The PJ Tatler

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.”

Defending the indefensible

Shortly after her involuntary separation from CBS News, Mary Mapes was signed to a lucrative book contract by CBS-owned Macmillan Publishers that included a reported $250,000 advance.

Mapes conspicuously failed to apologize for her journalistic failures and deceptions. Instead, she insisted the segment was accurate and the memos authentic – faxing had “destroyed the subtle arcs and lines in the letters.” Reporters, she argued, shouldn’t lose their jobs “for reporting a story that makes powerful people uncomfortable.” Mapes presented herself as the victim of a vicious personal attack, emphasizing her emotional suffering (“I staggered around the steel and stone restroom, groping for something soft to lean on while I sobbed.”). The bloggers who had dared to criticize her report were ignorant, vindictive members of the “right wing” who “hate in unison” and “speak with one angry voice.” These vile creatures “shout down dissent,” have no “allegiance to the truth,” and are creating an environment “closer to fascism than democracy.”

Mapes’ self-serving claims are not persuasive. The independent Thornburgh-Boccardi report found “many deficiencies in the reporting, production and vetting of the… segment.” The report also noted that “efforts at authentication failed miserably,” although the segment “contained an unsupported declaration of authenticity.” CBS ombudsman Vaughn Ververs later wrote of the memos, “Nothing I’ve seen leads me to believe they are authentic.” He added, “Some continue to claim that even if the documents are fake, the gist of the story is true somehow. Wrong. The documents were presented as evidence to prove the story’s accuracy. The fact that they have been discredited undermines the veracity of the entire story, and it’s not an acceptable defense of it.” Ververs thought the evidence that political bias was a motivating factor was “pretty convincing.”

Truth and Duty makes it clear that Mary Mapes hates “braying radical conservatives” and would stop them from expressing their opinions if she could. Unfortunately, she is not alone.

Silencing the opposition

Leftists within and outside government are working to silence their opponents’ political speech. The IRS denied non-profit status to conservative organizations, preventing those groups from raising funds to get their messages out. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has called for legislation to punish global warming skeptics, whom he considers “traitors.” The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is circulating a petition to force talk radio host Rush Limbaugh off the air.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that school officials can prohibit students from wearing clothing featuring the American flag because of threats against the students. The Obama administration, which tried to blame the terrorist murders of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and others on an obscure anti-Islam video, advanced the same argument – that there is no First Amendment right to make someone angry. This reverses the classic summary of the principle of free speech: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Senate Democrats have proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow Congress to censor newspapers, TV reports, books and films, and imprison people for their opinions. Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative writer and filmmaker who has strongly criticized President Obama, was recently sentenced to five years’ probation and fined $30,000 for using surrogates to make campaign donations. Federal judge Richard Berman, a Clinton appointee, ordered D’Souza to serve eight months in a “community confinement center,” to perform community service and also, in case anyone might have missed the point, to undergo “therapeutic counseling.”

Such laws do not apply to the liberal media. The new prime-time CBS series Madame Secretary, which started off by trying to whitewash Hillary Clinton’s actions while Americans were being murdered in Benghazi, is effectively a $100 million contribution to her presidential campaign.

Leftists also seek to control political debate online. Astroturf groups routinely spam social media, discussion forums and comments to news articles. A number of “fact check” sites offer political pronouncements intended to sound authoritative and objective. The oldest and best-known is, part of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which funded the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC) in the 1990s. That operation was founded by the former domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, who hired Barack Obama as the group’s first chairman. The CAC handed out more than $100 million in grants to Chicago schools and to leftist “education networks.”

The “Snopes” urban legend tracker is a useful resource when debunking chain emails – and hopelessly slanted on anything related to politics. The same is true of Wikipedia, where all political entries are guarded by a cadre of leftist editors. Sites such as Digg and Reddit routinely delete posts that oppose the party line. These efforts are similar to the decades-long campaigns by which leftists established control over earlier opinion-forming channels: public education, churches, TV, movies, books, magazines, newspapers, and even editorial cartoons.

Targeting the nameless

The political value of controlling information channels is undermined if dissenters can publicly critique the narratives those channels supply. This has allowed the Internet and social media to significantly level the playing field between the Journalista class and the citizenry. These days, propaganda articles are routinely demolished in the comments sections of the old media’s own websites. Over the past decade a number of false media narratives have been countered by online detective work, including the racially-charged Duke Lacrosse and Trayvon Martin cases.

Little wonder that the Washington Post and other media outlets want to ban anonymous online comments entirely (while, of course, maintaining their own right to publish unsigned editorials).

The Post and other news organizations prefer this customer feedback model:

1)      Our authority figure tells you a story

2)      You watch it or read it

3)      If you like, you can write us a letter

Shortly after the mass shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, in 2012, the Journal News in New York published an interactive map with the names and addresses of every handgun permit holder in the paper’s two-county coverage area. The Journal News claimed that this action was in the public interest, but it was clearly an attempt to shame, stigmatize, and possibly intimidate the gun owners. Weapons were soon stolen from the homes of several residents listed on the map.

But the Internet, at least for now, is still a two-way street. Second Amendment supporters fought back by posting personal information online about the editors and writers at the paper, including their own home addresses. Journal News executives opted to hire armed guards to protect their property, to the amusement of many, and the paper took down its anti-gun map a few days later.

Anonymous speech has a long, honorable tradition in America; the Federalist Papers were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay – and signed by “Publius.” One obvious advantage of anonymity, as the Founders were aware, is that vindictive authorities find it much more difficult to target those who offer unwelcome opinions. This is obviously still an issue in a time when federal employees use their positions to harass and discriminate against citizens whose opinions they dislike, such as members of anti-vote fraud or tea party groups.

Hollywood’s “Truth”

Do the makers of Truth really hope to restore the stained reputations of Dan Rather and Mary Mapes? Or are they primarily interested in a different political target? In Truth and Duty, Mapes complained again and again that some of her critics had posted under pseudonyms – one charming comment was that they didn’t “have the balls to step out from behind the keyboard.”

Mapes’ book previews how Truth will redefine the story: as a heroic attempt to “speak truth to power” that was shouted down by anonymous smear artists. Dan and Mary will be the good guys, brought down by angry zealots telling lies about their work. This will be lapped up by liberals who want to believe it and by low information voters who don’t read. Few viewers will recognize the story as propaganda designed to make them angry at those who challenge our “official” news sources. Doubters and the undecided will be assured by politicized film critics that the movie is important, powerful, and true at a deeper level than mere facts can provide.

“Fake but accurate” was a popular Internet meme in 2004 that poked fun at Dan Rather’s desperate attempts to prop up For the Record after the memos were exposed as forgeries. But when it plays on the big screen, “fake but accurate” will be transformed into “emotional truth.”

The film may not sell well – Hollywood’s political screeds tend to reap mediocre returns at the box office. Yet there are always more in the pipeline, and the effect is cumulative. Hollywood’s Truth will serve its purpose if it raises doubts about the legitimacy of online dissent. It’s one more chisel chipping away at free speech, the fundamental right that defines us as Americans.

Scott Swett is the author of To Set The Record Straight: How Swift Boat Veterans, POWs and the New Media Defeated John Kerry and webmaster for and