Truth Is Always on Trial [Video]


The truth is always on trial. That is one of the glaring points made in the motion picture “Truth.” It is also one of the major bones of contention in the movie. The question posed, and agonized over, in the film appears to be whether or not truth should be on trial in the first place.

The movie itself was very well done. The acting was superb, featuring some of Hollywood’s best, such as Robert Redford, Cate Blanchett, Dennis Quaid, and Stacy Keach. It was based on the book “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power,” by Mary Mapes, played by Blanchett.

“Truth” concerns the CBS News scandal involving a story alleging that President George W. Bush received favorable treatment in the Texas Air National Guard. Mapes was a producer at CBS during the scandal, which resulted in anchor Dan Rather, played by Redford, stepping down from newscaster, as well as the programs “60 Minutes” and “60 Minutes II.” When some of their sources backed off from their stories and others disagreed, in particular, about the authenticity of some documents, CBS decided, in its own manner, to put the truth on trial.

There were many themes presented throughout the production meriting attention. The idea of constantly questioning just about everything permeated the story. Mapes was encouraged to always “ask questions” by Rather during the difficult periods gathering the information. She also faced many accusations after the story was broadcast. However, the dramatic focal point was the internal investigation by CBS, conducted in the aftermath of critics questioning the veracity of this potentially explosive news story. It was here that truth was put on trial.

Truth on the Docket [Spoiler alert]

The internal investigation was concluded with a hearing. Mapes appeared with her lawyer, before a panel of legal authorities and executives from CBS. Two facets of this preceding were unusual.

For one, there was no stenographer present. CBS did not consider it necessary, as it was not a legal hearing. Yet, the panel was populated with lawyers. In the film, the chief counsel for the network states, they were “just going to take a few notes.” Mapes lawyer replies, “So there’ll be no official record?”

The other unusual part of this hearing was the makeup of the panel. This was an investigation into whether or not a story, the lead anchor of the news division presented on national television, was true. At least, that is what was purported. In other words, it was to be about truth in journalism. Yet, of the dozen or so on the panel, only one had ever been a journalist.

What is fascinating about all of this was the direction the panel took to find veracity in the story. First, they looked at the documentation. However, they soon begin to question Mapes’ integrity by accusing her of being bias against Bush. That was not the place to find truth. It never is.

The fact is, all people have a bias of some sort or another. It cannot be helped. All human beings are inculcated with it through their families, friends, culture, education, economic status, and a variety of factors in life. A search for truth is always done by a person, or persons, who are biased in some way.

The difficulty for the seeker of authenticity is not to somehow overcome one’s biases. The test is when the seeker finds a fact, or data set, that incline against their prejudice. The challenge is to realize that what is real, in any particular case, should prevail over the bias. There is no field where that is more imperative than in journalism.

Truth Requires Proof

Denzel Washington’s character utters these lines in one scene of the blockbuster “Training Day.”

It’s not what you know. It’s what you can prove. Where’s your proof? You got no proof.

Washington’s character is a corrupt police detective who, nevertheless, understands the fundamental concept of truth. He understands it does not matter if anyone else knows of his corruption, unless the other person can produce enough solid evidence to convince other people.

Truth requires proof, if it is to go beyond being stated. To be clear, facts do not require proof simply to be facts. They do require it if they are to be believed, which means truth is always on trial.

In this trial, the writer’s honesty may not even be in question. The author may know that what they wrote was accurate. However, adhering to a journalistic standard of precision is insufficient by itself. That is why protocols exist that require fact-checking and multiple attributions. The reader must be able to decide whether or not to believe the journalist, therefore, editors must verify accuracy, along with the writer.

The Task of the Journalist

Journalism stands upon a twofold principle. It falls without this principle. The task of the journalist is to persuasively provide the truth. Thus, stories that are accurate, must be presented in a way that facilitates persuading the audience the writer is honestly reporting the facts. Otherwise, the bond of trust between reporter and audience breaks down.

There is a scene in “Truth” that provides an example: Mapes expresses to the investigative panel why she believes the controversial story was correct. She outlines, step-by-step, how unlikely and extremely difficult it would be to fake the documentation. If she was in a debate setting, rather than a subject of investigation, her logic would establish credibility for the piece. She would win the debate. She failed to win the panel over, not because she did anything wrong, she just did not do enough to persuade them. She was fired, and Rather resigned shortly after.

Mapes was severely criticized by other journalists in the aftermath. Megan McArdle summarizes it writing for Bloomberg View:

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.

The truth is truly always on trial, whether one believes it is fair or not. Journalists, especially in today’s hyper-skeptical and critical atmosphere, should be careful to remember this.

Opinion News by Daniel Osborn
Edited by Jeanette Smith

Variety: Why ‘Truth’ Fails to Get to the Truth of Dan Rather, Mary Mapes’ CBS Story
Bloomberg View: Ex-’60 Minutes’ Producer is No Hollywood Hero
Los Angeles Times: Mary Mapes describes seeing her ‘Truth’ on the Big Screen

Top Image Courtesy of Ryan Glenn’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Featured Image Courtesy of Michael Foley’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

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