Dan Rather is getting the Hollywood treatment. He shouldn't. Photographer: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images
Dan Rather is getting the Hollywood treatment. He shouldn't. Photographer: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Dear Hollywood:

I see from the Hollywood Reporter that you plan to make a movie about Dan Rather, Mary Mapes and the 2004 CBS broadcast that destroyed their careers:

Robert Redford has signed on to play Dan Rather in Truth, a film based on the 2005 memoir Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power.

The book, written by Rather's producer Mary Mapes, centers on the firestorm that erupted in September of 2004 after Rather reported that George W. Bush had received special treatment while serving in the Air National Guard during the Vietnam War, a report that was based on documents that turned out to be forgeries.

Cate Blanchett is attached to play Mapes, who was fired after the scandal, which was dubbed "Rathergate."

Mapes' memoir, Truth and Duty, was published in 2005. The Peabody Award-winning producer had worked for CBS' 60 Minutes since 1999. After Rather's erroneous report on Bush aired, it became the subject of harsh criticism, and an internal investigation was launched. Subsequently, Mapes was accused of lapses in judgment and was fired, while Rather's career and reputation were jeopardized.

It sounds like a big project, starring two of my favorite actors. And I can understand why you’d want to tell the story of those memos. It’s exciting! That’s why I devoted a chapter to it in "The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success." The story of how Rather and Mapes and their CBS team were snookered by fake memos purporting to show that President George W. Bush had been absent without leave is a fascinating case study in how we can overlook the obvious and become wedded to dubious narratives.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound as if you’re making a movie about the fallibility of human nature. Instead, it sounds as if you’re making a movie based on Mapes’s book about it -- an upside-down version in which Mapes is upholding the highest standards of journalism while everyone else caves in to the vast right-wing conspiracy to suppress the truth. This would be very embarrassing for my profession, because you’d be presenting Mapes’s mistakes as emblematic. Thankfully, they are not. Mapes lost her job because she failed to properly vet those documents, or their source, and thereby allowed probable forgeries to be put on the air. Despite what Mapes implies in her book, this is not acceptable practice. That’s why so few journalists stepped forward to defend her.

Before I go further, however, let me put my own cards on the table: I voted for Bush in 2004. If I were a character in Mapes’s book, this would mean you should ignore me, because she repeatedly disqualifies statements that hurt her case by pointing out that the person speaking is a Republican or a Bush supporter. However, I should note that I also supported Al Gore in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2008, and I do not view either liberals or conservatives as presumptive liars.

Nor do I view Mapes as a presumptive liar. That would require implausible levels of evil and stupidity: evil, because she’d be trying to alter an election result with a massive lie; stupid, because the odds of getting away with such a scheme are vanishingly small. We’re talking a supervillian-who-leaves-hero-in-a-remote-quarry-to-be-devoured-by-carnivorous-GMO-squirrels level of evil and stupid. Too evil and stupid to get as far as Mapes did in the cutthroat world of television production.

I do think she made a very bad mistake, which could have been averted had she been more skeptical about the documents she received from Bill Burkett, a disgruntled National Guard retiree who reportedly had it in for Bush. I think that she has become unable to recognize that mistake, for the same reasons that we all cling to our own self-serving narratives rather than admit that we have screwed up. After reading through all the contemporary reports, the report from CBS’s independent panel and Mapes’s book, I think Mapes fell prey to the journalist’s two worst enemies: confirmation bias and motivated cognition.

“Confirmation bias”? Let me explain. Confirmation bias is a general tendency to check stories by looking for reasons that they could be true, rather than looking for reasons that they could be false. Journalists and scientists have to fight this tendency constantly. That’s why “If your mother says she loves you, check it out” is a journalistic canon. Falsification is a much more reliable route to the truth than confirmation.

Statisticians illustrate this with the parable of a black swan. Say someone tells you “There is no such thing as a black swan.” How do you check that story -- by looking at a lot of white swans? No, by hunting for a black one. As soon as you find a black swan, you know the hypothesis is false. On the other hand, say I can’t find a black swan. Does that mean there aren’t any? No, it just means I didn’t find one. Maybe it’s hiding.

When you read Mapes’s story and the report of CBS’s independent investigation, one thing is obvious: Mapes was hunting for more white swans instead of trying to find a black one. And once she was invested in the story, she ignored the people who started telling her about black swan sightings -- because after all, she’d seen, like, a zillion white swans. This is called motivated cognition, and it is also distressingly common. You in Hollywood should know this better than most. After all, how else do producers keep throwing money at turkeys like “Heaven’s Gate” or “Battlefield Earth” long after everyone connected with them has begun to suspect they’ve got a disaster on their hands?

But back to Mary Mapes. According to the independent panel, which had testimony, e-mails and handwritten notes about these conversations, two different examiners warned her about the documents. Their warnings highlighted many of the problems that became major issues after the broadcast aired, such as the fact that the documents had features found mainly on modern word processors, not the manual typewriters of the era in question.

Yet even after legions of Internet commentators and sleuths piled on to point out the problems, Mapes clung to her belief in these documents; to this day, she purports to believe Burkett’s implausible story about how he acquired them. As I note in my book, this was the truly fatal mistake she made. Everyone makes mistakes. But people who become dedicated to protecting and extending their mistakes cannot be trusted with the enormous power journalists have to make the news.

I can understand how this happened. Mapes and Rather were at the center of an Internet storm. In 11 years of blogging, I have been through several similar (though less famous) digital hurricanes. It’s the sort of thing … well, if you asked me whether I’d rather go through it again or take a beating, I’d say, “Tell me more about this beating. Will there be clubs involved?” Having random strangers accuse you of the moral equivalent of war crimes and fielding personal suggestions that would hardly do for the parlor of a downscale bordello does not make you think “Hey, I wonder if they’re right and I’m wrong.”

Nonetheless, the critics in this case were right, and Mapes and Rather were wrong and, as far as I know, remain wrong: At last hearing, they were still insisting that the documents were authentic, that they were well within accepted journalistic practice to air them, and that they were pushed out of CBS to appease the Bush administration and a bunch of conservative wackos.

Now, if you have read Mapes’s book and little else about the case, you may be skeptical, because she suggests that anyone who supports the consensus view among journalists that she made an enormous mistake is either 1) unfamiliar with the facts, 2) part of a vast right-wing conspiracy, 3) jealous or 4) all of the above. She even implies that Louis Boccardi -- who headed the Associated Press and sat on the Pulitzer Prize Board before CBS asked him to lead, with former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, the investigation of the Killian memos -- doesn’t understand how journalism is done.

So let me sketch out why we can be pretty sure that the documents are fake and what red flags Mapes had to ignore in order to put them on the air. All these things are independently verifiable; you do not need to take my word for it. You just need to start by acknowledging the possibility that Mapes made a mistake and be open to the evidence.

1) Provenance: The documents allegedly came from the personal files of the late Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian, who was George Bush’s commanding officer while he was in the Texas Air National Guard during the early 1970s. The files came to Mary Mapes via a man named Bill Burkett, a former officer in the Texas Army National Guard. Yet the most likely ultimate sources for Killian’s personal files -- members of Killian’s family -- have said they were fake and that they did not have any private files.

2) Witnesses:

a) Killian’s widow said that her husband loved Bush and would have campaigned for him if he had still been alive when Bush ran for president.

b) Killian’s son said Killian could barely type, gave his typing to a secretary and didn’t keep files at home.

c) Killian’s secretary disliked Bush’s politics and never voted for him; said that she thought Bush had indeed been AWOL and protected by higher-ups; nonetheless denied typing the memos; and said she thought the memos were fake because she hadn’t typed them and they were off in various ways: They used Army jargon instead of Air Force terms, and they showed a written order to take a physical that would actually have been given verbally.

d) Mapes argues that various witnesses authenticated the documents. These include Ben Barnes, a Texas politician; Robert Strong, a Texas Air National Guard officer who knew Killian; and General Bobby Hodges, a senior officer in the Texas Air National Guard when the alleged memos were written. She also cites the White House’s failure to issue a strong denial, as well as an assessment by Colonel David Hackworth, a former Army officer who was a regular on television, that Bush had been AWOL. If you look at the testimony, however, you find that none of these are strong confirmation:

  • Hackworth had no knowledge of the documents or the Texas Air National Guard; he was interviewed as a general “military” witness. He might possibly have picked up gross inaccuracies, but all he can tell Mapes is that he doesn’t see any black swans.
  • Barnes had no knowledge about the documents; he was testifying that he had pulled strings to get Bush into the Air National Guard to keep him out of Vietnam. Yet Bush was widely assumed to have gone to the National Guard to stay out of Vietnam, just as Bill Clinton had stayed out of the war by racking up educational credits. The explosive charges were that Bush had been AWOL, something Barnes could not verify.
  • Strong knew Killian at the time, but he was 180 miles away at the Texas Air National Guard headquarters in Austin. He believed that there was preferential treatment in getting people into the Guard, but not in terms of covering up for AWOL officers. Moreover, he had left the Guard by the time the memos were written and could not say anything specifically about Bush. Basically, he corroborates the presumption that influence was used to get the sons of prominent men into the Texas Air National Guard, but he can’t verify the authenticity of the Killian memos; all he can say is that they’re "compatible" with the way he saw political influence being used. Strong and others also later attested that they were told by CBS staff to assume the memos were genuine, which made their statements sound more corroborative than they actually were.
  • Hodges, who commanded Bush's fighter interceptor group in the Texas Air National Guard at the time, never saw the documents; he was read them over the phone. Hodges said he was hearing excerpts from documents that he thought were handwritten and authenticated, not even hearing the entire documents. According to the panel, his extensive handwritten notes of the conversation do not reflect some of the things in Mapes’s notes, such as telling her that Killian was angry about Bush transferring out of the unit to take a civilian job in Alabama. Because Mapes didn’t tape the interview, we’ll never know who is right. Even if you accept her story, a close read of Mapes's story and the panel report suggests that he was not saying “Yup, Bush was AWOL”; he was saying something like “Well, if Killian wrote that, that’s what he felt.” He did not tell her that Bush was AWOL; he told her that he had authorized Bush’s departure for Alabama and that this was normal for the National Guard of the era. Moreover, after he saw the documents, post-broadcast, he said he thought they were fake for the same reason that Killian’s secretary did: The jargon and the format were wrong.
  • White House spokesman Dan Bartlett did not deny that the documents were real. Mapes took that as confirmation. But how would Bush know what Killian had in his private files?

3) Typography: This is the part of the case that probably got the most public attention.

a) The documents contained features found on modern word processors rather than the manual typewriters commonly used at the time:

  • Superscripts. Mapes claimed that, in fact, the verified official documents had superscripts, but they didn’t. They had a special “th” character, which was found on the Olympia manual typewriters of the era. But the superscripts that show up in the contested Killian memos are elevated slightly above the top of the number preceding them. The “th” character in the official memo is very different; it’s underlined, and its top is level with the top of the numbers preceding it. According to a typewriter expert contacted by the panel, it matches the “th” key available on an Olympia manual typewriter. The ones in the contested memos don’t.
  • Proportional fonts, where the “l” takes up less space than the “m,” instead of a monospaced font, where every letter is the same size.
  • Kerning (actually, “pseudokerning”), where you tuck an “r” under the arch of an “f” or run the tail of a "y" slightly under the letter that precedes it. A manual typewriter can’t do this, obviously, because you need to know what the previous letter was, and manual typewriters don’t have memories.
  • The font appears to be Times New Roman, which wasn’t available on the Olympia manual typewriters or IBM Selectrics that Killian’s secretary says were used in the office. A typewriter expert contacted by the independent panel looked at all the available fonts and concluded that none were as close a match to the documents as the defaults in Microsoft Word. If you are still on the fence about the authenticity of these documents, I encourage you to read Peter Tytell’s report and the testimony of Killian’s secretary, who was very clear in saying she thought the memos were fake, even if she thought the underlying story was true.

b) The memos were a very close match to what you’d get if you just opened up Microsoft Word 2003 and started typing: the font, the spacing, the margins, the superscripts, the pseudokerning.

c) To see why, just take one of the verified official memos (they’re available on the CBS website), open Microsoft Word and start typing. Then compare what you get with the original. Do this with a book, a letter -- anything from before the computer era. Play with the fonts; set it to Courier or a typewriter typeface. See how long it takes you to get something that can be exactly overlayed, line by line and word by word. I’m betting you’ll give up before you get there. Yet with the Killian memos, you’ll get there almost immediately.

The defenses mounted by Mapes and others amounted to saying, “Well, there were machines that did proportional fonts, and you could order a ball with a 'th' key or solder one on, and maybe the kerning is an artifact of the faxing of the documents." All of this is true, but … at some point, as a journalist and presumably as a movie producer, you start having to ask yourself: What’s the likely story? That a Texas Air National Guard commander who couldn’t type found a typist who had ordered a custom machine that just happened to match the defaults in Microsoft Word? Or that the document was typed in Microsoft Word? The best journalistic bet is the easy, likely thing, not the ultra-long-shot coincidence.

d) Format and wording: In addition to the incorrect jargon, there are key differences between the official documents and the disputed memos, such as the location and format of Killian’s signature block.

e) Biographical details: The memos reference pressure from General Walter Staudt -- who retired from the Air National Guard more than a year before the disputed memos were allegedly written -- to protect Bush. Mapes maintains that he could have still had influence, which is possible. However, she does not seem to have found any strong evidence that he retained the power to hush up … well, whatever she thinks Bush was up to. And why didn’t the memos mention Hodges, who was actually in command at the time? Presumably, pressure would have come through him.

Mapes was making decisions under intense time pressure. It’s perhaps understandable that she didn’t see the problems with the typography. But Mapes should have seen a number of other red flags:

1) Bill Burkett:

a) Burkett, the source of the documents, didn’t like Bush, and he was also mad at the Air National Guard because of a dispute over medical benefits he thought they should have paid. This alone should have made Mapes more skeptical.

b) Burkett had already been a star witness in earlier media stories about Bush’s Air National Guard service, and he had a history of making bold claims, then backing off when pressed on them. That should definitely have set the spidey sense tingling.

c) There were a lot of stories about where Burkett got the documents. People inside CBS reported hearing early on that he got them anonymously in the mail. Then he got them from Chief Warrant Officer George Conn, another former Texas Guard member, but don’t call him because he’ll deny it, and anyway he’s in Germany now. OK, he admitted after the broadcast, they didn’t come from Conn; they came from a mysterious woman named Lucy Ramirez who made him burn the originals after he made copies. As Kevin Drum of Mother Jones has written:

Burkett and Conn had worked together at the Texas Guard in 1997 and both had left in 1998. But Killian died in 1984. How did Conn have access to Killian's personal memos 14 years later? And even if he did, did Conn filch the documents in 1998 but not tell Burkett about them, even though he knew Burkett was intensely interested? And did he then keep them secret for six full years, even though he knew that his friend Burkett was desperately trying to convince the world of Bush's mendacity during this entire time?

And that's not all: not only did Conn supposedly keep the memos secret all this time -- a period during which he publicly disparaged Burkett's "scrubbing" story several times -- but Burkett's story implies that Conn suddenly reversed course in March and, for no apparent reason, finally told Burkett about the documents. But even then he didn't turn over originals, which could have been easily verified. Only copies! And then Burkett decided to wait six months before showing them to anyone! This yarn is so nonsensical to anyone who had been following this story that it should have set off ear splitting klaxons. And to top it off Burkett told the CBS reporters not to even try to contact Conn to verify the story! And then warned them to be careful verifying the memos, even though they were supposedly from a trusted colleague. The klaxons should have been shattering eardrums at that point.

A child would be suspicious of this story -- and Burkett later admitted it wasn't true. But in the end, even though Conn was allegedly the source of the documents, and even though this made no sense at all, no one at CBS tried to contact him in Germany. Why? I talked to Conn for 20 minutes when I was researching this stuff in February. If I could get hold of him, why couldn't they?

Mapes still insists the documents are genuine. This is even more boggling than believing Burkett in the first place. Burkett displayed the classic characteristics of unreliable sources: They tell one story, and then, when you note the inconsistencies, you suddenly hear an entirely new story that covers up those holes. The terminal story is usually impossible to check -- and also completely implausible.

Mapes is reduced to offering speculation that perhaps “Lucy Ramirez” wanted the originals destroyed to conceal any DNA evidence of her involvement. A much more plausible alternative is that the originals were destroyed to conceal their creation on a laser printer. Mapes, amazingly, acknowledges that this story seems incredible, but then she says that it’s entirely plausible, because … it’s Texas. “As I sat listening to Burkett’s scenario spill out, I realized how truly ridiculous this sounded from our vantage in New York. But in Texas ... a place where bull semen is worth its weight in gold (and the bizarre long ago became the mundane), I believed it was quite possible that Bill Burkett was finally telling the truth, the whole weird truth, and nothing but the truth. By God, in Texas, anything could happen.” Texas is indeed weird and wonderful, but I doubt Burkett’s story sounded any more plausible there than it did in New York.

d) As a quid pro quo for providing the documents, Burkett asked to be put in touch with the presidential campaign of John F. Kerry so that he could help it combat the Swift Boat attacks on Kerry’s military service in Vietnam. Mapes did contact the campaign for him. Beyond the ethical problems with offering quid pro quos to sources and getting involved with the campaign of the man who would benefit from the airing of your blockbuster segment, Burkett’s desire to elect Kerry was another red flag. But in her book, Mapes only seems to be skeptical of information that comes from Republicans.

2) The experts:

a) All the document examiners told Mapes that they couldn’t authenticate the documents because they were copies. Marcel Matley, her star witness, only looked at the signatures, as his handwritten notes show.

b) Several of the documents that were aired did not have signatures, so Matley couldn’t authenticate even those.

c) Two out of the four document examiners raised significant problems with the documents. Mapes later insisted that the other document examiners said they would defer to Matley; they deny this, and CBS’s independent panel found that notes and e-mails from one of them (Emily Will) show that she raised significant problems with the signatures, as well as the typography. Matley had also raised problems with one of the signatures, though he thought this could have been caused by stress.

d) Mapes was told to consult typewriter expert Peter Tytell. Her team reached out to him, but by the time he got back to them, it was late, and they declined to have him look at the documents. This was a mistake, because if they’d talked to him, he would presumably have offered the opinion he rendered later: that the documents were fake.

To sum up: Mapes got some explosive documents from a man with an axe to grind and a history of making big claims, then walking them back. This doesn’t mean the story is not real; it did mean that the standard of evidence she required should have been high. She did not get that standard of proof: Her document examiners could not authenticate the documents, they disagreed about the signatures, and several of them raised major concerns. Her interviews with people connected with the Guard during that era offered substantial evidence that influence had been used to get Bush into the National Guard, but they offered very weak evidence that Bush had been AWOL. Instead of recognizing the flaws in her story, she minimized major questions, both to herself and to her superiors at CBS.

It remains possible that Bush did ignore orders to take a flight physical, then disappeared, and had all this hushed up by political influence. But it’s not enough to prove that the story could have been true, or that it didn’t flagrantly contradict anything in the official record -- an argument that Mapes has been leaning on with her “meshing document” that purports to show that the Killian documents slot neatly into holes in the official record. Whoever wrote them had access to the official records, too, which had already been widely reported on, so all this proves is that you are not dealing with a totally incompetent forger.

No matter how hard you argue that the story still could have been true, the documents themselves were most likely fake, and in journalism, that matters; “fake but accurate” won’t cut it. With all the obvious problems, those documents should never have made it on the air.

You can argue that Mapes was missing key pieces of information. Only after the documents aired, for instance, did Killian’s secretary and others point out problems with the jargon used in the documents. With the time pressure she was under, it’s possible to argue -- as I have -- that Mapes made a forgivable mistake.

What happened next, however, was not forgivable. Even after all the problems were pointed out; even after Bill Burkett changed his story to say that he got his documents from the mysterious “Lucy Ramirez”; even after the typewriter expert Mapes had been unable to contact analyzed the documents and offered his opinion that they were very unlikely to have been written on the typewriters available at the time … even after all this, Mapes insisted that she was right about the documents, and everyone else was either the enabler or the victim of a vast right-wing conspiracy. Of course, refusing to accept that you’ve made an enormous mistake is natural behavior. But at some point, you have to be able to see the obvious.

Other people could, which is why CBS retracted the story, why Mapes and Rather were pushed out, and why the consensus among journalists -- from conservative magazines to Mother Jones -- is that the documents were faked and Mapes was had. It would be a pity if Hollywood made the same blind mistakes that destroyed several distinguished careers in New York. I know that the film production company for this project is called Mythology Entertainment. That said, the journalists who deserve to have their stories told are the ones who dug into the provenance of these memos and exposed them for what they actually were. If you are going to make a movie, it should honor their fine work, not the errors that made it necessary.

Sincerely, Megan

To contact the author of this article: Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.