Based on former CBS news producer, Mary Mapes memoir, the film takes a look as the 60 Minutes II segment claiming that then President, George W. Bush, running for re-election in 2004 received special treatment back in the early 1970’s by passing over hundreds of other applicants to enlist in the Texas Air National Guard. This all happening while the Vietnam War was still in progress. Mapes is said to have received supporting documents from the files of George W. Bush’s then Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B Killian, then deceased. The files were delivered to Mapes by Bill Burkett, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Texas Army National Guard. When the showed aired, Dan Rather said the documents have been authenticated by various experts.
The problems began after the showed aired when rumors, mostly from Conservative bloggers, began to circulate that Mapes and her team went ahead with the story without scrutinizing how truthful or real the documents used for the story were. The vetting process was questionable. CBS announced they could not back up whether the documents were real or not, and only had copies of the documents in hand. Burkett first said he had burned the originals. Later he retracted the statement. An independent panel was enlisted and one of the things that came to light was that Mapes interviewed some of Bush’s former instructors or colleagues who told her Bush had said he wanted to go to Vietnam, but that he could not go because there were others ahead of him with more seniority. Mapes did not include any of this information in her segment. Three of Mapes producing team resigned and CBS soon after fired Mapes, a Peabody Award winning producer. A few months later, after the 2004 election, Dan Rather whose image was also sullied by the accusations retired. 60 Minutes II would also shortly after be dropped by the network. Mapes has not worked in television since.
So were the documents forgeries? Did Mapes and her team do the required amount of vetting? Did CBS just want to find a scapegoat, for what had become a big embarrassment for their prized News Division, and sweep it all under the rug so they could move on? Was there some sort of conspiracy? The one thing both sides agreed upon was that the story was rushed to be put on the air. CBS wanted it out a couple months before the election, it aired on September 8th, so it would not look politically motivated.
Truth is based on Mapes 2006 book, Truth: The Press, The President, and the Privilege of Power. The film, while not on the same level as All the President’s Men and the more recent film, Spotlight, is a riveting ride into the world of TV news journalism. It’s anchored by a strong, intense performance from Cate Blanchett as Mapes and an uncanny stylish work by Robert Redford as Dan Rather. The film follows Mapes version of what happened. While she has admitted mistakes were made, she sticks by her story and its truth. Getting the blame is CBS which both the book and the film accuse of bowing down to pressure from the White House.
One of the rules of investigative journalism is checking and rechecking your facts, or in this case documents, which admittedly by all was not done as thoroughly as it should have been.
When we first meet Mapes and Rather, they are both enjoying a high point in their careers. Mapes having done a powerful segment revealing the abuses of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib. They soon learn about the National Guard story involving then President George W. Bush. After getting a go from CBS heads, Mapes puts together a team consisting of a Vietnam veteran (Dennis Quaid) a young researcher, (Topher Grace and a Professor (Elizabeth Moss) to begin looking into the allegations that Bush received preferential treatment in getting into the Texas National Guard.
Like all the best journalism films we see the investigative process, the meetings, the tips, the dead-ends and finally the payoff, in this case, documents provided by a Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett, detailing how Bush, the son of a then prominent Texas businessman and politician, George H. Bush, received special consideration in getting into the Texas National Guard and even cover ups of a less to than glorious service career and avoiding going to Vietnam.
Written and directed by James Vanderbilt, best known for his screenplay of David Fincher’s Zodiac, must love journalism because he dives into the procedural details of the profession like someone with vengeance tearing away any illusion of glamour in the profession.
After watching the film, one is left with the question of where does the truth really lie? It’s not a simple question and does not have a simple answer. Mapes and her team did not do the proper in-depth vetting reporters should routinely do. Additionally, the pressures of network television and possible political influences may have been factors. However, none of that invalidates whether the story was true or untrue. Preferential treatment by the rich, the privileged, those with influence has a long, long history. The Bush family had all three and most likely used the system to their advantage and beat it.