The episode known as Rathergate represents one of the great journalistic frauds of our time. The scandal erupted from a 60 Minutes Wednesday segment rushed to air on the evening of September 8, 2004, in time to influence the approaching presidential election pitting George W. Bush against John Kerry, as it was clearly intended to do. The segment consisted of two parts that didn’t quite fit together except in their antipathy to Bush. In the first part, based on an interview with the vice chairman of Kerry’s national finance committee, Dan Rather essentially claimed that political influence had been brought to bear to secure Bush’s admission to the Texas Air National Guard as an interceptor jet pilot in 1968. In the second part, based on documents supposedly from the “personal file” of Bush’s commanding officer, Rather reported that Bush had defied an order to take a physical necessary to maintain his flight status and, among other things, thus failed to discharge his military obligations. The segment was produced and written by Mary Mapes.
In researching the story, Mapes spoke to witnesses with firsthand knowledge of the Texas Air National Guard’s personnel needs. She was told that they needed pilots at the time, and that no influence would have been necessary to secure Bush’s admission. The documents on which Rather based the second segment proved to be fabricated on Microsoft Word in the computer era, not typewritten in the early 1970s by Bush’s commanding officer or anyone else. The content and format of the documents also betrayed their fabrication. The story began to fall apart within a few hours of its broadcast. On September 20, 12 days after the broadcast, Rather extended an apology “personally and directly” to viewers for his inability to authenticate the documents.
To investigate what happened, CBS commissioned a panel chaired by former attorney general Richard Thornburgh and former Associated Press president Lou Boccardi. The report, released in January 2005, provides ample evidence that the entire segment was false and/or fraudulent. It finds that CBS News was at the least grossly negligent in airing the story. As CBS puts it, the report finds that “CBS News failed to follow basic journalistic principles in the preparation and reporting of the Sept. 8, 2004 broadcast.” Mapes was promptly fired as were three other executives with responsibility for the story. Rather stepped down from the CBS Evening News in March 2005 and was let go from the network the following year.
Both Mapes (Truth and Duty, 2005) and Rather (Rather Outspoken, 2012) have written memoirs standing by the story. Hollywood has now produced the film Truth, based on Mapes’s memoir, starring Robert Redford as Rather and Cate Blanchett as Mapes. Despite Mapes’s responsibility for perpetrating a shocking journalistic fraud, the film portrays her as a heroic figure. Mapes not only gets a stellar actress to play her, she is also portrayed as a martyr to the First Amendment and a victim of corporate cowardice. And Dan Rather gets to see Robert Redford portray him. Calling the film Truth suggests confidence that public memories have faded. The lapse of 11 years is apparently sufficient time to allow for the rewriting of history.
Last week, the New York Times stepped in to celebrate the film, which will be released on October 16. The paper assembled a panel featuring Redford, Blanchett, Rather, and Mapes to discuss the film before an enthusiastic New York audience. New York Times Magazine staff writer Susan Dominus, moderating the discussion, gingerly attempted to inject a note of realism, but she was repeatedly brushed aside. Dominus professed herself troubled by Mapes’s having “left the door wide open for the right to drive through.” Dominus’s implicit assumption was that the authenticity of the documents was only arguably at issue; Rather dismisses her focus on the “technical” or “procedural” issues regarding the documents’ provenance and repeatedly stands by their “truth” along with the rest of the story. Rather goes back on his apology, which he implies was forced from him by CBS management. “The basic facts of the story are true,” Rather says (a redundancy, but we get the point). Mistakes were made, Rather allows, but they were “within the normal range of journalistic bungle.” Mapes is intransigent throughout.
All of which raises a simple question: What is the New York Times doing promoting the film and Rather’s and Mapes’s discredited accounts? While Rathergate lacks the historical importance of Walter Duranty’s journalistic wrongdoing as the Times’s Moscow bureau chief in the 1930s, it nonetheless should serve as an uncomfortable reminder of that shameful episode. As the Times’s man in Moscow, Duranty covered up Stalin’s terror famine in the Ukraine. Reflecting in the first volume of his autobiography on his experience working for the Manchester Guardian alongside Duranty in Moscow, Malcolm Muggeridge wrote: “If the New York Times went on all those years giving great prominence to Duranty’s messages, building him and them up when they were so evidently nonsensically untrue . . . this was not, we may be sure, because the Times was deceived. Rather it wanted to be so deceived, and Duranty provided the requisite deception material.” History repeats itself; in its own way, the Times’s celebration of Truth represents a closing of this particular circle.