In parts, it reads like a political thriller, with a cast of "right-wing" hit men out to force a powerful journalist to heel. Or a tale of corporate deceit, in which Machiavellian suits sacrifice their own to cozy up to the president of the United States. Or a behind-the-scenes saga of a network news division assembling a story that could help unseat an incumbent president at the polls.
In fact, the 32-page document is former CBS anchor Dan Rather's stunning, $70 million lawsuit filed yesterday against the network, its corporate owners and his bosses stemming from "Memogate," the flawed three-year-old report on the nearly four-decade-old military record of President George W. Bush—an account that blackened the eye of CBS News and apparently hastened the end of Rather's 44-year career at the network.
In dropping the legal bombshell, Rather, 75, alleges that CBS and his former bosses "coerced" him into apologizing for a controversial story in which his role was little more than that of a narrator. Two months after the broadcast, he was bounced from the anchor desk, two years earlier than originally planned. Rather also maintains that he was subsequently marginalized in his new full-time job at "60 Minutes," robbed of airtime and shortchanged on staffing. And although he was found largely blameless, Rather contends that a CBS-commissioned probe of the story was "biased," asserting in the suit that the investigation reached "conclusions that were preordained to find fault with the broadcast and those persons responsible for it."
There was a motive, he argues, for this "egregious conduct toward him." He was being made the "scapegoat" by, among others, CBS executive chairman Sumner Redstone and CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves. Their motives were "to pacify the [Bush] White House," "appease angry government officials" or "to curry favor with the Bush administration" as a means of advancing the corporate interest of CBS owner Viacom. In addition, Moonves's "wrongful acts" partly reflected unspecified "personal interests." Among other things, Rather contends, the acts constituted a "breach of contract, fraud … and interference with prospective economic advantage." He asserts that he suffered "significant financial loss" and serious damage to his reputation. The suit appears designed to burnish his image and recover his financial losses.
CBS dismissed Rather's assertions as yesterday's news. "These complaints are old news and this lawsuit is without merit," the network said in a statement. The other parties aren't commenting. But Rather's former colleagues at CBS have something to say.
Take, for example, Don Hewitt, the legendary producer of "60 Minutes." "Any news organization, print or broadcast, has the right to protect its reputation by divesting itself of a reporter, irrespective of who he or she is, who it feels reported as fact something that reflected his or her biases more than the facts bear," he said in a NEWSWEEK interview. "And if the reporter's defense is that he or she had been 'had,' isn't he or she someone a news organization worth its salt can no longer trust not to be 'had' again."
Hewitt says he had questioned whether the reporting was biased at a CBS meeting convened to discuss the controversy that began to swell after the story aired. "Let me ask one question," he recalls addressing the gathering. "If this had been John Kerry, wouldn't you have been more careful about the story?" A senior CBS News insider said Rather is further damaging his reputation by suing. "I think it looks pathetic," this executive told NEWSWEEK on condition of not being identified. "It looks like the musing of an older man who can't let go. This will have no winners. But the biggest loser will be Dan."
And another former colleague questioned Rather's motives, declaring that the former anchor is seeking to raise his profile in his post-CBS career at HDNet, a cable channel controlled by billionaire Mark Cuban. "Had he been a big success in his new life" at HDNet, this person speculated, "I don't believe this would have happened. How do I get myself back into the news? Sue CBS, of course. All of a sudden, people are now talking about Dan Rather again."
Cuban begs to differ. "As far as HDNet, 'Dan Rather Reports' is the best news show on TV," Cuban said in an e-mail to NEWSWEEK. Commenting on the lawsuit, he said had "no problem with Dan doing what he thinks is right. I expect him to." A Rather adviser, depicting the newsman as a loyal CBS veteran of more than four decades, said the decision to sue the network was difficult because of his long service there. Ultimately, "he felt the truth had to come out," said the adviser, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.
This week, Rather's permanent successor, Katie Couric delivered a brief account of the lawsuit on network's evening newscast. During her one-year reign, she's failed to draw new viewers, as the network had hoped would happen when it lured her from the "Today" show on NBC. But who knows? While it won't draw O.J.-sized audiences, maybe a brass-knuckled trial of Rather vs. CBS, Redstone and Moonves may just be the kind of boost the "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric" needs.