The Big Picture –
By Glynn Wilson –
It seems old stories never die. They just keep going round and around, circling further from the truth as time goes by.
I just got off the phone with a producer in New York who wants to interview me, again, about the political prosecution of former Alabama governor Don Siegelman. I talked to him, and could weigh in on that story again in a big way that could make the difference – if certain people would finally figure out a truism about how the world turns. Everyone should know that quote by now: “You scratch my back. I’ll scratch yours.”
I don’t know if it’s just liberals who don’t seem to get this these days. The Republicans seem to get it. Lincoln certainly got it when he ended slavery once and for all time in the U.S. Constitution.
I may have more to say about that story soon. But there is another story making the rounds because of a new movie out with Robert Redford playing former CBS broadcast reporter and anchor man Dan Rather. It has an unfortunate name: “Truth.”
I’ve not seen the movie yet. But I will soon and produce the definitive review.
What has me going this morning, however, is a story about this on The Nation Website — a publication I’ve written for — under the headline: Two New Movies About Why the Powerful Are Trying to Kill Journalism. It was written by Leslie Savan. I don’t know her. We probably agree on many things. But she seems to perpetuate a meme about the Bush AWOL story. I may be one of the few people equipped to destroy the meme. Inoculate you, the public, against the word virus, in other words.
Perhaps the movie does the same thing. It would not surprise me the way these stories are handed down in a way only people such as Noam Chomsky or maybe Thomas Kuhn could articulate. Chomsky pointed out that certain story lines are dominant in America because of corporate ownership of the media and it is hard for any reporter to get people to understand the story in a different, more true, out-of-the-box sort of way.
Kuhn pointed out that old paradigms are hard to change.
Chasing the story first pursued by the Boston Globe in 2000, claiming George W. Bush went AWOL from the Texas Air National Guard in 1972, was the only paradigm CBS knew to follow? The Nation says it was true. Apparently the movie does too. It’s just NOT true. But that does not mean there is no story there.
Let’s pick up the narrative here.
Both films show that conservatism’s instincts to protect the privacy of the powerful and shut out opposing views are naturally inimical to good journalism. Facts may or may not have a “liberal bias,” but censorship is always authoritarian.
Not so coincidentally, the germ of both movies can be found in the work of Spotlight, The Boston Globe’s crack investigative team led by veteran reporter Walter “Robby” Robinson.
In May of 2000, seven months before Bush v. Gore descended into a Dockers-clad conservative riot, Robinson broke a story saying that George W. Bush had gone AWOL from the Texas Air National Guard for a year in the early ’70s, while less fortunate sons were fighting in Vietnam. At the time, the story had little impact, possibly, as Dan Froomkin writes, “because the Globe had out-reported its bigger colleagues, [so it] didn’t get picked up by the elite national outlets.”
In (the movie) “Truth” we learn that elite national outlet CBS, where producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) works with anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford), wanted to run the Bush-Guard story very badly in 2000. But she was forced to drop it when her mother died. If she hadn’t been grieving, one character says, “there’s a very good chance Al Gore would be president.”
(Of course there is a good chance he would have been president if not for all the votes picked up by Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate, especially in Florida).
Skip to 2004 and Bush’s bid for re-election. As right-wing Swift Boat attack ads smear a real war hero, Democratic nominee John Kerry, Mapes and Rather are determined to bring Bush’s chicken-hawk military service back with a splash. Mapes, whose 2005 book Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power inspired the movie, was riding high at the time. She had recently produced 60 Minutes II’s account of the American torture at Abu Ghraib, which dented the Bush administration’s happy-talk about the bogged-down war and started to turn popular opinion against it. She would later earn a Peabody award for the story.
If Mapes’s team could turn up some new material to bootstrap to Robinson’s now four-year-old reporting, they could update the scandal and justify running it in 2004 as a sort of balance to the Swift Boat nonsense.
A source (Stacy Keach) tells Mapes he had just the thing—copies of memos from Bush’s Guard commander complaining that the young Bush was shirking his duties. The source is cagey about how he came to have the documents, but he’s certain they’re dynamite. When he asks why he shouldn’t take his memos to a newspaper instead of to CBS, Mapes scoffs that “nobody reads newspapers anymore.”
She has a point. But it’s television and its own fickle needs that ultimately mangle the story. CBS was slated to run a Dr. Phil special during one of 60 Minutes II’s September time slots, and the suits didn’t want to spring an October surprise on the Bush campaign. The moved-up air date, September 8, left only five days to put the complicated story together.
Within hours of the 60 Minutes II broadcast, right-wing bloggers, who had long hated Dan Rather, charged that the docs were forged. There were too many inconsistencies, they claimed—like proportional spacing that looked as if it was typed on Microsoft Word, and a superscript “th” that typewriters supposedly didn’t have in the early ’70s. Mapes’s team works overtime to prove the bloggers wrong. Squinting through mounds of papers (like Florida election officials searching for hanging chads), they find contemporary “th” superscripts, but it’s not enough to disprove the accusations of forgery (the issue is to this day unresolved), and besides, it’s too late.
Go see these movies, and you’ll also see why Ted Cruz doesn’t want professional journalists anywhere near the GOP debates.
Gag me with a spoon. Ted Cruz, who will never get anywhere near the keys to the White House, is NOT the problem. It would be better to blame Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, the Bush crime family, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and right-wing bloggers for destroying American journalism — or the people themselves for being so gullible to rely for their news and information on Facebook and Twitter.
For the record, again, Bush was NEVER AWOL, Absent Without Leave. His commander in Texas and his father, head of the CIA at the time, knew exactly where he was — in Montgomery Alabama working on the losing U.S. Senate campaign of Republican Winton “Red” Blount. He got the Texas equivalent of Youthful Offender status at the age of 26 for being busted for drugs, and was shuffled out of Houston to avoid controversy.
Want to know the real story? Click and read this.
If Mary Mapes, who says at one point that “nobody reads newspapers anymore,” had simply Googled my story and followed the accurate story line, she and Dan Rather might still be working for CBS. I mean Kitty Kelly picked up my story in her book on the Bush family and ran it verbatim, a clear copyright violation that the federal courts allowed. The vaunted Washington Post even gave her a pass on the clear case of plagiarism.
If Robert Redford had bothered to read it, he may have even gotten the movie right. Sadly, here we go again on the merry go round, living it wrong round and around.
It hardly matters now anyway. Bush is gone, back to the ranch, and can’t do much to torture us anymore – except try to promote his brother for president. That does not appear to be working.
© 2015, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.