Ted Cruz holds professional journalists in such contempt that, in the aftermath of CNBC’s Republican debate, he says future debates should be moderated instead by “real journalists”—like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Marc Levin. They at least know the difference between policy, entertainment, and making a quick buck—so there would be no “gotcha” questions about nutritional-supplement companies that exploit Christian customers or finicky doubts about how cutting taxes on the very rich by $6 trillion could possibly raise revenues.
Politicians have been airing this sort of disdain for the press and its pesky questions for years. And for more than three decades, Hollywood has often followed suit, portraying journalists as reckless dupes and showboats. Absence of Malice (1981) helped popularize the trend, as cowardly, sensationalist media hacks quickly became stock characters in series like Die Hard and Spiderman.
Of course, some of us are cowardly, sensationalist hacks. But two new films—Truth, about the fumbled 60 Minutes II report that ended Dan Rather’s career at CBS, and, opening Friday, Spotlight, about The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize–winning pursuit of the Catholic clergy child-abuse scandal—portray reporters once more as vital to American democracy, more like Woodstein in 1976’s All the President’s Men.
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 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.”
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.
CBS was already backing away from its reporters, and rivals like NBC were reveling in the fraying story. A researcher on Mapes’s team (Topher Grace) pinpoints the underlying problem: not fonts or forgeries but politics. He tells a superior that CBS parent company Viacom “is lobbying a Republican-controlled Congress…for tax breaks that could potentially save them hundreds of millions, and we just aired a report that could cost those same Republicans a presidency.”
A spokesman for CBS, which refuses to run ads for Truth, says, “It’s astounding how little truth there is in ‘Truth’.”
In the end, Mapes was fired, Rather was forced to resign, and the story of Bush’s going AWOL—while true—was effectively buried. Conservatives grabbed the chance to divert attention from substance to “process.” It’s a familiar trick: Like, are we talking about Rubio and Carson misleading viewers during the CNBC debate, or about their complaints that the moderators were biased?
“Political influence got Bush into the Guard, he disappeared for a year, the records of that period were destroyed,” as Dan Rather told Rachel Maddow last week. “They couldn’t attack the facts of the story, so they shifted the argument to…whether in the process of putting the story together we had made any mistakes.” They did make mistakes, he says, “but they don’t erase the fact that the story itself was true.”
Still, the ultimate result of CBS’s shaky AWOL story was to inoculate Bush on the whole issue, and the CBS team’s failure to get to the bottom of where the memos actually came from, along with their acceptance of a five-day window to crash the story, continue to undermine the movie’s central point. “The only journalistic sin worse than disastrously misreporting an important story that turns out to be untrue,” Dan Froomkin writes in one of Truth’s many pans, “is disastrously misreporting an important story that is true, so no one believes it anymore.”
CBS could have learned a lot from how, just two years earlier, in 2002, Robertson’s Spotlight team broke the far more explosive story that Catholic clergy in Boston had been sexually molesting children for decades. The Globe wound up running some 600 stories about the abuse and the systematic cover-up, exposing Cardinal Bernard Law’s strategy of paying off victims’ families for their silence and moving pedophile priests from parish to parish without notifying congregants.
Eventually, as Robinson, now editor at large at the paper, said last week on Fresh Air, “we discovered that close to 250 priests had molested thousands of children over a half-century.” The series touched off a global chain reaction of local reports about similar cases around the world, revealing a vast global conspiracy and arguably leading to the election of Pope Francis.
The Globe was hardly perfect—for years, it had been publishing an abusive-priest story here, another one there without connecting the dots; the paper had ignored sources who had evidence that the scandal was more extensive than anyone had imagined. It took an outsider, the new editor-in-chief Marty Baron (now editor of The Washington Post) to push Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his team to examine the larger system. (Baron is played by Liev Shreiber, who stars in Showtime’s Ray Donovan as the Hollywood fixer who kills the Boston priest who abused him as a child.)
“If it takes a village raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one,” says another outsider, Mitch Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), a victims’ lawyer who helps the reporters crack the case.
The coincidence of Truth and Spotlight getting almost simultaneous release throws the issue of power and the media into fascinating relief, bringing out the strengths and weaknesses of print, television, and, now, digital journalism. The difference between the Church story and CBS’s Bush story isn’t so much one of “good” or “bad” reporting but of resources—time and money and commitment from the top.
In one scene, indefatigable reporter Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) waits at a courthouse, day after day after day, to get a set of documents. That kind of patience speaks to a “really strong free press, a financially supported press that enables professional reporters to do their job,” says Spotlight director and co-writer Tom McCarthy.
“Even today there’s a little bit of a disconnect about how important journalism is to our society,” he says. “Look, that institution, as most of us know, is in dire straits. In the last 15 years it’s been brutal.
“Tens of thousands of reporters have lost jobs, metro dailies have been if not depleted, shuttered completely; it’s tough to watch. But you see an example like this and you see the strength of this type of supported, professional journalism, financially supported.”
Go see these movies, and you’ll also see why Ted Cruz doesn’t want professional journalists anywhere near the GOP debates.