And even though he would have much preferred a movie about illustrious moments of his career, such as covering the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or the civil rights movement or Vietnam War, he believes that Redford’s new “Truth” captures a basic truth about the story that led to the ignominious demise of his storied career at CBS News.
He still believes that his corporate bosses were in bed with a political establishment that did him in. He still believes he got the story right even amid the central questions about the authenticity of the documents upon which he and producers relied.
The movie opens Friday and centers around a “60 Minutes II” report 11 years ago, shortly before the 2004 presidential election, that declared that President George W. Bush got preferential treatment in the Air National Guard.
It prompted a firestorm of criticism, in large measure about the authenticity of the documents, which were supposedly from the personal files of Bush’s commander and included criticisms of Bush’s service.
Several producers quit, producer Mary Mapes was canned, Rather later announced he was retiring from his hallowed perch atop the “CBS Evening News” and “60 Minutes II” was itself cancelled. The movie is based on Mapes’ book about the controversy, which argues that the essence of the story was true and that CBS caved to political pressure.
I spoke to Rather, who is now 83, by phone Friday. He mixed an unswerving defense of the story and movie with both criticisms of, and what he says is a lack of bitterness toward, his old bosses. They still maintain adamantly there were unequivocal doubts about the documents and their validity, and that the story should not have aired.
What is your gut reaction to this movie?
I long ago made my peace with what happened at CBS, working fulltime with what I most love to do, investigative reporting. The events of 11 years ago are mentally, emotionally, long ago and far away. In addition to doing my work, what I took away from the whole experience is trying to reemphasize humilty, modesty, gratitude. Part of what has helped is that I know within myself that while CBS News may have now, and ahead, people who are better anchors, they had nobody who worked harder and cared more about the people at CBS News; the history, the traditions and the mission of CBS than I had and still do.
As for the movie experience, I would have much preferred they had done one about my times covering Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, or the Kennedy assassination. But life is not like that. It was darkest moment of my career. We didn’t do the story perfectly. I didn’t do it perfectly. But it got the facts. Everybody is entitled to their own oponion but not their own facts. In an imperfect way, we got to the truth.
The movie is to me less about myself, Mary Mapes or former President Bush. What it is about is what has happened to the news, why it has happened and why you should care about it. I think it is a multi-layered story about the intersection of media, a powerful corporation and their powerful political allies, and propaganda. I don’t know if anybody will be interested in this, it was so long ago, but I hope people will see it and make up their own minds.
It needs to be said about former President Bush that there is not anybody who had more respect for the presidency of the United States than I had and still do. On a personal level, as for former President Bush, I respect what he made of himself after what he has called his troubled youth.
But what about the documents in dispute? Did you believe beyond any doubt to be factual?
After we got on to the story, after the initial skepticism, we revealed secrets that had been kept for a very long time that were relevant at that time. We got to the facts, we got to the truth, that the corporate executives, working with their lobbyists, folded. With all kinds of political opposition, they succeeded in changing the conversation from the core facts of this story to attacking the process by which we arrived at the truth. We then faced the furnace and paid the price.
The movie is kind of a surreal experience. To have Robert Redford, one of the greatest actors of this or any other generation, playing you is something I have a hard time getting my head around. It’s surreal. But others will have to judge. I have tried to be a pull-no-punches, play-no-favorites lifetime reporter who is loyal to the people with whom he works. Redford captured the essence and for his effort I am grateful.
What about the harsh criticism that persists from your old bosses like [then CBS News President] Andrew Heyward? (Heyward had not seen the movie when asked for a reaction by The New York Times, telling the paper: “It takes people responsible for the worst embarrassment in the history of CBS News, and what was at the time a grievous blow to the credibility of a proud news organization, and turns them into martyrs and heroes. Only Hollywood could do that.”)
Well, I come back to I hope people will make up their own mind. I don’t want to make this personal. I’m sorry Mr. Heyward and others may try to make this personal. We reported a true story and contrary to CBS tradition and history, they caved. When they issued the kind of statements they did [at the time], what do you expect him to say?
I also point out that he [Heyward] stayed close to the corporation. He has made that choice. But I don’t want to make it personal. The movie speaks for itself. It is very accurate. You expect a movie called “Truth” to be true and it is true.
But what about those documents?
I believed what was in the documents were true. I believed it then, I believe it now. Those who didn’t like the basic facts of the story always wanted to talk about the documents, claiming they were forged. We didn’t prove beyond any doubt [about their accuracy]. But we proved that what was in the documents were true. That was exactly how [Bush’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Jerry] Killian felt. But, again, when I say I don’t mind talking about it, anytime you talk about the documents, it takes away from the central truth of the story, which neither President Bush nor anyone around him has said was wrong; that the father used influenced to get him into the National Guard and, then, he disappeared for a year. Those are the two outstanding facts. And that is true.
So those who found it to be an uncomfortable truth have always wanted to talk about not proving beyond a doubt that the documents were true. See the film, keep in mind it is basically a story of journalism, powerful corporations and their political allies and truth and propaganda.