Dan Rather filed a $70 million lawsuit against CBS and his former bosses Wednesday, claiming they made him a “scapegoat” for a discredited story about President Bush’s military service during the Vietnam War.
The 75-year-old Rather, whose final months were clouded by controversy over the story, said the actions of the defendants damaged his reputation and cost him significant financial loss.
The lawsuit, filed in state Supreme Court in Manhattan, claims the network intentionally botched the aftermath of the story about Bush’s time in the Texas Air National Guard and had Rather take the fall to “pacify” the White House. He was removed from his job at “CBS Evening News” in March 2005.
Besides CBS Corp., the suit names former CBS parent company Viacom Inc., CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves, Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone, and Andrew Heyward, former president of CBS News. The suit seeks $20 million in compensatory damages and $50 million in punitive damages.
“These complaints are old news, and this lawsuit is without merit,” said CBS spokesman Dana McClintock. Viacom had no comment.
Rather narrated a September 2004 report saying that Bush had disobeyed orders and shirked some of his duties during his National Guard service and that a commander felt pressured to sugarcoat Bush’s record.
In his lawsuit, Rather maintains that the story was true, but that if any aspect of the broadcast wasn’t accurate, he was not responsible for the errors.
The story relied on four documents, supposedly written by Bush’s commander in the Texas Air National Guard, the late Lt. Col. Jerry Killian. Critics questioned the documents’ authenticity and suggested they were forged.
A CBS review determined the story was neither fair nor accurate. CBS fired the story’s producer and asked for the resignation of three executives because it could not authenticate documents used in the story, and Rather was forced out of the anchor chair he had occupied for 24 years.
Rather’s lawsuit says he was forced to apologize, although “as defendants well knew, even if any aspect of the broadcast had not been accurate, which has never been established, Mr. Rather was not responsible for any such errors.”
By making Rather apologize publicly, “CBS intentionally caused the public and the media to attribute CBS’ alleged bungling of the episode to Mr. Rather,” the lawsuit claimed. As a result, some news media called the event “Rathergate.”
He also claimed that after removing him as anchor of the “CBS Evening News,” the network gave him fewer and less important assignments and little airtime on “60 Minutes” and “60 Minutes II.”
At the time, Rather was making $6 million a year, the lawsuit says.
Rather claimed in the suit that his departure was ultimately caused by Viacom Chairman Redstone, who found it best for the company to curry favor with the Bush administration by damaging Rather. An “enraged” Redstone said the newsman and anyone associated with him had to go, according to the lawsuit.
Richard Thornburgh, the former U.S. attorney general who made up the two-man investigative panel with Louis D. Boccardi, the retired chief executive of The Associated Press, said he was unaware of Rather’s lawsuit.
Reached at his home in Washington, Thornburgh said only: “Our report speaks for itself.”
Boccardi did not return messages left by The Associated Press.
Issued in January 2005, the 224-page report portrayed Rather as “pushed to the limit” with other stories at the time of the “60 Minutes Wednesday” report. He relied on a trusted producer and didn’t check the story for accuracy or, apparently, even see it before he introduced it on the program, the panel said.
CBS rushed the story on the air and then blindly defended it when holes became apparent, said the panel, which was unable to say conclusively whether memos disparaging Bush’s service were real or fake.
The fired CBS News producer, Mary Mapes, later wrote that the panel’s examination of the story “read more like a prosecutorial brief than an independent investigation.” Her book surrounding the controversy was published in 2005.
Rather, who didn’t return messages Wednesday, worked at CBS News starting in 1962, then replaced Walter Cronkite in 1981 as “CBS Evening News” anchorman until signing off March 9, 2005.
He always considered himself a reporter first, and the habit of news anchors to travel to the scene of big stories is largely his legacy. His interview with Saddam Hussein in 2003 was the last given by the Iraqi leader before he was toppled.
With his intense on-air demeanor, Rather also had his detractors, and his broadcast was a distant third in the evening news ratings when he stepped down. CBS News’ ratings rebounded under short-term successor Bob Schieffer, but they have plummeted under Katie Couric, who took over the broadcast in September 2006.
Rather has moved on to a weekly news show on cable’s HDNet channel, “Dan Rather Reports,” but the effort has garnered little attention. When the show launched, it was available in only 4 million homes, a small fraction of his potential audience while at CBS.