.
Wanting to get the story right and needing to get the story out oppose each where any well researched investigative journalist piece is concerned. Mistakes were made in both the hunting down of molesting priests and the cover-ups, and in producing evidence that proved President Bush lied about his time spent in the National Guard and was given special treatment because of his family’s position.
Spotlight deals directly with their head reporter, played by Michael Keaton, essentially burying a story on molesting Catholic priests and their victims years before they finally took the story on, broke it and thus, forever changed the power dynamic of the Archdiocese in Boston and everywhere else. But the film is about those mistakes as much as it is about those successes. Still, someone could tell the other side of that story from any of the hundreds of thousands of victims whose abuses could have been prevented had the story not gotten buried “in the Metro section” of the paper. Because they take responsibility for those mistakes and try to recover them, they are forgiven. The reporters are heroes.
If Truth had been about Dan Rather and Mary Mapes “taking responsibility” for sloppy reporting in letting in documents that could not be 100% verified probably no one continue to hold a grudge against them. The problem is that they can’t. Mary Mapes certainly can’t because she knows the story was true. Her problem was a television program that buckled under pressure because their survival depended on it. Fire Mapes, force everyone else to resign, make Dan Rather apologize on the air, hope it all goes quietly away. That was how they dealt with it. Unlike the Boston Globe, or the Washington Post, they were simply too top-heavy, too controlled by Big Corporate to fight that battle. There isn’t a major news organization on television today that wouldn’t do the same. Television news does not exist to serve the people. It exists to serve its corporate owners who count on high ratings, sponsorships to thrive. You have to go to PBS to find any kind of honest reporting, or better yet, try the BBC or Al Jazeera.
You’d think journalists would be concerned. They aren’t. They are mostly siding with CBS. That became all too clear on this Times Talk when the New York Times Susan Dominus talked to Robert Redford, Cate Blanchett, Dan Rather and Mary Mapes in front of a New York audience about the film Truth. It was clear from the get go that Dominus, was definitely not a fan of the film and quite skeptical of Mapes. She kept leaning in the direction of “yeah, but mistakes were made which invalidate the story.” It was so slanted, in fact, that an audience member called her out on it. In all of the years I’ve been covering q&as and Times Talks I’ve never seen a question directed at the moderator. Her bias was clear.
The Times Talks website has shortened what was the Q&A and has taken out the audience asking questions but I managed to jot down the quotes before they swapped out the video.
Dominus answered the question of why Dominus was showing such clear bias with her questions. She answered it this way:
“It’s certainly very complicated. However there are moments watching this as a journalist when you think, Oh that was a door left open for the right to drive right through and so it’s not a small thing. It hurts the story. It hurts the truth if there’s weaknesses in the presentation. From a journalist’s point of view it was not a technicality.”
The audience member pressed her, “But doesn’t it disturb you more than it was really controlled by corporations what ended up coming out ?” Dominus answered, “One could argue that that’s not exactly what happened.”
A wave of nervous laughter went over the crowd before Cate Blanchett jumped in awkwardly, “hence, that’s the conversation.” She tried to make light of the tense moment but the audience had kind of turned on Dominus, most of them anyway. It’s not surprising they would side with the celebrities but it was something unusual for an event like this where moderators don’t tend to press those invited to speak on behalf of the film. It was a rare moment for Mapes, in fact, to face any journalist or the public at all. She has remained almost entirely out of view on this story and after watching Dominus’ attitude towards her, and the various “think pieces” coming from the left, and outright attacks still coming from the right, it’s easy to see why.
The irony of Dominus’ sneering at Mapes was that no newspaper has been called out as dramatically during this election season as the New York Times who, buckling under pressure from the 24/7 news cycle, rushed a story about Clinton being investigated by the FBI for possible criminal activity. They got it way wrong. Dominus was saying that it’s important to get every aspect exactly right or you invite attacks from the opposition. Well, here was the NY Times getting it very wrong, getting admonished by other journalists and by Clinton herself for this damning and (then) unrecoverable “mistake.” The difference? The two reporters, Michael S. Schmidt and Matt Apuzzo didn’t get publicly fired, nor brought before a committee. It was “skinned back” and before long, the news cycled over it and around it. Both stories involved presidential candidates. Bush was the President then. Hillary Clinton is running for President now. One had power to crush Mapes, and did with the help of CBS.
The New York Times story was WRONG. It was proven to be wrong. No one has proved the Mary Mapes/Dan Rather Bush guard story was false. They couldn’t even prove the documents – which were copies and therefore unable to be 100% verified — were forgeries. Because a few conspiracy-theory driven bloggers made the accusation that the documents had to be forged, without doing the research first, CBS froze. Back then, the internet hadn’t yet come to the collective realization that none of this stuff is to be taken seriously because an hour later it is usually debunked. Back then, however, the mere accusation brought the whole thing down. Why, because the Bush administration saw a weakness and exploited it. CBS did not fight back. They played along. Can you imagine the Obama presidency forcing the New York Times to assemble a panel to see if any of the reporters on the Clinton story were conservatives working through an agenda?
Moreover, the documents were only a small part of the evidence that proved Bush got special treatment from the National Guard, as did other silver spooned young men whose powerful and well connected parents didn’t want them to fight in the Vietnam war. Bush did whatever he wanted back then and knew he would be covered. The story was true. No one has denied that Bush didn’t get special treatment and no one has proved he was there at the Guard when he said he was. It was a big story, an important story but turning Mary Mapes, Dan Rather and CBS into the biased liberal press was too delicious of a gotcha to pass up. After all, Mapes had broken the story of Abu Ghraibe and if there was one thing you know Bush and all of the President’s men wanted to go away it was that one. Isn’t it possible that Karl Rove and the Bush team targeted Mapes and when they saw their opportunity to launch an all out assault and make sure she never worked in news again they took it?
The New York Times story and the 60 Minutes story had one thing in common that Spotlight didn’t. They were rushing to compete with the way news is rolled out now. The New York Times has to compete with continual clickbait and half-factual Twitter “news” and 60 Minutes had to keep its ratings up, and to get this story out before it got too close to the Bush re-election. Now, we are all used to people like the writers on the Times story to “get it wrong” and then paste it back together kind of right. We hear retractions all day long. We follow false leads only to discover they weren’t true. I still see a quote supposedly said by Meryl Streep on my Facebook feed – a quote she never said. We are all living with this idea that we can’t really know whether a story is true or not until it is proven true or false. The Mapes/Rather story broke at the very beginning, and eventually became, part of that.
Probably the most insufferable aspect of this whole thing, though, are the smug journalists who puff up and talk about ethics in the face of this. Throwing around the word sexist or racist is a dangerous game because you never want to use it lightly, but it’s hard not to look at this story as yet another case of people not trusting a woman in charge. After all, if a woman had written the New York Times story on Hillary Clinton what would the reaction have been? If a man had been in Mary Mapes’ position, what would the reaction have been?
It is much too easy to accept the party line that the Killian memos were faked in order to harm Bush on the eve of his re-election. The sad part of it is that Mapes didn’t even need them. They were given to her by a source who said he could not vouch for their authenticity and later admitted he burned the originals. Mapes then got a second source to validate that what was in the memos was true, not necessarily the memos themselves. She also got handwriting experts to authenticate Killian’s signature. Killian’s secretary said she did not type those memos. But she also said that Killian sometimes typed his own memos and might have typed the ones Mapes had in possession. The film illustrates the chain of events accordingly. The story goes wildly wrong in the film and never tries to undo the mess they made. What the film does that offends journalists is that it refuses to reverse their conviction that the Bush story was false. It wasn’t.
In the end, the Bush administration won that fight. Mary Mapes lost that fight. It should not have ended her career. It should not still be a stain on her record. This film was meant to reverse the thinking to tell her side of things. That goal was not achieved. My advice: don’t fall for the official story by CBS. Don’t listen to journalists who think they are right in shit-canning the truth because mistakes were made.
Truth, along with Network and Broadcast News serve to remind us what television really is now, what forces drive the news, and who controls those forces. The internet, at least, has offered up alternatives to that one way of defining American reality. It is as flawed, if not more so, than corporate news and it’s becoming more corporate, more clickbait driven. The good thing about it is that it is a wealth of information that you, the user, can research and find out for yourself whether this story was badly bungled or not. The film doesn’t pretend mistakes weren’t made, but it does say the punishment for those mistakes did not fit the “crime.” Bush was re-elected, and no one has ever really held him or the National Guard accountable for their favoritism. Clearly, that favoritism is alive and well.