When I watched the trailer for the movie Truth, I had no idea what it was about, so I was surprised to discover that someone had made a movie about the Killian documents, the journalism scandal that effectively ended the careers of news anchor Dan Rather and news producer Mary Mapes. I thought it was great that someone had made a whole movie about what happens when journalists lose sight of the importance of accuracy — truth — and rush to release a story that is too good to check. It’s a classic tragedy, in which the characters’ downfall comes from their own flaws.
So imagine my shock as the trailer continued and I realized that Dan Rather and Mary Mapes were the heroes of this movie. The filmmakers have apparently bought the narrative that Rather and Mapes were the victims of a right-wing conspiracy to cover up an important story about President George W. Bush.
[Disclaimer: I haven’t actually seen Truth, but reviews such as this one convince me that the trailer presents its viewpoint accurately enough.]
The documents were purportedly memos by Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian, who was George W. Bush’s commanding officer in the Air National Guard in the 1970’s, and they appeared to document Bush’s misbehavior and the special treatment he received while in the Guard. Even four years into Bush’s presidency, this would be an important story. As long as the documents were for real.
Which they weren’t. The evidence stacks up like this:
- The documents were provided to CBS by Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, who had previously made unsupported claims about Bush.
- Although purportedly written by an Air National Guard officer, the documents used jargon typical of the Army National Guard, which was the same branch of the National Guard that Burkett served in.
- Burkett admitted to destroying the original documents and only gave CBS photocopies.
- The documents appear to be in a font very similar to Times Roman, a proportional font that we all get on our computers these days, but which would have required expensive specialized equipment to produce in the 1970s. This equipment was extremely unlikely to be used at a military base for routine memos.
- The most damning problem with the documents is that if you opened up a copy of Microsoft Word 2003 and started a new blank document, you could easily produce documents identical in appearance without making any adjustments to the fonts, spacing, or margins.
Basically, CBS News was taken in by fake documents created by someone trying to hurt Bush’s chances at a second term. It’s amazing to me that no one noticed the documents weren’t produced on a typewriter using non-proportional type. Kids these days might not be aware of the limitations of office document technology in the 1970’s, but certainly someone in a news organization should have known what typed documents looked like. When the documents were released, bloggers picked up on the problem immediately.
Granted, many of them were right-wing bloggers, and many of them had already established their hatred for Dan Rather. That certainly made their claims suspect, but it didn’t make them wrong. And it quickly became obvious that they were right. Document experts are reluctant to make definitive statements based on viewing photocopies of the documents, but they all agreed the documents were most likely recent fakes.
Rather and Mapes could have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they had just admitted they rushed the story and made mistakes, but instead they stood by their story and went down with it. Apparently they blame all this on Viacom — CBS’s corporate parent — caving in to conservative demands.
The most astonishing part of the trailer is the Mapes character’s dialog at the end. “Our story was about whether the President fulfilled his service. Nobody wants to talk about that. They want to talk about fonts and forgeries,” she says dismissively. “And they hope to God the truth gets lost in the scrum!”
Yeah, it’s always nice to know the truth. But you weren’t helping.