Mary Mapes was a high-flying CBS News producer assigned to 60 Minutes II in the early 2000s.
She broke the Abu Ghraib story and won a Peabody Award, and went on to break a string of other big stories.
Mapes then developed a story for anchor Dan Rather on George W. Bush’s military history during the Vietnam era and the reasons why he was assigned to homeland duty with the National Guard.
The story aired but the facts as reported couldn’t be proven. Her sources were compromised; she was “tried” by a select panel and shown the door. Dan Rather was persuaded to step down from the anchor desk. She never worked in news again.
Cate Blanchett plays Mapes and Robert Redford plays Rather in the film Truth, based on her story during the so-called Killian documents controversy. We spoke with Mapes in Toronto, which she joked she was checking out in case the U.S. election goes wrong. She also had advice for young women coming up in news.
She said: “Women in journalism should take this as a cautionary tale. Did you see Hillary Clinton being questioned by white men in suits the other day? That’s how I felt, facing a panel of people who never did what I did for a living, people with political ties with the Bush family and the right.
“They spoke to me with disdain and made withering comments and did everything they could to force me to admit I was wrong, a fool and a creep and I tried to do what my lawyer said.
“I had 1,000 pages of notes I wanted them to see, and made the case as well as I could but at the end of the day, they knew what the outcome would be the moment they were hired.”
Monsters & Critics: The movie has opened the door to renewed punditry after the beating you took in the right wing media in 2005. Do you read the bloggers?
Mary Mapes: I do not read the conservative blogs; I’d rather poke my eyes out with sticks and that’s not a joke. If someone says something bad, I’m going to look for more bad stuff.
No matter who we are we want to please, and make a hell of an effort to do a good job. I’ve had a magnetic attraction for the negativity.
I have advice for aspiring reporters: never read the Comments sections. You won’t recognise yourself or anything you’ve said. We sure get a lot of crap along with the cogent comments and they’re toxic.
M&C: It’s been eleven years. Have you been able to process it all yet?
MM: No. I think with all traumas in life we spend the rest of our lives trying to understand and apply the lessons to our daily lives.
It takes more than ten years to forgive yourself and feel proud and accept yourself. It’s an ongoing process for me, such a staggering series of events. It was an avalanche that swept me away.
It has taken processing time. I have only recently processed the film. I’ve watched it seven times but at the fourth viewing I began to see it as a film as opposed to a story about me, where I didn’t recognise the person as me. The things that happened are so familiar, and the Post-traumatic stress disorder clicked in when I first watched it.
M&C: I worked in a newsroom and it’s a tough place. Do you feel differently about life now that you’re away from it?
MM: There is heaviness. I did not cover the most festive stories because I do see there is truth in dark places, and we find the truth. It’s not the most pleasant life.
I’ve been lucky and have a sense of humour and four hilarious sisters and a husband and a kid who is a comedian and pharmaceutical drugs to help me. I have great friends.
I did well at processing those things in the newsroom but there are moments and stories and times and scenes and other peoples’ losses and death.”
M&C: What do you think about the state of news now?
MM: That portion of news is in trouble. It’s too expensive and too dangerous to do investigative pieces and, in the U.S. in particular, political factions on the right threaten anyone in the media who reports on anything they don’t like.
In 2004, I was inundated with megabytes of false information and invective because I was female. Not only was I wrong, I was fat, ugly, stupid and loud…those were my good points!
That was just the beginning when we started to see women get sabotaged. On the internet, there is more awareness now. People are telling reporters not to take chances that would displease the right.
If a Democratic president had been in office they would have gone with the story. But not in Texas. I knew the players and rumours and who to go to because I was there so I did that story. It’s not that I had profound feelings for Bush.
M&C: I’m sure it’s been painful but the story from your perspective is out there.
MM: It was a roll of the dice. People who have worked with Hollywood have been disappointed but nothing could be further from the truth for me. I won the jackpot working with the producers and Sony Classics and Cate Blanchett who is a goddess and Robert Redford, who is Zeus, and Dennis Quaid.
It was a humbling experience working with that degree of talent and knowledge and cinematic art.
The whole incident has been a growing experience for me. My job was too much my identity and I’ve been able to pry that apart. I still feel strongly about journalism but feel less dependent on people’s opinions.