Selling a big lie.
The movie Truth isn't yet officially out, but it's been the subject of enough early reviews to establish that it strongly communicates one great and important truth: that if you want to sell a Big Lie that's been definitely and very publicly exposed as a lie, just wait a decade or so and then make an all-star Hollywood movie presenting that lie as the unvarnished truth. Promote the hell out of it. Then sit back and watch history get rewritten in the mind of a whole new generation.
In 2004, only weeks before the presidential election, CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather and 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes served up a report about President George W. Bush's service in the National Guard. The claims they made were conceivably explosive enough to lose the election for Bush. But the documents they presented as proof of those claims were obvious forgeries – correspondence supposedly dating from the 1970s but obviously typed on a modern-day computer.
When caught in this deception – not by their superiors or their competitors at the other networks, but by members of the new “non-traditional” media, i.e., independent news and comment websites – Rather and Mapes stonewalled. CBS tried at first to stand by them, but the lie was too transparent to defend.
Both of their careers at the network ended there. If they'd had any decency, they'd have shuffled off into a cave somewhere and stayed there until they rustled up some shame, some contrition, some capacity for self-reproach. Instead they played the victim card. They went around telling anyone willing to listen that they'd been betrayed by corporate this and Republican that. Mapes wrote a book pushing her and Rather's fraudulent version of what had happened – representing them not as purveyors of fake evidence who'd been caught red-handed but as intrepid journalists undone by a bunch of television network suits who were overly deferential to the GOP.
They let the old earth take a couple of whirls. And then, lo and behold, the politics of Hollywood being what they are, somebody came along who was ready, willing, and eager to make a movie telling their story from their point of view – and audacious enough to call this pack of lies Truth.
In promoting the movie, writer and director James Vanderbilt has been doing a deft job of shifting the focus of his comments away from the manifest falsity of the documents to another subject entirely: the advent of the blogosphere. “I think what’s amazing about this story is that it was the first time the Internet kind of rose up and affected a story with such amazing speed,” he told Women's Wear Daily. “Now that’s what we live with everyday. For Mary and Dan and CBS, they were completely taken aback by that. So that was fascinating, to be able to dramatize what I think is a fulcrum point in the history of journalism and media.” When WWD asked Vanderbilt whether he thought the documents were genuine – a question that was settled beyond a shadow of a doubt eleven years ago – Vanderbilt replied, with breathtaking chutzpah: “I don’t know. I think you have to be in the middle to make those decisions. I just know there’s a good story there that needed to be told.” WWD deserves credit for asking the question; but why didn't its reporter finish the job by pointing out that Vanderbilt's reply was simply a lie told in defense of a lie?
Bottom line: Truth is a cynical piece of work – as cynical as it gets. Vanderbilt and company have made this picture knowing that millions of today's young adults were children when Rathergate took place, and don't know anything about it other than what they'll see in the film. Others, old enough to have lived through the episode, will have faded memories of it, or perhaps no memories of it at all. Still others who remember the whole thing are left-wing ideologues who were so appalled at the time by the idea of George W. Bush being relected that they viewed Rather and Mapes as heroes for trying to bring him down.
Meanwhile, many others who do remember the facts, and who do recognize the film as telling a lie, just won't care that much. After all, it's just one more story. Most movie are fiction, anyway. There are lies all over the place. Why care so much about this one? The important question, to them, may be whether the whole big bundle of lies makes for a couple of hours of solid entertainment.
That's an unfortunate attitude, because Rathergate did matter – as does this breathtaking attempt to rewrite its history.
The good news here is that some people do remember what really happened, and have criticized this movie for turning the facts upside down. The bad news – which, so far, seems to be heavily outweighing the good – is that a staggering number of powerful media figures who know better have played along with the movie's lies.
Newspapers like USA Today – which are supposedly in the business of separating fact from fiction – have run the usual puff pieces for Truth, gushing over the casting, direction, acting, and so forth without so much as mentioning the uncomfortable little detail that the whole thing is a crock.
Routinely, articles about the movie – by people who certainly must know the facts – evade them, or euphemize them, perhaps to avoid offending Sony, or Robert Redford (whom the reviewers and reporters almost invariably treat as an icon) or Cate Blanchett (who's been crowned as her generation's Meryl Streep), or perhaps simply because they see it as their job not to correct the movie's mendacities but to help promote it. Routinely, instead of admitting straight out that the documents were forgeries, journalists call them “questionable” or said that they were “never properly authenticated.”
Reuters put it this way: the documents “could not be authenticated.” The only thing Anthony D'Alessandro of Deadline Hollywood had to say about the documents in his rave review of the film was that Dan and Mary “were questioned over their authenticity.” All Entertainment Weekly said about the documents is that they were “called into question.” Asked by Jasmin Rosemberg of Variety whether the documents were “ever definitively deemed fraudulent,” Mapes said: “I don’t know, because I can’t authenticate them, I can’t test the ink, I can’t test the paper. I can test the information in them: and the information was good.” Rosemberg, by allowing Mapes to lead the conversation away from the documents and toward the issue of Bush's military service, seemed to be buying her line that “issues deeper than paperwork validity were at hand.”
Then there's evening-news anchor George Stephanopoulos, who works for ABC News now and was already working for it at the time of Rathergate. Surely he knows what really happened. But when Cate Blanchett showed up at ABC to promote Truth, Stephanopoulos did a shameless job of toeing the filmmakers' line. He and Blanchett talked as if Rather and Mapes were the victims not of their own lies but of a vicious bunch of online right-wingers who were determined, for their own ignoble ideological reasons, to bring down the mainstream media. Calling Truth a “terrific movie,” Stephanopoulos didn't so much as hint that the film's storyline was total B.S.
Someone who did a marginally better job than Stephanopoulos was New York Times report Susan Dominus. But only marginally. At a “Times Talks” live-audience event, she interviewed Redford, Blanchett, Rather, and Mapes for ninety minutes. It was a lovefest. Redford said Truth is about how media corporations stymie free speech and truth-seeking reporters; Blanchett also murmured something about “corporate Western cultures”; Rather thundered that CBS, the “corporate entity” that had stood by its news division for fifty years, had betrayed it during Rathergate. “The fact that we made mistakes,” he insisted, “shouldn't obscure the fact that we reported the truth.” The problem was that he and Mapes, in Rathergate, had reported “truths that very powerful people didn't want to know.”
Curiously, while going after corporate news media, both Rather and Redford waxed nostalgic for the pre-Internet era when news reporting was, in fact, pretty much a corporate monopoly. (As Redford put it, news was recognized, back then, as a “sacred trust” and “people could look at the news and realize that it was not being messsed around with.” Was he thinking of the good old days when the Times was shilling for Stalin and Castro?) Meanwhile Mapes made her own politics crystal clear, blaming her fall on the lack of “progressive” voices in the 2004 blogosphere and saying it was especially important to get the National Guard story out because “Bush was running for re-election and we were in two wars.”
Throughout all this baldfaced lying, Dominus praised her guests, nodded and grinned obsequiously at their comments – and, very infrequently, gave their outrageously counterfactual statements the most gingerly, half-hearted, parenthetic kind of pushback imaginable, obviously fearful of offending these big names or outraging the Manhattan audience, which was clearly on her interviewees' side. Not even when Rather flat-out denied that the documents were forgeries (!) did Dominus challenge him. The furthest she would go was to suggest timidly, at one point, that “in a way...social media has been helpful for journalists” by providing “a healthy check for the reporter.”
One sign of things to come may be that New York audience. It gave Rather a standing ovation and enthusiastically applauded his and Mapes's self-serving evasions and recriminations. Despite Dominus's pathetic, feeble performance, one audience member, during the Q&A, actually accused her of “playing devil's advocate” too much during the interview – and the crowd cheered in agreement. Truth, then, may prove to be catnip for a certain segment of the American left that, as the disastrous Obama presidency approaches the finish line, is eager for an opportunity to turn away from this eight-year embarrassment and return to the simple pleasures of Bush-bashing
To be sure, this isn't over. In fact, it hasn't even officially begun. The film's U.S. release is scheduled for October 16. In the weeks to come, it will be very interesting to see whether Truth manages to win out over the truth – or vice-versa.