Adapted from the memoir Truth and Duty by Mary Mapes
Dramas about news journalism have been a film staple for decades.
Classics such as Citizen Kane, All the President’s Men, Shattered Glass, The Insider, Good Night and Good Luck, or last year’s ensemble piece Spotlight, establish investigative reporting as an admirable profession, and one necessary to any free society. It is worth noting that all of them are set at least ten years in the past.
Journalism, or the misuses of journalism, has also been satirised in sharp-edged comedies such as Wag the Dog, Broadcast News, and Network, which warn of threats to serious news reporting, the worst being the gradual obsolescence of accurate reporting due to what one writer calls “a blogosphere of junk” and a focus on other concerns than literal truth. The newly released drama, Truth, joins the ranks of cautionary tales.
In 2004, the year the events portrayed in Truth take place, the American current events programme Sixty Minutes was one of the best of its kind, a weekly series which specialised in thorough investigative reporting on a wide range of topics, and which did not avoid controversial material.
Cate Blanchett plays the clever and driven producer, Mary Mapes, and Robert Redford the programme’s host and advocate, Dan Rather. Prior to the situation described in Truth, Mapes was best known as the reporter who had broken the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
The story begins when a source contacts Mapes, claiming to have photocopied documents relating to then-president George W. Bush’s military record. Later known as the Killian Documents, the items suggest that Bush had used his family connections to bypass many of the demands of military service.
Mapes and the programme’s staff exhaustively research the documents’ claims, trying to track down people who can confirm their authenticity or attest to the statements they make. They are able to find military personnel from George Bush’s former post, the Texas National Guard, who affirm that Bush, along with many young men from elite families, were granted largely nominal positions in military institutions, in order to avoid conscription into active service during a time (the Vietnam War) when it would have been hazardous.
Bush was even unofficially free to take lengthy ‘vacations’ from his already minimal duty, and did not show up to fulfill his last two years of duty – for which he suffered no penalty. Although the original documents are no longer available, the facts are deemed reliably confirmed, and the report is aired.
Shortly after the episode is broadcast, supporters of President Bush begin to attack the report at its weakest point: the photocopied documents. Ignoring the larger story of whether Bush and others had evaded military service, they questioned whether or not the physical copies were from actual, original memos.
The publicity led to an investigation of the story, which became less an inquiry into the truth than a vehicle for partisan politics. Ultimately, the programme’s entire staff were thoroughly questioned by a panel, led by a Bush associate, who seemed more interested in the political beliefs of the producers and reporters, and in maintaining the military status quo, than in the story’s accuracy.
When the original source of the documents is revealed to be anonymous whistleblowers, it is taken by much of the public as evidence that the entire story was fabricated. Political opponents of the programme made effective use of this belief in a painfully dirty campaign.
Mapes in particular is attacked relentlessly; even her estranged father is convinced to go on the air to bitterly attack her politics and her personal ethics. Reporter Dan Rather resigned over the matter, which he found a discouraging sign of negative trends in political reporting; and Mary Mapes was ultimately forced to resign as well. CBS, the network which broadcasts Sixty Minutes, has since denied the film’s claim that it was pressured into forcing her resignation, and refused to air ads for the film.
However, Truth was not meant to be merely a straightforward account of this debacle. It uses the events to represent the decline of journalism and the reasons behind it.
The message comes through repeatedly in the script. When a potential source suggests bringing evidence to a different news medium, Mary Mapes tells him ruefully that there are few other places to go: “Almost nobody is still doing what we’re doing” – meaning real investigative reporting.
The message of Truth is that news journalism, so essential to an informed democracy, is giving way to a combination of political manipulation of the media on the one hand, and trivialisation of media into frivolous junk-news ‘infotainment’ on the other.
Mapes and Rather attended an early screening of Truth, after which they confirmed that the facts as presented in the film are accurate. Rather added,
“I hope that whether you agree with the film or like the film or agree with my work or not, I think it’s important to understand that we reported a true story.
“In the process of getting to the truth, the two basic truths being the first that former President George W. Bush did get into the so-called “champagne” unit of the Air National Guard through political influence; that’s a fact.
“The second is after he got into the guard, after making himself a pilot in very quick time, a very good one, that he disappeared.
“That’s fact two. Nobody disappears from the U.S. military for a year. Those two central facts were part of the truth that we reported.”
The reporting of actual facts, which are in the public interest to know, is lost in the muddle of irrelevant accusations, in what is far from an isolated case.
Apart from the story and its underlying message, Truth is an entertaining film. Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett do excellent work, Blanchett particularly enjoyable as the feisty and determined Mary Mapes.
The unavoidably tedious journalistic work of investigation and source checking is made watchable by the filmmaker’s skill, and the important questions behind the story come across clearly.
Truth can be added to the list of excellent journalism films, along with an implicit warning that there may be fewer and fewer such films to add in the future.
For further viewing:
Kill the Messenger (2014), the story of a 1990s journalist who uncovered the role of the CIA in importing cocaine into the U.S., resulting in a CIA-supported smear campaign against him.
Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism (2004), a documentary on Murdoch’s contribution to ‘fair and balanced’ news reporting (made the same year the events in Truth occurred).