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Dan Rather, dogged plaintiff

The ex-CBS newsman is paying a high price to clear his name over discredited 2004 report on Bush's National Guard record.

August 16, 2009|Matea Gold

NEW YORK — 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.

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