Veteran newsman Dan Rather has filed a $70 million lawsuit against CBS, saying the network made him a scapegoat for a questionable story about President Bush’s Vietnam War service in the Texas Air National Guard.

Appearing on CNN’s “Larry King Live” Thursday, Sept. 20, Rather said his motivation for filing the suit is to find out what happened behind the scenes and “to make a stand against government interference and intimidation in news.” Rather’s lawsuit has received international coverage, with The London Times quoting Rather that “he was sacrificed in order to appease the White House.” The lawsuit also alleges that Rather’s reputation has been irrevocably damaged, and has caused him considerable financial loss. Since leaving CBS, Rather has been anchoring a weekly news program on HDNet, a cable channel than attracts only a fragment of the viewers he enjoyed during his CBS days.

Following the airing of the Bush story on “60 Minutes II” in 2004, three producers of the show were fired and Rather claims he was forced to apologize for the story on the air. Rather’s lawsuit alleges the actions were all part of a conspiracy by CBS to quash any further damaging reports on Bush’s Air National Guard experiences, and thus curry favor with the White House. The day after Bush was elected, November 3, 2004, Rather was informed by CBS that he would no longer anchor the “CBS Evening News.”

During the CNN interview last evening, Larry King asked Rather why he didn’t resign when his three producers were fired. Rather’s reply: “It came about as a sudden, of a sudden…which is to say one Monday morning, boom and it was done.” Rather said the network asked him to give it another year and then a new contract could be discussed. “I believed them,” Rather told King, “and the question was raised why didn’t I walk out the door right then? What difference would it have made? It wouldn’t have made any difference.”

So basically, Rather is charging that CBS made him a whipping boy, caved in to White House pressure to sack him, and damaged his reputation by relying on a slanted investigation into the “60 Minutes II” report. He also alleges that in addition to being removed from the anchor chair, he was relegated to limbo by being assigned reports that were aired on carefully selected evenings when low viewership was anticipated, such as Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

For its part, CBS maintains that Rather’s legal action “are complaints that are old news” and that the lawsuit is “without merit.” Still, the network settled a lawsuit with deposed radio personality Dom Imus to the tune of $20 million. Imus was terminated after making derogatory remarks about Rutgers University’s women’s basketball team. Rather told Larry King it’s not about the money, and that the bulk of any compensation he receives would go to “organizations that promote investigative journalism.”

Thus, we come to a sordid end of a 44-year career with the CBS network: the indignities of being summarily ousted from the anchor chair, given a small office with no clerical help, and fundamentally being sent to newsmen’s purgatory. Industry veterans say Rather’s lawsuit on these issues is weak. They say the only obligation CBS had was to pay Rather – they were not obliged to keep him on the air. Broadcasting and Cable magazine says “If he thought they were wrong, he should have taken their money, he should have walked out the door, and immediately sued them.” As the saying goes, timing is everything. The time for Rather to resign was immediately, in support of his three producers who were sacrificed on the altar of the Columbia Broadcasting System. The time for him to slap the network with a $60 million lawsuit was soon after that, not three years later.

All of this comes at a time when CBS’s “Tiffany network” image is suffering greatly. Katie Couric’s ratings are in distant third place, after Charles Gibson of ABC and Brian Williams of NBC. Though Couric is Rather’s erstwhile successor, her numbers are well below Rather’s in his final, beleaguered months.

While it is true that in his heyday, Rather was one of the most watched and recognizable journalists in America, the language of his lawsuit is a bit hyperbolic: “Throughout his career, Mr. Rather has promoted, championed, and been emblematic of journalistic independence and journalistic freedom from extraneous interference such as governmental, political, corporate or personal interests.”

If this statement is true, then why did Rather agree to publicly apologize on the air for a story he still stands by? Why would he take personal blame for errors in the Bush/Air National Guard broadcast when he subsequently revealed that he didn’t write a single word of the apology – that CBS lawyers composed the entire expression of regret for him? In the language of the lawsuit: “CBS management coerced Mr. Rather into publicly apologizing and taking personal blame for alleged journalistic errors in the broadcast. Despite his own personal feelings that no apology from him was warranted, Mr. Rather read the apology as instructed.”

While Rather now claims the apology all but destroyed his career, many believe the noble thing to have done would have been to resign in defense of his three pink-slipped colleagues, instead of hanging on in the most humiliating and personally degrading circumstances in order to pick up a paycheck. If there can be a positive side to these events, it is the fact that the trial or settlement will be eclipsed by O.J. Simpson, the Iraq war, and the presidential election.


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