14 April 2016

Death of the American conversation: Mary Mapes and her search for Truth


It does not much matter if Truth is a good or bad film. Released here in the UK a few weeks ago, the story of how CBS producer Mary Mapes came to believe that President George W. Bush was guilty of dereliction of duty during the Vietnam War is a story that still divides opinion. It also doesn’t much matter how the career of Dan Rather was handled by CBS at the end. How you view Rather will probably depend on your politics given that for most of those 44 years he was routinely condemned by Republicans as being the voice of the liberal elite. Lastly, it doesn’t much matter if the memos forwarded as evidence of Bush’s guilt were authentic or forgeries. None of this matters because the essential truth of Truth is that we are all living in a post-journalistic age.

We are beyond the point when a journalist could try to uncover a difficult story and know that they had the goodwill of the reading public behind them. We are in the age of the blogger celebrities and the purveyors of snarl and spin. These are the days of Breitbart’s Michelle Fields being ‘battered’ as she is dragged away from Donald Trump’s elbow. These are the days when CNN commentators are forced to deny National Enquirer allegations spun into fantasies by tricksters and trolls; when the rumour ‘Ted Cruz is married to his cousin’ spreads so quickly across the Twittersphere that nobody bothers to check the story and discover that it was an all-too-convenient ‘fact’ invented by a spoof news website. In such a climate, the truth doesn’t matter as much as any falsehood spoken in a loud voice. These are the bleached blond days of Milo Yiannopoulos, the embodiment of that ultra hip reportage so inelegantly defined by Fields as ‘bias journalism’:

“I think that’s a different world. Now people want bias journalism I feel. They want to hear the journalism either tell them what they want to hear or tell them what their opinion is and what they think about it. We have such polarized news now. It’s a much different world.”

Truth, starring Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford, is therefore a welcome reprise for that type of film about journalism once a familiar staple of old Hollywood. It’s also good to see Redford (playing Rather) returning to the genre that helped define his career. If All the President’s Men celebrated the triumph of meaningful journalism, then Truth marks journalism’s sad decline.

That decline is the reason why the story of Mary Mapes (Blanchett) is so relevant today. Her story, which she recounted in her book Truth: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power, is inseparable from the character of Mapes herself: driven, passionate about her work, motivated partly by politics but wholly motivated by the best practices of her profession. In 2004 she uncovered the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib, a story that would later win her a Peabody. Mapes then went on to produce a segment for the CBS show, 60 Minutes II, that questioned President George W. Bush’s service record in the Air National Guard. The story relied on the testimony of many who had served in the Guard, as well as people who had known Bush and his senior officers. The question that Mapes and Rather attempted to answer was: how did a distinctly average (but well connected) young man win a place in the Air National Guard at a time when they were taking few recruits and those they did select were supremely more qualified?

How you frame the answer will, of course, depends on your politics or, at least, belief in truly objective journalism. Mapes would argue that her politics had nothing to do with the story she told. Her critics contest that her conclusions were entirely motivated by her liberal credentials. Mapes points out that she had eyewitness testimony. Her critics focus on the memos, purportedly written by Bush’s commander, Colonel Jerry Killian, which were later brought into question by bloggers who claimed they could be recreated using Microsoft Word’s default stylesheet.

Neither side can claim to know the absolute ‘truth’, of course, but that’s why a film about the 2004 presidential election, citing events in the 1970s, has such a clear bearing on the current news agenda being driven by a socialized media that too rarely values considered journalistic voices. Scandal sheets are the new purveyors of ‘truth’ and that supreme political manipulator, Roger Stone (suspected by some of being the mastermind behind the Killian documents), is lauded as though he’s some disinterested pundit. Meanwhile, the mainstream media (‘msm’ to the politically hyper-motivated) are somehow complicit in some grand lie. Dare a journalist express a positive thing about a presidential candidate and they are immediately labelled a dripping wet liberal or drooling monger of bigotry and hate.

In a way, the rise of false and unsubstantiated news has been the story of the American election so far. Stories are reported that you hope might be true rather than having any basis in evidence. If you support Sanders, you will too readily believe that Bernie can be seen standing behind Marin Luther King in a now much-publicised photograph. If you dislike Hillary, you will believe her email server posed the greatest threat to national security since the Rosenbergs supplied secrets to Moscow. If you dislike Cruz, you will instinctively believe all the stories about phone numbers, paternity, and passports. And if you dislike Trump, you will delight in every detail of Trump University, the concrete he bought from the New York families, and what the size of his fingers say about his predisposition towards totalitarian rule.

Little of this is journalism. Journalism walks that fine line between well-sourced evidence and reasoned speculation. It is neither the domain of the fiction writer nor that realm of factual absolutes inhabited by lawyers. Many of the greatest triumphs of journalism have involved leaps of faith supported by sometimes flimsy evidence. The Washington Post is now famed for Watergate but we forget how slowly the story broke, how it moved forwards thanks to the energies of other newspapers who filled in the gaps, broke new ground, or simply highlighted the Post’s mistakes. Journalism is a collective ideal, which makes one incidental coincidence so welcome in that it was Walter V. Robinson who, in 2004, first wrote the story ‘Bush fell short on duty at Guard’ about the gaps in the President’s service record. Robinson was played by Michael Keaton in another recent standout film about journalism, Spotlight, which won the best film Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards.

The story of the Killian documents was not the end of journalism but the fall of the CBS team is, perhaps, a convenient point at which to say that our attitude towards the news somehow changed. As Mapes complains:

“Journalism, particularly television, no longer does complex, complicated, or subtle very well. It rarely does real investigation. And God knows, journalism today has devolved into repeating more than reporting. If it’s online, it will soon be on the air. And the anchors and reporters broadcasting it are not checking out the facts in each case.”

What Truth shows is how difficult it has become to have meaningful conversations about partisan subjects. It is now almost impossible to hold a neutral or, at least, centrist positions without inviting attack from both sides. America’s online news outlets has made a virtue of partisan reporting since Fox News started being ‘fair and balanced’ in 1996. Breitbart has been the biggest winner of the current election cycle and it has achieved its notoriety by presenting a deeply conservative agenda. The Blaze, meanwhile, was founded by Glenn Beck, the Christian conservative firebrand who recently declared that Ted Cruz was ‘was anointed for this time’. Of course, the liberals too have their shouting chambers: The Daily Kos, Salon, Mother Jones and The Nation. The tone all over is partisan.

Mary Mapes and Dan Rather were just two of the most high profile victims of the millennial journalism that questions the validity of every source yet, ironically, promotes scoops with no facts. Mapes, herself, claims that they were sacrificed to appease the Bush White House, whose decisions could favour Viacom, the parent company to CBS. You might not believe that, of course, but how firmly you are willing to consider the evidence is an indication of how much you would champion true journalism. It’s why, perhaps, it is appropriate that the Killian documents have never been confirmed as forgeries but might never be authenticated because they are generations of copies removed from the originals. Neither true nor false, they remain ambiguous and a suitable headstone for the death of the American conversation.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at The Spine.