Dan Rather’s Revenge and the Battle for Free Speech

NEW YORK - Robert Redford will play Dan Rather in a film about the former CBS anchor's disputed report about President George W. Bush's National Guard service.

The film, titled Truth, will be adapted from the memoir Truth And Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power by former CBS producer Mary Mapes, said the production company, Mythology Entertainment. Cate Blanchett is signed on to play Mapes.

But I hope truth is subject to no prescription, for truth is truth though never so old, and time cannot make that false which was once true. – Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, 1603

If you followed the 2004 presidential campaign, you probably recall the “disputed” 60 Minutes report claiming that George W. Bush shirked his duties and failed to follow orders as a young Texas Air National Guard officer. The segment was discredited when the “military memos” on which it was based were exposed online as forgeries. CBS News received a well-deserved black eye, and long-time anchor Dan Rather, producer Mary Mapes and several others lost their jobs.

There is no need to review the technical evidence about the memos, except to note that 1970s-era typewriters lacked word processing features such as superscripts, kerning (adjusting the spaces between letters to improve readability), proportional spacing and mathematically centered titles. A detailed account of the scandal, which became famous as “RatherGate,” can be found here.

To many, the debunking of the 60 Minutes segment For the Record was a brilliantly effective exercise in free speech that prevented a slanted hit piece from influencing a national election. But to Mapes and Rather, it was a profound injustice that should never be allowed to happen again.


The online takedown of For the Record a decade ago was a watershed moment for the Internet, showing that ordinary citizens could effectively fact-check and counter old media political narratives. This failed to please “gatekeepers” such as former CBS News executive Jonathan Klein, who harrumphed that “you couldn’t have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of check and balances [at 60 Minutes] and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing.” But the evidence pointed the other way: all the professional media outlets, with their vaunted fact-checkers, vetting processes and layers of editorial review, overlooked the glaring problems with the documents. Most tried for nearly two weeks to defend the politically useful story.

For the Record did not reveal how CBS News had obtained the memos, which were attributed to Bush’s former commanding officer, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian. The source turned out to be one Bill Burkett, a former Texas Army National Guard officer with a history of mental problems who had made previous false claims about Bush’s military service. Burkett later told investigators that Mary Mapes put him in touch with senior Kerry officials so he could “provide the campaign with strategic advice on countering the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.” Mapes herself kept in contact with top Kerry campaign advisor Joe Lockhart as she worked on the segment, though she later claimed the topic was never discussed. Perhaps it was just a coincidence that the Kerry campaign was ready to launch a multi-million dollar national TV ad campaign targeting Bush’s National Guard service (“Operation Fortunate Son”) right after For the Record was televised.

Patterns of behavior

It is impossible to know how many bogus news stories have been broadcast over the years. For the Record wasn’t Dan Rather’s first rodeo. In his 1988 CBS News documentary The Wall Within, Rather interviewed six “combat veterans” who claimed to have committed gruesome crimes in Vietnam, and now, traumatized, were living in the woods in Washington State.

Researcher B.G. Burkett (no relation to Bill Burkett) used Freedom of Information requests to discover that five of the men had never served in combat. The sixth, a former ammunition handler, was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic who had spent months in military prisons. Dan Rather enthusiastically reported his impossible story of murdering, skinning, and stacking the corpses of dozens of Vietnamese men, women and children. B.G. Burkett would later write the landmark book Stolen Valor to help debunk the media-inspired wave of phony Vietnam atrocity stories. The book noted that Dan Rather, who claimed to have been a two-tour Marine, had actually failed the physical requirements and been discharged after just four months.

Portraying Vietnam veterans as psychologically devastated war criminals unable to function in society was a standard leftist propaganda theme for decades. John Kerry’s central role in creating this “poisonous image” was the primary reason he was considered unfit to serve as commander-in-chief by most of his fellow Swift Boat veterans. However, it took Hollywood to fully inject the Left’s slanderous narrative into the culture. In his book Vietnam at the Movies, Michael Lee Lanning analyzed how films such as Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Hearts and Minds presented American soldiers as “brutal killers who routinely commit atrocities and pursue genocide.”

Free speech online

In an era largely defined by electronic communications, it is easy to forget that the Internet and its social media derivatives, all less than a generation old, represent the greatest advance in the ability of ordinary people to obtain and disseminate information since the printing press. Totalitarians of all kinds inevitably want to control, manipulate, or shut these channels down.

Worldwide, Internet censorship is becoming the rule rather than the exception. A 2013 study by Freedom House found that “an increasing number of countries are passing new laws that criminalize certain types of political, religious or social speech….” A sharp rise was noted in the use of paid government commentators “to manipulate online discussions by trying to smear the reputations of government opponents, spread propaganda, and defend government policies….” The U.S., while categorized as “free,” was docked 12 out of 40 points in the “violation of user’s rights” category (online protections, restrictions, surveillance, repercussions for online activity, and limits on privacy), and scored just 83 of 100 points overall, down from 88 in 2012.

President Obama supported and recently signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, a provision of which (Section 1021) allows American citizens to be arrested and detained indefinitely by the military, even if their actions were protected by the First Amendment.

The U.S. State Department joined with the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation at the United Nations to pass “Resolution 16/18 to Combat Intolerance based on Religion or Belief,” which advances the OIC’s goal of criminalizing free speech on topics related to Islam.

Muslim Brotherhood agents have been invited to help develop America’s national security policies, with the result that many federal agencies disallow any mention of Islamic terrorism. Our military has become so fearful of offending Muslims that Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood jihadi mass-murderer, received plum assignments, glowing reviews and promotions from the Army, despite being both professionally incompetent and an obvious security threat.

Further guidance on the limits of speech comes from Mr. Obama, who informed the UN General Assembly in 2012, “The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.”