Mined from the notebooks. March 4, 2016. Posted April 9.
Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather and former 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes with their counterparts from the movie Truth, Cate Blanchett and Robert Robert Redford.
Truth is Truth isn’t a good movie. It has its moment. The cast led by Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford do some fine work. But in the end it doesn’t turn out to be about anything more than its main character’s sterling character. It’s a typical workplace melodrama in which a protagonist with integrity to spare stands up to her corrupt, weak, and hypocritical bosses and takes on the system. The difference this time is she loses. But in an admirable way that lets the audience cheer for her in the final scene.
Truth has several major flaws but its main one, considering that it’s about journalists who fail in their attempt to chase down a big story is that it never makes clear why the story its reporter heroes are chasing is important or what the stakes are. In fact, it’s not even clear what story they think they’re after. It could be worth comparing Truth to Spotlight in another post but for right now I’ll just point out that the makers of Spotlight had the advantage that the story its reporter heroes are chasing is simple and straight-forward---parish priests were molesting children and the Church was helping them get away with it---and the stakes are sickeningly clear. But why it mattered in 2004 that over thirty years before George W. Bush used his family’s influence to get out completing his National Guard commitment isn’t an easy case to make and Truth doesn’t even try to make it.
Spoiler: it had something to do with the war in Iraq. But as I wrote in my review (which I've reposted below), the war is practically left out of the movie.
At any rate, a movie about journalists covering a big story that doesn’t do a good job of telling us what that story is isn’t going to be as good movie about journalism as Spotlight or All the President’s Men or Good Night, and Good Luck or Ace in the Hole or even His Girl Friday. Still, Truth is worth showing to young journalists at least for one scene.
Late in the film, after things have started coming apart all around them, the 60 Minutes producer who led the chase after the story, Mary Mapes (Blanchett) gets a late night phone call from her friend and mentor Dan Rather (Redford). Rather’s had a few drinks and is feeling both bitter and sentimental and he delivers a monologue that tells Mapes nothing she doesn’t know, although she listens attentively and with affection for his sake, and probably contains little that savvy members of the audience don’t already know. But Rather’s points bear repeating:
Did you know [he starts off after a bit of small talk], that 60 Minutes was the first to news show to ever make money? Before that all news divisions operated at a financial loss. When the government gave the networks the air waves, it was with a stipulation that they’d be used in some capacity for the public good. That was the news. They made their money elsewhere on the schedule. But reporting the news was a duty. It was a trust. You know, when Don Hewitt started 60 Minutes, it was in 1968, but it built to enormous rating. God...God, it was wonderful. People were really watching the news. They cared. And, God, we figured out a way to give it to them.
I was there, Mary. I was there the day they figured out that news could make money. And after a while it dawned on them, Well, how come the evening news isn’t a profit center too? Why aren’t the morning shows earning more? Maybe interview Survivor contestants instead of survivors of a genocide, your ad rates go up! Pretty soon we wouldn’t even run down our own stories because that’s too expensive. We’ll just pay someone else to do it, then read it on the air for show.
It was a public trust once. I swear to you it was.
Nice scene. It’s Redford at is most vulnerable and self-reflective and voluble---lengthy monologues aren’t a hallmark of his career. An exchange between Newman and him in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid summed it up a long time ago. On the run from the superposse, Butch, frustrated by the Kid’s monosyllabic responses to his questions about what they should do to throw the posse off track, asks sarcastically, “Are you always this talkative?” And the Kid replies, “Just naturally blabby, I guess.” Redford hasn’t played many characters who are naturally blabby. The scene’s a bit sentimental, both for what it is, and in its pushing the idea that once upon a time there was a golden age of television news when telling the truth was all that mattered. In the early days the networks didn’t put on news shows as a duty. They put them on as a form of paying a tax. Murrow paid for helping to bring down Joe McCarthy by having to interview Liberace and pretend that Liberace was straight and on the lookout for a nice girl to marry and settle down with. But then he did "Harvest of Shame".
CBS News had a history that Rather was proud to be part of. The irony is that one of the great achievements of the news division brought about an end to that sort of achievement. As things play out in Truth, the truth is that Rather and Mapes didn’t lose their jobs because they got the story wrong or bungled the reporting. They weren’t victims of the Bush Administration’s determination to squash all dissent on the war and criticism of our “War President.” Their unforgivable mistake was potentially screwing up a corporate restructuring at CBS. It was all about money.
But the truth is that it’s been a very long time since any of the major television news outlets, network or cable, has produced anything like Harvest of Shame and there’s nothing on the air like 60 Minutes as it once was, not even 60 minutes. News divisions are expected to make money and they do it by packaging news as what makes money on television generally---entertainment.
Which brings us to Donald Trump.
Which brings us Donald Trump.
The Republicans are desperate to stop Trump. Everybody wants to stop Trump. Everybody but the political media. They’re eating him up with a spoon.
He’s money in the bank because he’s exactly what the media powers that be want the news to be, entertainment. The media likes to cover news, particularly politics, as if it’s entertainment but most politicians and newsmakers are willing to play along only so far. In Trump they have their hearts’ desire. Entertainment that is news. The Donald isn’t playing along. He’s simply being what he is and the media can’t get enough of him. CNN might as well change its name to TNN---Trump News Network. They cover him nonstop like he’s a lost airliner.
And it’s not just CNN. All the news outlets want a piece of his action. He’s ratings! He’s eyeballs. He’s a million clicks a day. Why interview the boring and earnest Hillary Clinton or the only slightly more exciting because he’s so grumpy Bernie Sanders or the nearly charisma-freed John Kasich when Donald Trump will happily take your one softball question as an opportunity to put on his road show for fifteen minutes? And CBS is as greedy, irresponsible, and shameless as the rest, as its CEO and president Les Moonves (an offscreen villain in Truth) gleefully reveals in quotes in this post by Neal Gabler at Moyers & Company:
How much of this attention is driven by the media itself and how much by public fascination is hard to determine since these two feed each other. We do know, as Rubio said, that the media gives Trump attention because he is a ratings-getter, and he has cleverly played off this. CBS head Les Moonves gave away the game earlier this week when he admitted, “It may not be good for America,” meaning the Trump-dominated campaign, “but it is damn good for CBS,” meaning the ratings. And then he kept doubling down: “The money’s rolling in and this is fun.” “I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.” “Donald’s place in this election is a good thing” – presumably for CBS stockholders. To which I can only say that the networks were granted licenses to the public airwaves, our airwaves, by promising to provide a public service. Moonves just blew that pretense all to hell.
Depressing. But nothing new. The news has been popular entertainment since at least the start of the 19th Century. Journalism is a business and people get into business to make money. Newspapers had to sell and what sold then is what sells now. Sex, scandal, and blood. Journalists didn’t believe in the public’s right to know. They believed in its right to be suckered.
In 1882, a New York press agent named W.F. Morse helped launch a nearly year long lecture tour of the United States for a young London poet with one self-published book to his name and a slight reputation based not on his literary achievements but on his notoriety as a witty and flamboyant young man about town. The tour was terrifically successful, that is, it made money all around, but much of the success was due to Morse’s selling the young poet to American audiences as scandal personified and he knew he’d have help doing that from the press.
It was sound business strategy. The most popular commercial attraction in the United States, until it was destroyed by fire in the late 1860s, was P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. There, in a five-story building on Broadway in Lower Manhattan, exhibits of anatomical oddities and historical curios---some alive and authentic (Tom Thumb and the Siamese Twins Chang and Eng) and some others not so much (The Trunk of the Tree Under Which Jesus’s Disciples Sat)---combined to sell thirty million tickets, a number matching the population of the entire United States. One reason for that astonishing success, Morse understood, was the willing role played in promoting Barnum’s humbuggery by the American press, which seemed to love nothing more than writing about the silly and the strange, no matter how seriously the subjects of their journalism took themselves.
That’s from Wilde in America by David M. Friedman and the young poet who wound up being written about as “silly and strange” was, of course, Oscar Wilde.
End of Part One.
Click on the link to read Gabler's whole post at Moyers and Company, How the Media Enabled Donald Trump by Destroying Politics First.
And here's my review of Truth, She had spunk. He liked spunk. That turned out to be a problem for both of them.
Tangentially related: I think Redford must have been in a mood last year. He was more emotionally available than is typical of him in his other movie from last fall, A Walk in the Woods. Here's my review of that one: Redford and Nolte take a cheerful hike with Death.
You might also like NPR's story on the 50th Anniversary of "Harvest of Shame", In Confronting Poverty, 'Harvest of Shame' Reaped Praise and Criticism.
Truth, written and directed by James Vanderbilt. Based on the book Truth: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power by Mary Mapes. Starring Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Dennis Quaid, Topher Gracer, Elisabeth Moss, and Stacy Keach. Rated R. Available on DVDand Blu-ray and to watch instantly at Amazon.