Fourty years after playing Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men, Robert Redford has returned as CBS News’ anchor Dan Rather in Truth, Hollywood’s attempt at telling the story of the Memogate. In September 2004, 60 Minutes Wednesday aired an exclusive─and problematic─report raising doubts about U.S. President George W. Bush’s moral fibre. Criticisms, questions and accusations about the segment immediately rained down. For 10 days, CBS News defended its scoop tooth and nails with inaccuracies, half-truths and questionable sources. Ultimately, the report was retracted, and Rather and CBS News apologized. An independent investigation was conducted. Producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett in the movie) was fired. Three CBS News executives were asked to resign. Rather retired.
The movie, based on the book published by Mapes in 2006, has a distinct spin: in 1968, young Bush’s family had pulled strings to secure him a safe spot in the Texas Air National Guard (TANG) and avoid him the Vietnam war. Mapes and her team “discovered” that while in the Guard Bush had taken his obligations lightly, and had been AWOL (Absent Without Official Leave) for at least one year, without any unpleasant consequences because he enjoyed preferential treatment. When minor problems in Mapes’ exposé were blown out of proportion by right-wing bloggers and the media, CBS News could not stand the heat, caved in, and made scapegoats of Mapes and her colleagues. They, the movie suggests, were punished for doing their job and telling the truth about the President.
So, depending on the viewpoint, the Memogate “scandal” is either a failed journalistic cover-up, or “another” attack against the press.
In fact, the story of Bush in the National Guard, and the President’s alleged misconduct, had been on the radar screen since 1994. Rumors and speculation had made the news for years. Even Mapes had looked into the story starting in 1999, and had been unable to find solid evidence about the preferential treatment theory. At least three high-ranking officers had told her the story had no legs. In the movie, it is suggested that Mapes had to let the story go because her mother was dying. It is also suggested that, had she finished the job, the result of the 2000 election could have been different. Viewers are supposed to understand that Al Gore would likely have become President and there would have been no Iraq War. That’s pushing the envelope quite a bit. On May 23, 2000, months before the election, and four years before the Memogate, the Boston Globe had exposed most of the Bush/TANG story, including the one-year gap. In February 2004, hoping to put a lid on the ongoing controversy, the White House made hundreds of pages of Bush’s military file public. CBS News then reported that Bill Burkett, a retired National Guard officer, was alleging that the said file had been sanitized years before. Burkett eventually boasted that he had told this to more than 200 media.
Early in Truth, we catch the CBS News “crack” team gathered in front of a large map of the United States covered with post-its and red pins. We are made to understand that the reporters have painstakingly documented the steps of George W. Bush between 1968 and 1974. In case some of us don’t get it, one of them has an epiphany: “The President of the United States may have gone AWOL… for over a year?” Contrary to what this scene and the script may lead viewers to understand, the Bush AWOL/TANG story did not pop up in late summer 2004.
The September 8 Report
CBS News forges ahead with its scoop on September 8. That evening, Dan Rather solemnly produces four documents obtained by Mapes on September 2 and 5. The public is told that they come from the personal papers of the late Lt. Colonel Jerry B. Killian, who had been Bush’s commander between 1968 and 1972. Rather states: “Tonight… new information on President George W. Bush’s record in the National Guard… 60 Minutes has obtained government documents that indicate Mr. Bush may have received preferential treatment in the Guard after not fulfilling his commitments… What’s never surfaced before are these four governmental documents from the personal files of the late Colonel Jerry Killian, Bush’s squadron commander…” Rather also said: “We consulted a handwriting analyst and document expert who believes the material is authentic.”
The documents were a memo dated May 4, 1972 in which Killian ordered Bush to take his annual physical; a note to file dated May 19, 1972, in which Killian mentioned his displeasure following a conversation with Bush about him requesting a transfer to Alabama to work on a political campaign; a memo dated August 1, 1972 in which Killian stated that he ordered Bush suspended from flight status due to his failure to meet standards and take his physical; a note to file of August 18, 1973, in which Killian stated that a general was putting pressure to sugarcoat Bush’s officer evaluation.
This was spectacular news. In the midst of the presidential electoral campaign, CBS News had found written proof, deemed authentic, that Bush was a shirker.
But no one had declared the documents to be authentic. Rather’s statement was inaccurate. And the seed of the Memogate was now planted.
The downfall of Rather and Mapes has nothing to see with the fact that their report ruffled feathers, or with the fact that the documents were eventually forgeries. It stems from a much simpler problem: the 60 Minutes segment twisted the facts and misled. Several reporters covered the Bush/TANG story, and as far as we know, none of them was fired.
In the report, former National Guard Lieutenant Robert Strong, introduced as a friend and colleague of Killian, is asked if he has doubts about the documents’ being genuine. He answers: “Well, they are compatible with the way business was done at the time. They are compatible with the man that I remember Jerry Killian being. I don’t see anything in the documents that are discordant…”
The segment immediately got flak, including accusations that the documents were forgeries, as evidenced by typeface anachronisms and various inconsistencies in content and format.
Mapes, and the film, consider that the story was as solid as a three-legged stool. A credible expert had scrutinized the documents and reached favourable conclusions. General Bobby Hodges, who had been Killian’s superior, had apparently confirmed the content of the memos. The documents meshed perfectly with the official Bush record.
The authentication process
Assessing the authenticity of the documents was essential. Basic questions included: Where did they come from? Where had they been for the last 30 years?
Mapes got them from retired Guard officer Bill Burkett, mentioned earlier, a notorious Bush critic. For years, Burkett had been spreading damaging rumors about Bush’s TANG service, some he later recanted. Burkett was also bitter against the Guard, for other reasons. Mapes, in her book, alludes to him having neurological problems. As the movie makes clear, Burkett asked for anonymity. His name did not come out in the September 8 report. Even within the CBS News team, few people learned his identity before September 9.
Rather eventually admitted, but much later, that Burkett was “not a neutral source.” John Roberts, CBS News’ Washington correspondent, was more direct when he learned Burkett was behind the documents. Roberts had interviewed Burkett in February and the conversation had been “meandering,” he said. Roberts told the Review Panel that, had he known about Burkett’s role, he would have had serious concerns about the report, as Burkett was not reliable or credible. The movie does not share Burkett’s background with the audience—his character is even made sympathetic—so that the issue of journalistic precautions that apply to sources with an axe to grind is not discussed.
Rather asserts that the documents come from the personal papers of Killian. Is it really the case, and how did they end up in Burkett’s hands? This will never be clarified. Burkett eventually said he had got them from a former Guard officer named Conn, but he later changed his story, alluding to an anonymous source that could not be tracked down. Mapes prompted criticism from the Review Panel for not doing enough to investigate the chain of custody.
CBS News scrambled to find four document experts to analyze the documents. All four, when they understood the documents were actually photocopies, and bad ones, explained it would be impossible to authenticate them. The movie leads viewers to believe that a number of experts scrutinized all documents. In fact, only one of the four, Marcel Matley, saw all four documents used in the segment before the broadcast. The three others saw only one.
Unable to authenticate photocopies, Matley, a handwriting specialist, focused on the signatures. Only one of the four documents bore a Killian signature. Matley eventually said the signature was from the same hand as another, known to be from Killian.
Another expert, James Pierce, apparently said there was “nothing in the documents that indicated they had been tampered with but that he could not reach a definite conclusion.”
Two other experts, Emily Will and Linda James, pointed Mapes’ team to typeface problems and other inconsistencies. They were eventually kicked out.
To start with, the documents did not seem to have been typed on a 1972 typewriter. If you typed them with MS Word, photocopied the result a few times, you got copies similar to the Killian documents. In the movie, this is discovered after the broadcast and “Mapes” is taken aback. In the real world, experts Emily Will and Linda James had raised red flags on September 5, and again on the 7. That day, Will had recommended that CBS News hire Peter Tytell, a prominent typewriter expert. A call was placed to Tytell, which he returned the following morning, September 8. He was then told that his services were no longer required. That part of the story is ignored in the movie. Tytell’s name does not appear in Mapes’book.
Of note, on September 8, Rather alluded to only one expert, Matley, to support the documents, as if the three others did not exist. But on September 9, when the temperature started rising, the plural form was adopted. CBS News wrote in a statement: “The documents… were thoroughly examined and their authenticity vouched for by independent experts.” That was inaccurate. It continued on September 10, during the newscast: “Document and handwriting analyst Marcel Matley analyzed the documents for CBS News. He says he believes they are real…” And on September 11: “The documents were authenticated for CBS News by outside experts.” And on September 15: “Are those documents authentic, as experts consulted by CBS News continue to maintain?”
This is the core issue of the Memogate.
Without the stubborn repetition of these “inaccuracies,” which raises questions of method, integrity and credibility, there would have been no careers destroyed, no book, no movie. Truth, which takes its cues from Mapes’ book, musters enough chutzpah to ignore the matter altogether: not once do we hear “Rather” say on the record that “experts have authenticated the documents.” The film simply sweeps under the rug the very stuff without which there would have been no story. Even in Hollywood, it seems, there was no trick that could make these facts mesh with the script.
As for Strong, he explained to the Review Panel that he had left the Guard in March 1972, before the documents were allegedly written, and that he knows nothing of Bush Guard service, or the documents’content. Strong was based in Austin, Killian and Bush were based in Houston.
The Strong interview was shot on September 5. Strong was shown the documents a few minutes before the camera rolled. According to the Review Panel Report, “Lieutenant Strong [said] that when he tried to express his opinion regarding the format of the Killian documents, he was told by Mapes that there were five experts who were anthenticating the documents and that was not his concern. Lieutenant Strong also said that he made clear to Mapes that he had no personal knowledge regarding the Killian documents or the events described in the documents… ”
Nevertheless, on September 10, Rather said Strong “is standing by his judgment that the document are real.” Strong never said the documents were real, and had not been asked if he maintained his earlier statements.
The Review Panel eventually tracked down several Guard veterans who had been close to the events. All raised doubts about the documents. Some of them had been interviewed by Mapes in 1999 and had not displayed support for the preferential treatment theory. None of them had been called by CBS News as part of the preparation of the September 8 report.
In summary, the documents that formed the heart of the story had not been authenticated; repeated assertions that they had been authenticated by experts were inaccurate; the origin of the documents and the chain of custody had not been clearly established; Strong’s vague, inconclusive comments had been framed as hard evidence, and words had been put in his mouth.
The trump card
Major-General Hodges does not appear in the segment. But he unwittingly played a significant role in it, as is shown in the movie. Hodges was Killian’s superior. Mapes spoke to him over the phone and did not show him the documents. She read him at least part of their content, after telling him the documents came from Killian’s personal papers. Hodges understood that Mapes was reading from handwritten notes undoubtedly known to be from Killian’s hand. According to Mapes, Hodges said the documents sounded familiar and confirmed that Killian had been unhappy to see Bush ask a transfer. That’s the version retained in the movie script. According to Hodges, that’s not what he said.
This is a classical he said/she said situation. Of note, Mapes’ personal notes taken during the conversation indicate that Hodges said that Bush had been transferred with everyone’s blessing, and that Hodges added: “[Bush] was an outstanding officer for four years… [You’re] trying to make news. Trying to create a problem here when there isn’t one… That’s going overboard.”
There were two people in the room with Mapes as she spoke with Hodges, but Mapes says in her book that they heard only her side of the conversation. Truth twists the facts by showing them listening to Hodges’answers, perhaps to make Mapes’ version of what he said less vulnerable.
A careful read of the Review Panel Report indicates that Mapes’ memories as to what she did, said, or was told, did not match with what other people recalled in at least twelve cases. Like the call to the Kerry campaign, depicted in the movie. Early on, Burkett had asked Mapes’ help to establish such a contact on his behalf. He thought he could become an advisor to Kerry. By making the call, Mapes put herself in a difficult situation, ethically and perceptually. Later, Mapes said she had asked and obtained permission from her boss, but he denied this vigorously. Mapes’version of the facts also didn’t dovetail with that of Joe Lockhart, the Kerry campaign official who eventually spoke with Burkett. He said Mapes called him, she said he called her.
For Mapes, the Hodges interview was decisive. She fell victim, it seems, to the confirmation bias, and heard what she wanted to hear. She eventually told two colleagues she had just “verified the contents of the documents” and had found the “holy grail.”
On September 9, as CBS News was in full swing circling the wagons, the media reported that a CBS official had stated that Hodges had been the “trump card” who had persuaded the network that the documents were authentic. After looking at the documents, by then publicly available, an annoyed Hodges contacted CBS News on September 10 to say he believed they were forgeries. On September 11, in a newscast, CBS News said that although Hodges had first “corroborated” the story, he “now” claimed the documents were “not real” (Hodges had not seen the documents on September 8, and never said they were genuine), adding: “We believed General Hodges the first time we spoke with him, we believe the documents to be genuine, we stand by our story…”
Hodges had gone from trump card to scapegoat.
The paramount importance of corroboration is probably the most enduring Woodward and Bernstein legacy. They treaded very cautiously, and never published sensitive information before it was confirmed by at least another, independent source, often more than one. The more critical the information was, the more careful they were. Even if we were to acknowledge that Hodges changed his version, which is not impossible, but seems unlikely and remains unproven, such a story concerning the President of the United States should not have been that vulnerable and dependent on a single source, dubbed the trump card. How could someone who did not even see the documents and, according to Mapes’ own notes, insists this is a tempest in a teapot, be the trump card?
The truth is not whatever comes out of a critical mass of half-truths.
The third leg of the stool was the so-called meshing exercise: an analysis of the content and format of the documents, that showed how they dovetailed perfectly, “in ways large and small,” and “extremely well,” according to Mapes, with the official record, proving how feeble was the possibility that the reporters were dealing with forgeries. The Review Panel found several anomalies. Here are just three examples:
- The August 18, 1973 memo mentions that a General Staudt had apparently “pressured” Hodges to “sugarcoat” Bush’s file. However, General Staudt had retired in March 1972. He denied, and others concurred, that he had kept such influence in August 1973.
- Bush was compelled by regulation to pass his routine annual physical after May 2 (not before) and no later than July 31. To be ordered by writing to proceed, and only two days after the beginning of the allowed 90-day period, was unusual. The May 4 memo did not mesh perfectly well in the story.
- In all the Guard documents contained in the official record, the signature block is on the left. In the Killian documents, the signature block is on the right.
Such inconsistencies in no way prove that the documents were without merit, or had been fabricated. They only prove that Mapes’ sweeping statements about the “meshing” were questionable. The Review Panel Report noted: “What was at first asserted by Mapes prior to the broadcast of the segment to be a good meshing without any apparent qualification has now been transformed into an argument that there is nothing in the official Bush records that would rule out the authenticity of the Killian documents.”
Memogate: a failed journalistic cover-up
The Review Panel report says: “[After September 8] CBS News made numerous mistakes… It refused for a long period even to acknowledge that it might have erred; it focused its search for fresh examiners only on those who would agree with the conclusions of the September 8 segment; it let ‘We stand by our story’ substitute for ‘Let’s make sure we’re right’; it brushed aside criticism; and it issued inaccurate public statements.”
The defense of the report, at least in the early stages, needs to be put in context. Many, at CBS News, were convinced that the story was solid and that the documents had been authenticated. The Review Panel wrote: “Most of those interviewed by the Panel who had been involved in the preparation and vetting of the segment believed that four handwriting and document experts and Major General Hodges had reached an unqualified conclusion as of September 8 that the Killian documents were authentic.” To a certain extent, CBS News at first did exactly what Rather and Mapes said it did not do: defend their work.
As seen earlier, up to September 15, Rather repeatedly and inaccurately told the public that the documents had been authenticated by experts. On September 10, CBS News also said, in a statement, that the sources behind the documents (Burkett and Conn) were “unimpeachable.” This cannot be accepted as accurate. That statement is not in the film.
Only on September 15 would Rather start to question the documents on the record. That came with a shift in strategy: “Are those documents authentic, as experts consulted by CBS News continue to maintain? Or were they forgeries…? We will keep an open mind… Having said that, we do feel it’s important to underscore this point: Those who have criticized aspects of our story have never criticized the heart of it, the major thrust of our report, that George Bush received preferential treatment…”
Rather acknowledged on September 20 that he could no longer vouch for the authenticity of the documents, and apologized. By then, Burkett had been convinced to grant an on-camera interview. It was a trap, he became the chief scapegoat.
Truth deceives in at least two major ways. First, by framing the National Guard controversy as a scoop; two, by omitting facts or remaining vague about much of what happened after September 8, except for the Burkett interview, conducted on September 18.
Making the Bush/TANG story sound like a scoop provided support for Mapes and Rather’s interpretation of the Memogate: that what counted was the broader “true” story, not the so-called details. As we have seen, the “truth” they were talking about had been reported years before. Truth is thus unfair not just to the truth, but also to the journalists who had actually broken the story.
If we were to accept Rather and Mapes’ reasoning, it would be good journalism to present hypotheses as facts, provided no one managed to prove them false. We would have to accept that what counts is to be right, to be prescient, to have good intuitions, and that facts and evidence are optional. Journalism, on the contrary, centers on facts and evidence. Here, the “scoop” was that CBS News had found proof that a never-proven story was true. To see the proof vaporize was not a “detail.” Bob Zelnick, chaiman of the journalism department at Boston University would say: “There was no thrust of the story without the documents. Without the documents, that report would never have made 60 Minutes or the CBS Evening News.”
If, in the fall of 1972, Woodward and Bernstein had written that President Nixon was part of the cover-up, that he had lied, that he was involved in finding money to muzzle the so-called Watergate plumbers and would be impeached, they would have been right. But today the Washington Post would be a institution to be remembered, and Woodward and Bernstein would be teaching journalism in Madagascar.
The movie’s other distortion strategy is its elliptic and selective approach to what happened on and after September 9. Viewers are left under the false impression that the whole Memogate drama stemmed from the September 8 segment. In a large measure, the problem came from what happened between September 9 and 20, when more inaccuracies, half-truths and questionable sources were summoned to cover-up the inaccuracies and half-truths of the original report.
Journalists have an obligation of means, much more than an obligation of results. They are allowed to err, provided they have diligently followed due process and complied with professional standards. As a result, they cannot introduce as true a story that perhaps some day will be proven true, but that for the moment is hypothetical, and then try to hide the inaccuracies, half-truths and omissions they used to support the story’s “veracity.” At the very end of her book, Mapes writes: “The president knows that what I and most Americans strongly suspect about his National Guard service is true.”
In the book, and in the movie, CBS News’ management becomes the ultimate scapegoat. Under pressure, it is alleged, the network sheepishly refused to back its reporters and defend the truth. In the real word, it seems that the main reproach one can direct at CBS News is to have put way too much trust in its reporters. This paved the way for slack in the vetting process.
Writes Mapes on page 1 of her book: “I woke up smiling on September 9, 2004. My story on George W. Bush’s Guard service had run on 60 Minutes the night before and I felt it had been a solid piece. We had worked under tremendous pressure because of the short time frame and the explosive content, but we’d made our deadline and, most importantly, we’d made news. I was confident in my work…” A good night’s sleep? A solid story? Really?
Flip to page 189, where Mapes describes the day before, a few hours from showtime: “I was uncomfortable with the script and, in retrospect, I should have done something I’d never done at work before. I should have said, ‘No.’ I should have said, ‘You’ll have to run some other story tonight. I’m not going to crash this’… But I didn’t say those things. Instead, I went back to work on the script as ordered and kept juggling and writing… Everyone was frantic… Josh [Howard] and Betsy [West] were having trouble making up their minds… Eventually, there was no time to argue the merits of what was being left in the script or what was being left out. They told me, I typed. They asked for a change, I made it. I was on producer autopilot… the tension in the room was too much for most… our faces were drained… our voices were raised. We looked like we were delivering a baby in the back of a cab, complete with screams, tears, and thorn clothing.” There is no such scene of panic in the movie. Here, Truth appears to be putting a generous coat of lipstick on the pig.
As seen above, what counted for Mapes, in a large measure, was to make news. There is no mention of public interest or democracy in the first page of her book, but rather of her satisfaction of having won a race against the clock and against her competitors, with explosive content. Indeed, the Review Panel Report makes it clear that the story was rushed. Only three days separate CBS News obtaining the last documents from Burkett to airtime, a ridiculously short delay for such a complex story. Why such haste? Clearly, competitive pressure played a role. In the previous weeks, USA Today, Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Boston Globe had all put the spotlight, again, on the Bush/TANG story. On September 5, Associated Press published a piece on the story, as did the Boston Globe and USNews.com on the 8.
What higher purpose is served by the movie? Conspiracy theorists will praise Truth and use it as evidence that freedom of the press remains under constant, imminent threat. Those who, for ages, have denounced the liberal bias of the media have now gained fresh ammunition. More polarization, when we could have benefited from a more reflective look at the conditions in which journalism is practiced. The general public deserved better, but that’s not the first time, nor the last, that Hollywood underestimates the audience. The film is also unfair to the people of CBS News. Their reputation suffers again, for no good reason. Consciencious, hard-working journalists should deplore what amounts to glorifying of sloppiness, denial and unaccountability.
Truth is the cover-up of the failed cover-up of a problematic news report.
SOURCES: This piece is based on the Review Panel Report (Report of the Independent Review Panel on the September 8, 2004 60 Minutes Wednesday segment “For the Record“ concerning President Bush’s Texas Air National Guard Service) by Dick Thornburgh and Louis D. Boccardi, January 5, 2005; on Mary Mapes’ book (Truth and Duty, The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006); on Dan Rather and Digby Diehl’s book (Rather Outspoken, My Life in the News, Grand Central Publishing, 2012) and on articles mentioned in the notes. Was also of help: “George W. Bush Was AWOL, But What’s ‘Truth’ Got to Do With It” by Dan Froomkin (The Intercept).
© Michel Lemay.
 Martin, Hodges, Staudt. Report, 46-47.
 Walter V. Robinson, “One-year gap in Bush’s National Guard Duty,” Boston Globe, May 23, 2000.
 Report, 1-2.
 Report, 88.
 Report, 55-56, 97-98, 119.
 Aside from a brief allusion at the very end of the film, when Burkett is depicted as a lier by the lead investigator, who by that point has lost credibility with viewers.
 Burkett gave six documents to CBS News (two on September 2, four on September 5). Matley saw all six documents, the three other experts saw two. Only four of the six documents were used in the segment.
 Report, 86.
 It would be represented that they “deferred” to Matley. Both deny that.
 Report, 84-85; 106-108; 173-174. Tytell’s name does not appear either in Rather’s book.
 Report, 20.
 That quote is featured in Truth, but viewers are not told of the qualifications expressed by Matley, who never said the documents were genuine.
 On September 13, CBS News produced two new experts prepared to say what was needed in the circumstances. Given the language used by Rather, the public would have understood that Rather was alluding to the original four.
 Report, 87. “Mapes told the Panel that, while she knew that Lieutenant Strong did not have personal knowledge, she felt that he was a valuable witness because (1) he knew all of the people involved, (2) he knew how the [TANG] operated, and (3) paperwork was his specialty (Report, 88).
 In her book, Mapes says she contacted Chad Clanton, a Kerry staffer, asking him to ask Joe Lockhart, a Kerry campaign official, to contact Burkett. Mapes alludes to no conversation between her and Lockhart. Lockhart eventually called Burkett. According to the Review Panel Report, Mapes said that after she spoke to Clanton, Lockhart call her before speaking to Burkett. Lockhart says she called him, and that he felt she lobbied him because a call from Lockhart would induce Burkett to supply additional documents. (Report 64-65; 91-93). On September 17, a USA Today reporter asked CBS if the network had helped putting Burkett in touch with the Kerry campaign. Mapes then said no such help had been provided (Report, 201).
 Report 101-104.
 Report, 180.
 Mapes, 3, 167.
 Report, 42, 120, 145, 182.
 Report, 133.
 Report, 151.
 Report, 156. In the movie, at some point a CBS executive challenges Mapes after learning that “two” experts (Will and James) have now confirmed they had not authenticated the documents. This leaves the impression the two others had.
 Report, 20, 164.
 The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, PBS, September 20, 2004.
 Mapes, 313.
 Matt Kelley, “Bush’s Air National Guard file missing some required records” (Associated Press, September 5, 2004); Walter V. Robinson, Stephen Kurkjian, Francie Latour, Sacha Pfeiffer, Michael Rezendes, “Bush fell short on duty at Guard” (Boston Globe, September 8, 2004) et Kit R. Roane “Bush’s military service in question – again” (USNews.com, U.S. News and World Report), September 8, 2004.