An interview with former CBS News producer Mary Mapes long before Truth became a feature film reality co-starring Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett
Note to readers: The feature film Truth, starring Robert Redford as Dan Rather and Cate Blanchett as CBS News producer Mary Mapes, opens on Friday, Oct. 16th.
It’s based on Mapes’ 2005 book, Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power. Rather and Mapes combined forces on the George W. Bush “Memogate” story that alleged he received very favorable treatment while serving with the Texas Air National Guard. Mapes subsequently was fired and Rather lost his position as anchor of The CBS Evening News. He later resigned and unsuccessfully sued the network.
This up-close look at Mapes, first published on Nov. 9, 2005, originated from her Dallas home and was her first print interview before she apprehensively began a national book tour on behalf of Truth.
By ED BARK
The past year’s short list of women scorned would be bogus without Mary Mapes.
Figuratively tarred and feathered before being fired by CBS, the Dallas-based producer of the now infamous “Memogate” report on President Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service says she’s both willing to take on her detractors and wary about how she’ll fare.
Her vehicles are the just published book Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power, and a companion tour of prominent TV news shows that kicks off today. After a lifetime behind the camera, Mapes will be going very public.
“I do feel a lot of trepidation about it,” she says in her first print interview. “Whenever you’ve gone through a period where you’ve been scrutinized, rejected and derided to that degree, I mean, it’s just overwhelming.
“I know there are some people out there waiting in the dark beside their computers, people who are going to zing off things about how wrong and stupid and ugly I am, how I’m a fool and a liberal tool. I fully expect that.”
Mapes, 49, talks animatedly in the East Dallas home she shares with her husband Mark Wrolstad, son Robert and dogs Honey, Mattie and Scout. Wrolstad, a reporter for The Dallas Morning News, took a leave of absence to serve as a sounding board and editor for his wife’s outpouring of printed words and rubbed-raw emotions.
In her view, “all that junk on the Internet” from bloggers and mainstream commentators “made me somebody I didn’t even recognize. I’m a feminist, but I am not an angry, communist ‘femininazi,’ sicko, mean, pinko, shrieking nag witch.”
It’s enough to make her laugh for the first of several times. Maybe it’s gallows humor, but it comes easily both in person and in print. She jokes about being punch-drunk for her scheduled Thursday bout with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor. They’ll square off after Mapes does CNN’s Larry King Live in Los Angeles on Wednesday night and then flies cross-country for an early gig on the network’s Manhattan-based American Morning.
“I’m going to talk to O’Reilly when I’ve had no sleep at the end of a long day,” she says. ”I may just collapse in a heap and confess that I did it. I shot him.”
Mapes, who grew up on a Burlington, WA farm with her four sisters, worked at Seattle’s KIRO-TV for 10 years before joining CBS News in 1989.
She became Dan Rather’s principal producer after joining 60 Minutes Wednesday in 1999. Together they collected a prestigious George Foster Peabody Award in May for an investigative report on abuses in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.
By that time, she already was an ex-CBS News employee and he’d stepped down as anchor of the CBS Evening News a year earlier than planned.
Their downfalls were a 2004 report that questioned how George W. Bush got into the largely noncombat National Guard during the Vietnam era and whether he fulfilled his obligations before his 1973 honorable discharge.
The authenticity of military documents used in the report was called into question by bloggers who contended that the typeface used in them didn’t exist yet.
On Sept. 20, 2004, CBS News president Andrew Heyward apologized for the report, as did Rather on the air that same night.
Mapes eventually found herself on the receiving end of a more than 200-page report from a panel commissioned by CBS and headed by former Republican attorney general Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press president Louis D. Boccardi.
The panel said it “had not been able to conclude with absolute certainty” whether the documents used in the report were “authentic or forgeries.” Nor did it find evidence of “liberal bias.”
But in the quote’s most quoted passage, CBS News was faulted for its “myopic zeal to be the first news organization to broadcast what was believed to be a new story.” The rush to judgment resulted in questionable reporting, the panel said.
Mapes was fired. Three higher-level CBS staffers were asked to resign and since have.
Her book leaves no doubt that Mapes still stands by the story and resents taking the fall for it.
“CBS’ handing of it was so divisive,” she says now. “They decided early on that to save themselves, this was going to be a death penalty offense for somebody.
“They were in complete panic . . . If we could have held it together and maintained some dignity, I think we could have gotten through it. But they weren’t used to this, and they didn’t know what to do. And they chose a road that was really brutal and very hard on the people that worked there.”
Linda Mason, CBS News’ vice president of standards and special projects, says the network commissioned the independent panel “at tremendous cost to ourselves” after determining that an in-house investigation “wouldn’t be believed.”
“We opened up every nook and cranny,” she says by phone. “It was very painful, but we felt that we had to come totally clean in order to restore the integrity of CBS News. In hindsight, we probably stood behind the (story) for too long.”
The Bush-National Guard story, which been an off-and-on project for several years at CBS, might have benefited from being held for an extra week, Mapes says.
“But you hit a threshold where you say, ‘I think it’s ready to be presented to the public and have them make a judgment.’ I’ve never done any perfect stories -- any. And there are things that I would change about this one in terms of wording and nuance and things that were included and excluded. But the hub of the story I think was OK . . . Our team did the same kind of diligent work on this story that we did on Abu Ghraib.”
Rather, with whom she remains close, is still standing as a 60 Minutes correspondent after CBS dropped Wednesday’s edition last spring. Mapes doesn’t agree with Mike Wallace’s contention that Rather should have resigned in solidarity with his team.
“I don’t feel any resentment or disappointment in him in that way at all,” she says. “He’s been a wonderful friend. He’s terrifically loyal, and I think the world of him.”
For better or worse, she and her book (“I feel like I’ve given birth to a whale”) now will be on their own.
“I may just be walking into a helicopter blade,” she says. “I’m sorry this happened. Given my druthers, I would go back to the security that I had, having my reputation intact.
“But I have to make peace with myself by believing that everything does happen for a reason. Maybe it was time for me to stop. I’d been on and off planes for 15 years, and there’s a real knot-in-your-stomach quality to that kind of life.
“But you also get addicted to that adrenaline. And it’s very hard to be pulled off the support system.”
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