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Rather’s suit singles out CBS executives

Times Staff Writer

Veteran CBS anchor Dan Rather filed a $70-million lawsuit Wednesday against his former employer of 44 years, alleging that executives at the network damaged his reputation and broke the terms of his contract by sidelining him during his final months at CBS News and then forcing him out.

The lawsuit, filed in New York state Supreme Court, comes as a startling postscript to the saga that enveloped the news division three years ago, when a furor erupted over a piece Rather did for the weekday edition of “60 Minutes” alleging that President Bush received preferential treatment during his Vietnam War-era stint in the Texas Air National Guard.

An independent panel concluded that documents cited in the story could not be authenticated.

In the ensuing controversy, a producer was fired and three executives were forced to resign. Six months after the broadcast, Rather stepped down from the anchor chair of “CBS Evening News” -- a year shy of his 25th anniversary in that post -- and returned to reporting.

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The news that the 75-year-old anchor had sued the organization that had been his home for more than four decades set the industry abuzz.

The expected legal fight will force CBS News to relive one of its most difficult and demoralizing chapters, which left a shadow some network veterans believe still hangs over the newsroom.

The lawsuit also thrusts Rather -- who now anchors a weekly news program for HDNet, a high-definition network available in just a fraction of households -- back into the spotlight. He is scheduled to appear on CNN’s “Larry King Live” tonight to discuss the suit.

“Dan Rather’s national reputation for excellent, nonpartisan independent journalism was intentionally damaged by CBS, Viacom and their senior executives, who sacrificed independent journalism for corporate financial interests,” Martin Gold, Rather’s attorney, said in a statement. “A healthy democracy cannot flourish without an independent press. Dan Rather brings this lawsuit to further that principle and to restore his reputation, and if he is successful he intends to donate substantial sums to further these ideals.”

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The anchor’s suit, first reported on the New York Times’ website, claims that CBS Corp. and its former parent company, Viacom, broke Rather’s contract, committed fraud, tarnished his reputation and restricted his ability to seek work, all in an effort to contain the political fallout over the National Guard story.

The complaint singles out as defendants CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves, Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone and former CBS News President Andrew Heyward.

According to the 32-page complaint, “central to defendants’ plan to pacify the White House was to offer Mr. Rather as the public face of the story, and as a scapegoat for CBS management’s bungling of the entire episode -- which, as a direct result, became known publicly as ‘Rathergate.’ ”

The anchor is seeking $20 million in compensatory damages and $50 million in punitive damages.

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CBS rejected Rather’s claims.

“These complaints are old news and this lawsuit is without merit,” the network said in a statement.

Redstone, through a spokesman, declined to comment. Rather also declined to comment.

The suit apparently came as a surprise to those named as defendants. Heyward, who left the news division in October 2005, said he had no inkling it was in the works. He declined to comment beyond CBS’ statement.

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It was no secret that Rather was unhappy with CBS when he left in June 2006, five months before his contract was set to expire. He said at the time that “after a protracted struggle,” CBS officials “had not lived up to their obligation to allow me to do substantive work there.”

At the heart of the newsman’s complaint is his claim that CBS mishandled the aftermath of the National Guard story. In the suit, Rather says he was just peripherally involved in the production of the piece because Heyward had instructed him to focus on other stories in the days leading up to the broadcast.

The explosive story, which aired on “60 Minutes II” in September 2004, during the heat of the presidential campaign, claimed that political allies helped Bush avoid deployment to Vietnam and skirt the requirements of his service in the Texas Air National Guard.

The piece was based in part on a set of documents purportedly written by Bush’s former commander that detailed preferential treatment given to the young pilot.

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Within minutes of the broadcast, critics -- many of them conservative bloggers -- began aggressively challenging the authenticity of the memos.

After initially defending the story, CBS reversed course as questions about the story mounted. Twelve days after the broadcast, Rather apologized on-air for the piece’s flawed reporting, calling it “a mistake.”

But in the suit, Rather said he was coerced by CBS management to take the blame publicly “despite his own personal feelings that no apology from him was warranted.”

The day after Bush’s reelection, Moonves informed Rather’s agent that CBS was removing him from the anchor desk, a move the suit claims was made to “appease angry government officials.”

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The network then minimized Rather’s role in the news division, the suit claims, providing him with “few assignments, little staff, very little airtime.”

The motive, according to the claim, was Redstone’s desire to curry favor with the Bush administration despite his history as a Democrat.

As evidence, the suit cites an interview the Viacom founder gave to Time magazine in which he said a Republican in the White House would be better for his company. Redstone gave no further explanation.

Rather left the anchor desk in March 2005 and, in accordance with the terms of his contract, was made a correspondent with “first billing” on the midweek edition of “60 Minutes.”

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When that program was canceled in May 2006, he was assigned to the Sunday broadcast of “60 Minutes,” where, according to his contract, he was to “perform services on a regular basis as a correspondent.”

But Rather claims that few of his story ideas were approved, and those that did get the go-ahead ran on evenings when CBS expected low viewership.

In May 2006, Moonves and Sean McManus, who followed Heyward as president of the news division, told Rather’s agent that in the name of a “fresh start,” they wanted to terminate his contract.

Rather left CBS the next month. In an exit interview, he complained that news executives had rejected his requests to visit Iraq and Afghanistan and to go to the Gulf Coast to cover Hurricane Katrina.

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“They just said, ‘Not interested,’ ” he said.

But Rather added that he tried to handle the discussions for him to leave “in a professional, classy, gentlemanly manner. This is a news operation, and professional jealousy and backbiting and backstabbing are common in newsrooms and common in ours, unfortunately.”

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matea.gold@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Thomas S. Mulligan contributed to this report.


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