‘Jour­nal­ism is in a lot of trou­ble’

Fired­fromCBS af­ter­a­con­tro­ver­sial­sto­ryaboutGe­orgeWBush,Mary Mapes now finds her­self on the big screem. She tells Tara Brady why she is fear­ful about the state of US jour­nal­ism

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

Mary Mapes on­the chal­lenges fac­ing mod­ern me­dia out­lets

In Septem­ber 2004, just as Amer­ica was pre­par­ing it­self for a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, the CBS tele­vi­sion news pro­gramme 60 Min­utes II broad­cast a story al­leg­ing that then pres­i­dent Ge­orge W Bush had used fam­ily in­flu­ence to gain en­try into the Texas Air Na­tional Guard, a way to dodge the draft dur­ing the Viet­nam War.

Mary Mapes, a trusted CBS News pro­ducer and a kind of sur­ro­gate daugh­ter to the net­work’s long-stand­ing an­chor Dan Rather, had un­cov­ered doc­u­ments ex­pos­ing Bush’s ser­vice – or rather lack of it – in the Na­tional Guard.

“You have to think about the hypocrisy,” says Mapes. “His father sup­ported the Viet­nam War, but there was a class di­vide in the United States.

“Ge­orge W Bush was a child of priv­i­lege. There had been a decade-long PR bat­tle to make him look good and it was dis­hon­est. At that mo­ment, we had gone off to war in Iraq – where sol­diers and civil­ians were dy­ing – at his bid­ding, and he made th­ese choices, so cal­lously, with­out know­ing what sac­ri­fice was.”

Mapes had tracked down doc­u­ments that ap­peared to have been writ­ten in the early 1970s by Ge­orge W Bush’s com­mand­ing of­fi­cer, Jerry B Kil­lian, who died in 1984.

No foren­sic doc­u­ment ex­am­in­ers or ty­pog­ra­phy ex­perts could au­then­ti­cate the doc­u­ments, as they were copies, not orig­i­nals, and 60 Min­utes and its home net­work soon came un­der at­tack. Mapes was fired, other pro­duc­ers were forced to re­sign, and Dan Rather an­nounced his re­tire­ment im­me­di­ately af­ter Bush’s re-elec­tion. Al­though there were se­ri­ous doubts raised over the va­lid­ity of the doc­u­ments, Rather said the un­der­ly­ing story was true.

“Ev­ery­one was sur­prised,” re­calls Mapes, who had bro­ken the Abu Ghraib scan­dal ear­lier in 2004. “I had worked there for years. I had won a num­ber of awards. I had cov­ered wars. I had just got­ten a big raise. I was re­spected.

“I had never had a prob­lem. I had done noth­ing but re­ally good work. And when the heat was on, they just threw us un­der a bus. Dan had been there 42 years. That’s a lot of time spent in hur­ri­canes and fires and wars.”

Mapes chron­i­cled her dis­ap­point­ments in the 2005 mem­oir, Truth and Duty: the Press, the Pres­i­dent and the Priv- ilege of Power. That book has now been trans­formed into the movie Truth by writer-di­rec­tor James Van­der­bilt, who scripted Zodiac, with Cate Blanchett as Mapes and Robert Red­ford as Dan Rather.

It must be odd hav­ing an Os­car-win­ner im­per­son­ate you? “Oh yes. Know­ing what Cate is like, how calm she is, and watch­ing her turn into this an­guished woman who keeps run­ning her hands through her hair was, well, it’s very hard to an­a­lyse when it’s your­self, but it’s a re­mark­able trans­for­ma­tion.

“It was easy for me to ap­pre­ci­ate the Robert Red­ford per­for­mance. He amazed me. He did a re­ally im­pres­sive job of cap­tur­ing small things about Dan that I wasn’t even con­sciously aware of: how he moves his head or flips his reporter’s note­book.”

The ac­count of the so-called Kil­lian doc­u­ments con­tro­versy pre­sented in Truth touches on many themes that feel even more per­ti­nent 10 years on: on­line hate cam­paigns, the cor­po­rati­sa­tion of news and re­alpoli­tik.

Was Mapes, who won a Pe­abody Award for her Abu Ghraib story, the vic­tim of a con­spir­acy? Was CBS at­tempt­ing to curry favour with the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion? Was Karl Rove di­rectly or in­di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for Mapes’s dis­missal?

“It’s im­pos­si­ble to say for sure,” says Mapes. “It felt like some­thing out of the Karl Rove play­book. It was bril­liantly done. I don’t imag­ine the White House were very happy with Dan and me at that mo­ment. It turned out to be a wa­ter­shed mo­ment in jour­nal­is­tic his­tory.

“Un­der cor­po­rate own­er­ship, when fi­nances are threat­ened, the me­dia be­haved like Exxon or BP or any other big com­pany. In Amer­ica, 90 per cent of all me­dia is con­trolled by one of six cor­po­ra­tions, and that’s just wrong, in­for­ma­tion­ally, jour­nal­is­ti­cally, cre­atively.

“I live in Texas where there’s a 30 per cent turn out to vote. When noth­ing is be­ing queried or ex­am­ined, vot­ers be­lieve their votes don’t mat­ter.”

The in­ci­dent would also at­tract plenty of hate speech from those who were keen to dis­miss Mapes as a “lefty sneak” and a “fem­i­nazi”. Mapes, who has sub­se­quently mi­grated to­wards “the slower, more thought­ful pace of print jour­nal­ism”, must look at the fre­quency that such loaded terms are em­ployed in the cur­rent pres­i­den­tial race and feel glad to be out of the fray.

“It’s like re­al­ity show,” she says. “We used to say, ‘you are en­ti­tled to your own be­liefs, but not your own facts’. That has been turned up­side down. You are now en­ti­tled to your own facts. Cam­paigns are run on claims that don’t sur­vive any scru­tiny.

“There are still jour­nal­ists out there do­ing great work and I doff my cap to them, but jour­nal­ism is in a lot of trou­ble right now. And truth and democ­racy with it.”

Truth screens at the Audi Dublin In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val to­mor­row and goes on gen­eral re­lease on March 4th

Ge­orge W Bush was a child of priv­i­lege. There had been a decade-long PR bat­tle to make him look good and it was dis­hon­est. At that mo­ment, we had gone off to war in Iraq at his bid­ding

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