Drop the lawsuit? You don't know Dan Rather

On a recent rainy summer afternoon, a familiar figure sat in the second row of a musty Manhattan courtroom, his head tilted expectantly as he listened to the judge. It was the latest hearing in the matter of Dan Rather vs. CBS Corp., and the plaintiff, as usual, was monitoring it in person.

"Their strategy is to string it out, wear me out, suck the will from me, and make it so painful on the pocketbook that I want to give up," Rather said of the network where he worked for nearly half a century. "Well, I have a lot of flaws and vulnerabilities, but I don't think anybody who knows me would say that there's any give-up in me."

Nearly two years after suing CBS for how it handled the aftermath of its controversial report about George W. Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard, the veteran anchor is still avidly engaged in the fight. In legal terms, the case is about breach of contract and fraud.

But to Rather, 77, the battle serves a much grander and more valiant end -- a counterpunch against corporate bullying of the press, "the red beating heart of democracy." The suit's outcome could ultimately determine his journalistic legacy: that of a champion of the truth, no matter the cost, or of a diminished newsman who let an egregious error slip by.

The personal stakes were underscored last month when the iconic CBS anchor Walter Cronkite died, prompting a torrent of gushing accolades. Colleagues said it pains Rather that he will be remembered in more complicated terms.

"I think it was hard for him to sit there listening to the eulogies for Walter Cronkite as the most trusted man in America, knowing he would never have that," said a former CBS employee who left the network in the fallout over the Bush story.

Rather is financing his lawsuit alone, at significant expense. But perhaps more dear has been the personal price. After working for 44 years at CBS, 24 of those as the face of the network, he is now persona non grata.

At Cronkite's funeral last month, prominent CBS figures filled the front pews of St. Bartholomew's Church in Midtown Manhattan. Rather sat apart, about 10 rows back.

He refers to his former CBS colleagues as "our adversaries." CBS is pushing back at him in increasingly vituperative language. The network made available several executives who spoke acidly about the anchor whose work they once touted.

"I just think it's sad that Dan can't do what the rest of the people involved in this have done, which is stood up and been accountable for their role in what was a huge embarrassment in the history of the news division," said Andrew Heyward, the former president of CBS News.

"It's hard to watch," said Jeff Fager, executive producer of "60 Minutes." "It's like he is in some paranoid nightmare where everybody is out to get him. We're all witnessing the poor guy thrashing around, tormented.

"I can't for the life of me understand why he's doing this, how he could turn such a storied career into this train wreck," he added.

For Rather, the personal attacks are simply confirmation that he's on the right track.

"When you report something important for people to know that somebody, somewhere in power doesn't want them to know, you're going to pay a price for it," he said in a 90-minute interview at his modest Times Square office where he now works for HDNet, a small cable channel. "People will try to discredit you."

Bush documents

It all began with a piece Rather narrated for the now-defunct show "60 Minutes II," two months before the 2004 presidential election. In it, he reported that Bush got preferential treatment during his Vietnam War-era service in the Texas Air National Guard. He cited new documents CBS had obtained, purportedly written by Bush's commanding officer at the time.

Immediately after the broadcast, the authenticity of the documents came under attack, largely by conservative bloggers scrutinizing the typeface of the memos. After initially defending the story, the network -- then Rather, reluctantly -- acknowledged that they could not determine their validity.

The fallout was severe. An outside panel commissioned by CBS concluded that the news division failed to do enough to establish the documents' veracity. The segment's producer, Mary Mapes, was fired, three executives were forced to resign, and Rather stepped down as anchor a year short of his 25th anniversary in the chair. After working the next season as a correspondent for "60 Minutes," he left CBS altogether, pushed out by CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves, Rather said.

In his $70-million lawsuit, filed in September 2007, Rather claims that CBS prevented him from defending the story to appease the Bush administration and protect the business interests of Viacom, then its parent company. He said he was forced to apologize for the piece and ordered to stop reporting on it. Instead of doing an independent investigation, the outside panel that CBS appointed worked with the network to produce a report to mollify its critics, he contends.

Rather claims that after being bounced from the anchor desk and assigned to "60 Minutes," he was essentially warehoused. His reputation marred, he said he then could not find commensurate work when he left CBS.

"The code was, we go into things together, we stick together while we're doing it, and we come out the other end together," Rather said. "I counted on that. And they didn't meet their part of the bargain."

CBS maintains that Rather was never sidelined, arguing that the network did everything possible to preserve his journalistic standing. The announcement that he was stepping down as anchor, executives noted, was timed to come out before the panel released its report in an effort to divorce the two events.

"One of the sad ironies is that there was a tremendous amount of thought on our part in preserving Dan's legacy," said Heyward, denying that he forced Rather to apologize.

"So here's a guy who stood up to Richard Nixon and interviewed Saddam Hussein in a roomful of Iraqi thugs . . . and now he's asking us to believe that a news executive coerced him into saying something that he didn't believe?" he asked.

Fager said Rather had one of the largest staffs at "60 Minutes," but much of his work was not well-conceived. "I hate to say it in public, but many of stories were not even close to the standards we expect at '60 Minutes,' " Fager said.

Gary Meyerhoff, one of Rather's attorneys, said that Fager "is simply continuing the same character assassination tactic that CBS has been following since this began."

In the end, CBS executives said Rather was not forced out, but offered an emeritus position similar to the one that Cronkite held. (Rather's attorneys said he could not comment on that aspect because of the ongoing litigation.)

Prolonged case

Rather's lawsuit is a gamble. If he had hoped to distance himself from the controversy over the Bush story, he has not. He's now inextricably linked to it.

But in one respect, the anchor has already won. The case has dragged on much longer than CBS anticipated, attorneys for the network admit. A state Supreme Court judge threw out part of the suit but is allowing Rather to pursue several of his claims, including breach of contract and fraud. CBS is hoping a state appellate division will dismiss the matter, but if it doesn't, a trial could begin by the end of the year. In the meantime, Rather's attorneys continue to get new discovery, including 50,000 pages of documents produced by the outside panel.

The material that has emerged so far shows that CBS executives worked frantically to defuse critics on the political right after the Bush story was challenged. News executives vetted potential panel appointees with Viacom's Washington lobbyists, drawing up a list that included conservatives such as Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes, according to internal documents.

E-mail included in court filings shows that one Viacom lobbyist, Carol Melton, urged Heyward and CBS communications chief Gil Schwartz to officially retract the story in order to satisfy then-House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).

"Plainly the 'retraction' point per se seems to be a final shoe that some would like to see drop -- and have no doubt that Blunt is acting as the mouthpiece on this for the Administration," she wrote on Jan. 10, 2005.

Both men rejected such a move as unnecessary. Heyward responded to Melton that the bulk of the story was not in serious dispute, though he added that "I would never say this publicly."

"You can't be CBS News and say, you know that story we told you about the other day, 40% of that was accurate," Heyward said in a recent interview.

The suit has also forced Rather to dredge up details that he'd probably prefer to keep private, including a round of meetings he had in spring 2006 with CNN/U.S. President Jon Klein, ABC News President David Westin and NBC News President Steve Capus, all of whom politely declined his services. A slew of other networks, including A&E;, History, HBO, Discovery and National Geographic, also turned Rather down.

The anchor recently extended his deal with HDNet, where he has a weekly news show, and hopes to work there "as long as I can go." He's planning a reporting trip to Afghanistan in the coming months.

Rather said he doesn't fret about his legacy. "My record is my record," he said, ticking off the tent-pole events of the last half-century that he has covered: the assassination of President Kennedy, Watergate, the Gulf War, the Iraq war, Tiananmen Square, the Sept. 11 attacks.

But will this particular story forever overshadow all of that? The usually loquacious newsman leaned back in his chair, silent for a moment.

"I have no idea," he said quietly. "Ever is a long time."

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matea.gold@latimes.com

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