Dan Rather's story retold. Creatively.

Photographer: Matthew Eisman/Getty Images for Hamptons International Film Festival

If You Like Truth, Don't Watch 'Truth'

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.”
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There is a reason that so few great movies have been made about journalism. Journalists, sure -- if the screenwriter sends them off as quickly as possible to get kidnapped, shot at or acrimoniously divorced. Most of actual journalism is incredibly boring to watch.

Want to know what a movie about journalism would be like? I'm starting a screenplay:

INT. BOB BIFFORD’S HOME - HOME OFFICE - NIGHT

BOB BIFFORD, mid-30s, award-winning journalist, sits at his desk in a room that is part home office, part storage shed for all the stuff overflowing the livable parts of his house. He is staring at his screen. Occasionally he clicks a link to open another tab in his browser. Then sometimes he clicks over to his Microsoft Word document and changes a number or a quotation. He finishes reading a PDF full of charts. He nods and begins typing. After 10 minutes, he shakes his head and deletes what he has just written. He answers an angry e-mail from his editor asking where his piece is, promising that he will have it in by first thing in the morning. He is lying.

This is not box office gold. Theater owners could sell more tickets to watch a blank screen.

Movies are in the some ways the opposite of journalism. Journalists have to get it right, even when it’s boring. I once spent a full day tracking down the precise details of a social science experiment, even though the details didn’t make any difference to the outcome of the experiment. The fruit of this labor was only a couple of sentences of my book. Details matter. Accuracy matters.

Movies, on the other hand, must first and foremost entertain their audience.

Nonetheless, a few movies have managed to capture something about what it’s really like to do our job: "All the President’s Men," "Shattered Glass," "The Insider." They take some liberties along the way, like turning a reporter's thought process into a conversation, even inventing people to have the conversation with. These best journalism movies fudge details in order to get the overall narrative right and make a good movie.

In its own way, David Fincher’s "Zodiac," written by James Vanderbilt, also portrays the elation and frustration of tracking down a story -- one that never quite pans out. It is an almost "Rashomon"-like meditation on the limits of knowledge and the nature of truth. It is one of my favorite movies.

So I went into Vanderbilt’s directorial debut, "Truth," prepared to like it -- as a movie, if not as history. The subject of the film, which opened this month, is a story aired by "60 Minutes" in September 2004, shortly before George W. Bush was re-elected. The segment concerned Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard, and purported to show memos from Bush’s superior officer, saying that he had gone AWOL. That was an enormous scoop, with only one small problem: the documents were obvious forgeries, created in Microsoft Word 2003. (In July I wrote about some of the lapses in judgment.)

The revelation that the documents were forgeries created a giant mess. Then the "60 Minutes" team made it bigger. Corrections and retractions are an unfortunate staple of our business, and the sad truth is, sometimes we get taken by a convincing source. Had CBS simply acknowledged the obvious and issued a quick retraction, it would have been a one-day story, and probably, most or all of the people involved would have kept their jobs. Instead, producer Mary Mapes and anchor Dan Rather stood by their story, turning it into a two-week saga that ended with almost everyone involved in the broadcast getting sacked.

Partisans have two theories that we should just dispense with right away. One is that Mapes put the documents on the air knowing they were fake, because she wanted to get Bush out of office. That's implausible; journalists do care about getting the facts right (though of course, like everyone, we have cognitive biases that can lead us to make mistakes), and even if we didn’t, the professional price for failing to vet your stories is far too high to do so deliberately. The other is that the documents were solid, and that CBS caved because a mob of conservatives were threatening the parent company, Viacom. This is the theory in Mapes's book, on which the movie was based. It is even more implausible; the documents are indefensible forgeries, and the journalists were taken in by a bad source.

When I heard that the Mapes book was the source material for "Truth," and that Dan Rather was praising the film, I was prepared for the movie to offend my inner journalist. But I kept a small hope alive that it could be a good movie anyway. It isn't -- and for many of the same reasons it isn’t good history.

Vanderbilt attempts the same trick he pulled in "Zodiac": an extended meditation on our inability to ever really know what happened, and the ways in which that destroys people. I really do sympathize with the problem that Vanderbilt set himself. Even by the standards of stories about journalism, this is a tricky one to tell, because it revolves around fiddly technical details that can’t be elided. This results in some odd visual choices, like journalists standing around a map, placing dots to show Bush moving around the country during his guard service -- as if they were on a manhunt and trying to figure out whether he’d escaped the security cordon.

The awkward visuals are not the main hurdle. The script itself is pretty terrible. One suspects that early drafts of “Zodiac” must have contained a lot of heartfelt speeches about the nature of truth, given how many times the characters in “Truth” laboriously inform each other that truth is really important, truth is why we’re doing this, journalism is a public trust, not some cynical, soul-sucking, back-scratching, profit-hungry enterprise. All true. But if you couldn’t imagine a plumber stopping every five minutes to lecture on the great public health benefits of sanitary waste handling, you probably shouldn’t imagine journalists doing the equivalent, especially not in such gloppy and repetitive clichés.

The bigger problem is that the story doesn't work, and can’t the way he is trying to write it: with Mary Mapes as the put-upon hero, the innocent victim of fate and a conservative mob. Ultimately the story is not about the truth of the documents, in his vision, because we’ll never know. Except … we do know. The details add up to an obvious hoax. And the real-life events don’t match the narrative he’s trying to tell, forcing him into progressively klunkier devices to cover up the jarring discordances.

The most glaring example of this is the scene where CBS calls the source of the memos, after the story begins to fall apart, and he delivers his third and craziest tale about where he got them, a cloak-and-dagger tale of mysterious strangers and unmarked envelopes. We know it’s crazy. Vanderbilt knows it’s crazy, because he has the Mapes character roll her eyes and circle her temple with her finger. He almost has to show that, because the alternative is to portray her as someone too hopelessly gullible to be trusted with a Sunday School picnic.  

But of course, relying on a source telling crazy stories is one of the major reasons she got fired, something Vanderbilt doesn’t want to tell us. He doesn't explore the obvious question: Why, after hearing these stories, doesn’t Mary Mapes understand that the documents have problems? Instead he drops it and moves on to a conspiracy theory about Viacom placating Republicans while lobbying for telecom legislation.

In fairness, it is hard to imagine Vanderbilt successfully convincing an audience with the explanation that Mapes gave in her book:

“As I sat listening to Burkett’s scenario spill out, I realized how truly ridiculous this sounded from our vantage in New York. But in Texas, one of the world capitals of '[expletive deleted] happens,' a place where bull semen is worth its weight in gold (and the bizarre long ago became the mundane), I believed it was quite possible that Bill Burkett was finally telling the truth, the whole weird truth, and nothing but the truth. By God, in Texas, anything could happen.” 

I suppose that was the best she could come up with. But of course, Mapes has to come up with some explanation, however unlikely; she is trying to salvage her reputation after an indefensible error. Vanderbilt could have made a great movie had he understood that Mapes was an unreliable narrator, and had the courage to show us that. Instead, he works himself into knots trying to make her funhouse-mirror view of the story fit the underlying facts.

I watched the movie with two other journalists, and we all wondered how Vanderbilt managed to convince himself he was telling a story of noble journalists crushed by power, while showing us horrifying mistakes and lax editorial oversight. It was like watching a version of "Return of the Jedi" where the director thought the hero was Emperor Palpatine. When a source tells you three different stories about where he got some documents, each story crazier than the last, most journalists think “Maybe there’s a problem here.” Why doesn’t Mapes?

If you go along with the idea that Mapes did her job well and that the documents are plausible, then most of the events of the third act are inexplicable. Why were other journalists so down on the "60 Minutes" team? Did CBS employ the only four decent, truth-loving journalists in the country? Why did the independent commission that investigated the case issue such a scathing report? Why were so many people fired?

In order to cover up the widening gap between the narrative and the facts, Vanderbilt resorts to flat, one-note characters. On the one hand we have the team that put the story on air, sterling folks whose only flaws are the sort of things one confesses in job interviews, like “I work too hard” or “Sometimes, I just care too darn much.” Most of the other characters are soulless careerists or vicious partisans, interested only in saving their jobs, Bush’s electoral prospects and Viacom’s precious telecoms legislation.

The original sin of the movie was trying to make Mary Mapes the hero. Vanderbilt could have told a great story about someone who made a terrible yet basically understandable mistake, and who suffered horribly for it. Instead, he wanted to make a movie about someone who did a good job in a good cause, and suffered anyway. Since this story is not compatible with reality, he had to do what Mapes did: believe six impossible things before breakfast, to avoid facing one, glaringly obvious fact that doesn't reflect well on our hero. The result doesn’t really work on any level as a movie.

As a metanarrative, on the other hand, it couldn’t be more perfect: Just like his hero, James Vanderbilt got taken by a source.

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

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

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