Rather’s lawsuit is an act of ego


DAN RATHER took the best seat in the house that Murrow built and then left the place a ruin. Now he has returned to torch the rubble.

The former “CBS Evening News” anchor has a filed a $70-million suit against the network where he worked for 44 years, alleging that the network breached his contract when it asked him to step out of the anchor’s chair and pushed him into broadcast obscurity. CBS did this, the suit contends, because of his role in producing what turned out to be a wholly unsubstantiated “60 Minutes II” segment alleging that a young George W. Bush used family connections to obtain favorable treatment that allowed him to evade service in the Texas Air National Guard.

Rather’s suit further alleges that CBS’ internal investigation -- directed by two outsiders, former U.S. Atty. Gen. and Pennsylvania Gov. Richard Thornburg and ex-Associated Press chief Louis Boccardi -- was a “fraud.” According to Rather, Sumner Redstone, chairman of Viacom, the network’s corporate owner, along with then-CBS news President Andrew Heyward and Les Moonves, CBS’ chief executive, sacked Rather and four other journalists to get the Bush administration off their backs.


“Central to the defendants’ play to pacify the White House,” the suit contends, “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.’ ”

Oh, that’s how that happened.

Here we thought that trite “Rathergate” business came about because a lot of conservative commentators gleefully pounced on a self-evidently shoddy piece of journalism served up by a newsman they’d long suspected of bias and because he and his network then obligingly confirmed their suspicions by arrogantly defending the indefensible -- bad work.

Now, if you once had thought of yourself as situated at the heart of the journalistic universe for nearly half a century, and suddenly found yourself 75 and toiling for an obscure cable operation that seemed to generate more press releases than viewers, it probably would be much more satisfying to see yourself as the victim of an intricate, high-level conspiracy than as someone undone by the kind of personal screw-up that would make a first-year reporter blush.

The problem is that there’s more than one guy’s injured vanity at play here. In fact, the adjectives that come to mind as you assess the substance of what Rather now has done are wanton, reckless and irresponsible. Let’s put aside the fact that Rather has no evidence that the network’s owners were anything but understandably embarrassed and angry at having their single most recognizable journalist air something as incompetently put together as the “60 Minutes” segment in question. Let’s ignore any questions over why Thornburg and Boccardi -- two men with unimpeachable reputations in their respective fields -- would join a conspiracy to “get Dan Rather.”

Instead, let’s focus on the implications of two of the allegations in Rather’s suit:

The former anchorman now says that he had little, if anything, to do with the reporting, sourcing or fact-checking that went into the Bush segment. He was busy elsewhere -- covering a hurricane and former President Clinton’s heart surgery. Other people reported and vetted the charges against Bush; Dan just went on camera and recited them -- sort of like a court clerk.


If that’s true, it’s beyond reprehensible. The anchorman of the “CBS Evening News” went on camera and told the world that a wartime president of the United States had deliberately evaded military service himself, even though the anchorman had no firsthand knowledge that the charge was true? And if that’s, in fact, what occurred, how is it that Rather could go on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” as he did this week, and insist that the report was true? (One of the most stunning moments in that interview occurred when Rather insisted he was entitled to say the “60 Minutes” segment was true, because nobody had proved it was false. Actually, Dan, it’s supposed to be the other way around.)

Josh Howard was executive producer of “60 Minutes” when the segment aired and was one of those subsequently forced to resign from CBS. Here’s what he told the Washington Post about Rather this week: “I think he’s gone off the deep end. He seems to be saying he was just the narrator. He did every interview. He worked the sources over the phone. He was there in the room with the so-called document experts. He argued over everything in the script. It’s laughable.”

Confronted by King with Howard’s comment, Rather replied: “I have no desire to get into an argument with him. But I will point out that he made his peace with CBS. He’s -- he took the money and he signed a thing and so, you know, God bless him. I have no argument with him. The problem started, Larry, when we did Abu Ghraib. We did Abu Ghraib on ’60 Minutes II.’ We broke that story worldwide with a really good team of people. Right after that, the corporate -- the network wanted to cancel ’60 Minutes II.’ ”

Now perhaps the burden of being the only honest man in the room would render anybody incoherent, but that brings us to another inconvenient aspect of Rather’s version of events. He now says that the retraction and apology he delivered over the air was not true. He says that he never believed the segment was wrong or that there was anything for which to apologize. Rather says, moreover, that the apology he read was written for him by a corporate employee of CBS.

If that’s true, it’s the most shocking of all his admissions. Rather was not simply the anchor of the “CBS Evening News”; he was its managing editor. If he knowingly broadcast something he believed was false, it’s a stunning breach of journalistic ethics. Moreover, if he aired something that was concocted by CBS’ corporate staff rather than produced by the news division’s journalists, he cooperated in an unforgivable surrender of the standards that separate the business and news sides in American media organizations.

The most reckless thing about Rather’s pathetic and contradictory exercise in self-justification is his appropriation of genuinely serious issues as props for this charade. He told CNN’s King, for example, that he brought the suit for “two core reasons. In no particular order -- although I do think the most important reason is somebody sometime has got to take a stand and say democracy cannot survive, much less thrive, with the level of big corporate and big government interference and intimidation in news.”

That may be, but Rather’s quarrel with CBS reflects another melancholy reality. The decades of corporate ownership of major American news media, with their relentless cost-cutting, layoffs and elevation of financial performance over journalistic excellence, have frayed the bonds of reciprocal loyalty that once bound media proprietors and journalists together, particularly at elite organizations, as CBS once was.

It’s impossible, for example, to imagine either Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite suing CBS. Their regard for the institution, their loyalty to its principles simply were too strong -- stronger, in fact, than either of their considerable opinions of themselves.

It’s a somber thing to see the ruined house that Murrow built now reduced to a shabby backdrop for the last act in the ego theater of Dan Rather.