Redford's character.

Photographer: Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Dan Rather: The Big Interview

Remember 'Memogate'? Makers of a Dan Rather Film Don't

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
Read More.
a | A

Looking for "The truth behind Dan Rather’s exit from CBS"?

That's the headline for yesterday's Page Six, because there's a new movie coming out about Dan Rather's precipitous departure from the network 10 years ago. Naturally, Cindy Adams dishes some details.

But we'll get to the column in a minute. What's more interesting is, well, the truth behind Dan Rather's exit from CBS. He and his producer and several other people were dropped because they screwed up.

In the run-up to the 2004 election, they went on air with a blockbuster story about George W. Bush having gone AWOL during his service in the Air National Guard. The documents that backed this story up were probably forgeries.

Now, I say "probably," because I can't exclude the very remote possibility that in the early 1970s Bush's commanding officer, for reasons lost to history, decided to type up these memos himself (even though his wife said he couldn't type) rather than getting his secretary to do it.

I can't prove that he never got his hands on a rather exotic typewriter instead of using the ones that were in his office, spent some time working on it with a soldering gun, and managed to coincidentally produce a document that looked exactly like what you would get if you opened up Microsoft Word 2003 and started typing.

I can't rule out the possibility that he, for reasons known only to himself, wrote these documents using Army jargon in several places rather than the terms that would have been used in the Air National Guard.

I can't rule out the possibility that these documents somehow escaped from his office, roamed around in the wild for several decades, and eventually ended up in the possession of a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard, who had an ax to grind against both the National Guard and one George W. Bush.

I also can't rule out the possibility that somewhere in this vast universe of ours, there is a planet composed entirely of marshmallow, where the rivers run with honey.

This document ended up on the air because neither Rather nor his producer did their jobs right. They ignored glaring red flags about the source of the document, including the fact that he kept changing his story and finally settled on an implausible and uncheckable version about a mysterious woman who wanted the originals destroyed because ... um, why? (Mary Mapes, the producer, speculated that she might have been worried about DNA evidence. Too bad she did not settle on the more likely scenario: that they were destroyed to conceal their creation on a laser printer.) Rather and his producer ignored experts who raised problems with the document.

They rushed the documents onto air, and then, when the story exploded in their face, they spent an unconscionably long time attacking the people who had pointed out the glaring issues with their source material. They clung to theories along the lines of Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian assiduously fiddling with the margin stops on his typewriter, such that they coincidentally lined up exactly with the defaults in as-yet-uninvented Microsoft Word. For two weeks, they dragged their network through a professional embarrassment of a scale that has rarely been reached again, because they didn't do the most basic thing we're paid for: properly vet their story before they started hurling serious, potentially election-altering accusations at a sitting president.

Okay, so that's why Rather left CBS. But that is not, according to Rather, the story you will hear in the movie: "The nuanced, not preachy, script makes clear our report was true. Facts can’t be denied. But today it’s more about big corporations having big power than about truth. Bush was up for re-election. Sumner Redstone wanted him re-elected and would have his news division do what he wanted. What develops is the habit of pulling back, working from fear."

Now, I haven't seen the movie. Maybe Rather has it wrong. Maybe the movie actually portrays the thing that happened, rather than the thing that Rather seems to think happened. But other reporting on this film suggests Rather is right. Ahem. I mean he is right that the film will distort history. His handling of the memo is still way wrong.

I get that movies have to take dramatic license. Reality is often kind of boring. Personally, I think the story of what happened at "60 Minutes" would make a great movie, along the lines of "Shattered Glass," exploring how smart, experienced people could go so wildly astray from the basic canons of their profession. But I am not a screenwriter, and maybe that's not an easy story to tell.

But it seems to me that there are limits. I mean, it would be a great story if Bernie Madoff was actually a misunderstood guy who never stole a dime from his clients. It would be a great story if Enron was actually a totally solid company brought low by an overzealous investigation. It would be a great story if I were to win an Olympic gold medal in the 100-yard dash despite being a 42-year-old writer in pitifully bad shape.

Heck, it would be a great story if a major network ran an anchorman out of town because he dared to threaten Bush's re-election. But there would seem to be a risk that people not familiar with the case will get the idea that this actually happened. So if you want to tell that story, you should probably change the names and other details.

But as I said, I'm not a screenwriter. Like a lot of journalists, I get hung up on that pesky issue of "truth." Truth is our job. All we have is the public trust, and every time someone fails to do the work of vetting stories, the whole profession suffers. I'd like to think truth matters to Hollywood too -- especially in a movie about journalism called "Truth."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net