Former CBS Evening News Anchor Dan Rather said 60 Minutes “got to the truth” in 2004 but paid a “painful price” for the story on former President George W. Bush’s National Guard service that aired before the 2004 presidential election.
Aside from the authenticity of the memos, Rather said the “basic story” remains true today.
“One, did former President Bush when in his troubled youth, did he use his father’s influence to get into the Air National Guard as a way of avoiding Vietnam? That’s a fact. Fact two: Once he got in the Air National Guard after performing well, in some ways, very well, he disappeared for a year, nobody disappears for a year, now those are facts,” Rather said at the Washington premiere of Truth, a film based on a book written about the controversial 60 Minutes segment that aired in 2004.
“Everybody is entitled to their opinion but they aren’t entitled to their own facts. The reason this film is called Truth is we got to the truth but we paid a painful price for it,” he added.
The broadcast included documents that were not authenticated by forensic experts, which ultimately led to the dismissal of the staff that worked on the story as well as the firing of producer Mary Mapes. The fallout is referred to as the “Killian documents controversy” – after Lieutenant Colonel Killian, Bush’s superior in the National Guard, whose name appears on the documents.
Robert Redford portrays Rather in the film, which opened in theaters on Oct. 16. The movie is based on Mapes’ book titled Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power.
Rather pointed out that the film is not only about the 60 Minutes segment itself.
“It uses it as a method of telling the story of what’s happened to the news, why it’s happened, how it happened, why you should care about it and it also has a resonance of going forward – what kind of journalism can we have in the new digital era?” he said.
The film’s director, James Vanderbilt, was asked why he decided to release the film more than 10 years after the controversial story was broadcast.
Vanderbilt said he was working on the film on and off for about 8 years.
“The thing we found when we tried to put it together the first time in 2007 was, honestly, enough time hadn’t passed from it and so people kept looking at it from a very politicized lens when they would read the screenplay, and the movie isn’t really about that,” he said.
“The film is about journalism and the film is about these characters and what they go through trying to put the story together and nobody at the time could divorce themselves from what they perceived to be the politics behind it,” he added.
Rather was asked if he thought it was the right time for the release.
“I do think this film, the story, which is a fascinating multi-layered story about media, big corporations and their political allies, propaganda, betrayal, it’s a really good story and with a cast like this, look at this cast, not just Cate Blanchett or Robert Redford, it’s an all-star cast, it’s a good story,” Rather responded.
Rather also said the “media cosmos” is “so much larger” and “more fragmented” compared to 2004.
“This is a good time to revisit what happened, why it happened, how it happened and why anybody should care because it resonates today. The question is, what’s happened to the news? I think at its best level this film deals with this question,” he said.
“It’s a question of what kind of journalism do we want and that’s a great deal of what Truth – this film – is about. We need a new broader, looking-forward discussion that with this new exploding universe of media and press – what kind of journalism do we want in this country and especially do we want hard-grilling, deep-digging investigative journalism which can’t be perfect, it’s never perfect, do we want it or not and if not, then what kind of country do we expect to have?”
Rather sued CBS in 2006 for $70 million after he left the company and the lawsuit was eventually dismissed. PJ Media asked Rather if he is satisfied with the outcome.
“Filing the lawsuit was never about the money. The lawsuit was about two things: number one, I wanted to know what happened, what really happened,” he said, adding that the lawsuit was the only way to figure it out.
Rather also explained CBS quietly tried to erase him from their history despite his 44 years with the company.
“They were trying to airbrush me out of their history, which, I said to myself, even if I lose, I have to fight it so I did. Now, we eventually lost in the appeals court, not on the merits of what we discovered, but it was on a legal matter of whether we had the right to sue CBS, but that’s a long way from the film,” he said.