More than one year after Dan Rather left CBS News under a cloud for a flawed report on President Bush’s National Guard service, the former face of CBS News is suing CBS, its corporate parent and his former superior at the news division.
In a $70 million suit filed in State Supreme Court in Manhattan Wednesday, Rather, 75, alleged that CBS violated his contract by giving him precious little airtime on 60 Minutes, where he remained as a contributor after being forced to step down as anchor of the CBS Evening News in March 2005.
The suit alleged that CBS made him a patsy and that the network caved to “right-wing” pressure to get rid of him, and it also contended that CBS damaged Rather’s reputation by commissioning a “biased” investigation into the 60 Minutes II report.
Richard Thornburgh, who was an attorney general in the first Bush White House, was one of the panelists tasked with examining the National Guard segment.
The suit -- which seeks $20 million in compensatory damages and $50 million in punitive damages -- named CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone and former CBS News head Andrew Heyward.
“These complaints are old news and this lawsuit is without merit,” CBS said in a statement.
CBS -- which recently settled a lawsuit with deposed shock jock Don Imus (to the tune of $20 million, according to published reports) -- will likely fight the Rather suit, according to sources.
Rather's attorney, Martin Gold, said in a statement that CBS "intentionally damaged" Rather's reputation by sacrificing "independent journalism for corporate financial interests."
He added that the goal of the suit was to "further" the principle of an "independent press."
If Rather is "successful," added Martin, "he intends to donate substantial sums to furthering these ideals."
But industry veterans are skeptical about Rather's chances of prevailing in his suit.
CBS' "only obligation is to pay him," says an industry insider well versed in contractual law. "They are not obligated to keep him on the air. If he thought they were wrong, he should not have taken their money; he should have walked out the door and immediately sued them."
The 60 Minutes II report-- which aired in September 2004, mere months before the presidential election -- posited that President Bush received preferential treatment that kept him out of combat in Vietnam while in the Texas Air National Guard. But the report relied on what turned out to be unsubstantiated documents.
Four producers -- Mary Mapes, Betsy West, Mary Murphy and Josh Howard -- were forced out at CBS for their part in the disputed segment.
According to a report by The New York Times, Rather’s 32-page suit lawsuit paints him as little more than a narrator of the National Guard broadcast -- a perception at odds with his reputation and the recollection of others involved.
Rather, said Howard, now vice president of long-form programming at CNBC, “worked the phones. He talked to sources. He was in the room with the so-called document experts. He argued with us over every line of the script. I can’t imagine how he at this point can say he was just the narrator.”
After he left the CBSEvening News in March 2005, Rather’s contract called for him to become a “full-time correspondent” on 60 Minutes II and, after that broadcast was canceled in May 2005, on the original edition of 60 Minutes. But Rather’s suit contended that the eight pieces he did for 60 Minutes paled in comparison to what regular 60 Minutes correspondents did.
Rather did not return a detailed message for comment Wednesday.