“We used to say there’s a 24 hour news cycle. There’s now a 140 character news cycle.” - Mary Mapes, at a panel following the screening of Truth (2015) in New York City.
Truth is based on Mary Mapes’ book that tells her side of the story of The Killian Documents controversy ("Rathergate") in the days leading up to the 2004 presidential election. During the NYC panel, someone recalled a line used in the film and its trailers where her character (played by Cate Blanchett) says “they want to talk about fonts and forgeries and hope the truth gets lost in the scrum.”
The quote alludes to the manner in which the Killian Documents investigation was conducted, during which everyone was so focused on the details of CBS reporting with unverified documents that they forgot about the larger, more prominent problem their documents were supposedly trying to reveal: President G.W. Bush had not fulfilled his National Guard service as indicated and spent most of the time AWOL. The news media got so bogged down by the CBS producer’s scandal that they forgot about the bigger picture.
“I do think, when this happened to us, we were just beginning to see the blogosphere flex its muscles,” Mapes said. “There really wasn't a progressive side to the blogosphere. It was sort of like talk radio. It was all conservative. They were organized. As usual, the progressives were not. So there was no army on the left to answer the army on the right. It was an echo chamber that just created this ferocious response... You have to remember in 2004, I had never seen anything like that. Now, tragically, we've become very accustomed to women getting beaten up on the Internet. That happens. There's a real gusto where certain portions of the Internet go after women. I think this is very much part of this story and part of this situation.”
This raised an interesting point -- if the Killian Documents debacle happened today, would it become the massive controversy it did in 2004? Opinion-charged conversations about every story, public scrutiny of every sentence and word the media says, a general distaste for ethics and an immunity to deception -- these are all things the landscape of constant communication and social networking have made common. People are blasted with information, opinions, concerns, and scrutiny all the time. Situations like this seem to happen regularly in modern reporting and pass by with little resonance.
To that end, Mapes said, “I do think that one of the things that prolonged this was that the right was really flexing its muscles on the Internet. We had Fox News, we had media outlets, Rush Limbaugh ad nauseam beating the drums on this for ages. I do think if it happened now it probably wouldn't last as long because it wouldn't have been a clean kill, which is what they feel like they got back in 2004-2005... It is a different atmosphere now. I do think it might end more quickly. This happened at the time that old media was being engulfed by digital media and old media was completely unprepared to defend itself.”
That indicates a feeling that Mapes’ termination from CBS and Rather’s subsequent retirement may have been more the product of timing than the actual severity of their miscalculated reporting. Although that’s an impossible hypothesis to test, the so-called “Rathergate” put the blogosphere and this type of discussion on the map. It trained the masses to scrutinize reporting online, a tendency that has only escalated since. Perhaps, though, today's media landscape has developed such systematic scrutiny that a scandal like this would fail to erupt into the firestorm it did in 2004.