Dan RatherRather Files $70 Million Lawsuit Against CBSWed Sep 19, 2007 12:57
Rather Files $70 Million Lawsuit Against CBS
New York Times, United States - 1 hour ago
By JACQUES STEINBERG Dan Rather, whose career at CBS News ground to an inglorious end 15 months ago over his role in an unsubstantiated report questioning ...
September 20, 2007
Rather Files $70 Million Lawsuit Against CBS
By JACQUES STEINBERG
Dan Rather, whose career at CBS News ground to an inglorious end 15 months ago over his role in an unsubstantiated report questioning President Bush’s Vietnam-era National Guard service, filed a $70 million lawsuit this afternoon against the network, its corporate parent and three of his former superiors.
Mr. Rather, 75, asserts that the network violated his contract by giving him insufficient airtime on “60 Minutes” after forcing him to step down as anchor of the “CBS Evening News” in March 2005. He also contends that the network committed fraud by commissioning a “biased” and incomplete investigation of the flawed Guard broadcast and, in the process, “seriously damaged his reputation.” As plaintiffs, the suit names CBS and its chief executive, Leslie Moonves; Viacom and its chief executive, Sumner Redstone; and Andrew Heyward, the former president of CBS News.
In the suit, filed this afternoon in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, Mr. Rather charges that CBS and its executives made him “a scapegoat” in an attempt “to pacify the White House,” though the formal complaint presents virtually no direct evidence to that effect. To buttress this claim, Mr. Rather quotes the executive who oversaw his regular segment on CBS Radio, telling Mr. Rather in November 2004 that he was losing that slot, effective immediately, because of “pressure from ‘the right wing.’ ”
He also continues to take vehement issue with the appointment by CBS of Richard Thornburgh, an attorney general in the administration of the elder President Bush, as one of the two outside panelists given the job of reviewing how the disputed broadcast had been prepared.
For both Mr. Rather and CBS, the filing of the suit threatens to once again focus attention on one of the darker chapters in the history of the network and its storied news division, at a moment when it is already reeling. Mr. Rather’s successor as evening news anchor, Katie Couric, has languished in third place in the network news ratings since taking over the broadcast a year ago, behind not only Charles Gibson of ABC and Brian Williams of NBC, but also the ratings performance of the “CBS Evening News” in Mr. Rather’s final years.
The portrait of Mr. Rather that emerges from the 32-page filing bears little resemblance to the hard-charging, seemingly fearless anchor who for two decades shared the stage with Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings as the most watched and recognizable journalists in America.
By his own rendering, Mr. Rather was little more than a narrator of the disputed broadcast, which was shown on Sept. 8, 2004, on the midweek edition of “60 Minutes” and which purported to offer new evidence of preferential treatment given to Mr. Bush when he was a lieutenant in the Air National Guard.
Instead of directly vetting the script he would read for the Guard segment, Mr. Rather says, he acceded to pressure from Mr. Heyward to focus instead on his reporting from Florida on Hurricane Frances, and on Bill Clinton’s heart surgery.
Mr. Rather says in the filing that he allowed himself to be reduced to little more than a patsy in the furor that followed, after CBS — and later the outside panel it commissioned — concluded that the report was based on documents that could not be authenticated. Under pressure, Mr. Rather says, he delivered a public apology on his newscast on Sept. 20, 2004 — written not by him but by a CBS corporate publicist — “despite his own personal feelings that no public apology from him was warranted.”
He now leads a weekly news program on HDNet — an obscure cable channel in which he is seen by only a small fraction of the millions of viewers who once turned to him in his heyday to receive the news of the day.
In filing his suit now — three years after the now-disputed report was first broadcast, and more than a year after he reluctantly left CBS, as his last contract wound down — Mr. Rather is following, by a matter of weeks, the announcement by CBS that it had settled a similar lawsuit by Don Imus.
Mr. Imus had sued CBS over his firing in the aftermath of derogatory remarks he made about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. While some Imus associates suggested last month that his final payment was at least $20 million, CBS Radio has characterized that figure as too high.
Mr. Rather’s suit seeks $20 million in compensatory damages and $50 million in punitive damages.
Among the pivotal points of contention in Mr. Rather’s suit are the definitions of the words “full-time” and “regular.” As quoted in the filing, Mr. Rather’s contract — which he signed in 2002, and which called for him to be paid a base salary of $6 million a year as anchor — entitled him to a job as a “full-time correspondent” with “first billing” on the midweek edition of “60 Minutes,” should he leave the anchor chair before March 2006, his 25th anniversary in the job.
As it turned out, Mr. Rather would leave the anchor chair a year early, and would indeed be reassigned to the midweek edition, known as “60 Minutes II.” When that broadcast was canceled a few months later, Mr. Rather’s contract called for him to be reassigned to the main “60 Minutes” broadcast on Sunday evening, where he would “perform services on a regular basis as a correspondent.”
Over the next year, Mr. Rather would have eight segments broadcast on the main “60 Minutes” — including reports that took him to North Korea, China and Beirut. While that would seem to be a substantial portfolio of work, Mr. Rather notes that other correspondents had more than twice as many reports appear on the program during the same period, and that several of his reports had been effectively buried, broadast on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day when far fewer people than usual were likely to tune in.
“He was provided with very little staff support, very few of his suggested stories were approved, editing services were denied to him, and the broadcast of the few stories he was permitted to do was delayed and then played on carefully selected evenings, when low viewership was anticipated,” the filing contends.
Among the most egregious indignities he suffered, Mr. Rather says, was the network’s response to his request to be sent as a correspondent to the scene of Hurricane Katrina in the fall of 2005.
“Mr. Rather is the most experienced reporter in the United States in covering hurricanes,” his lawyers write in the suit. “CBS refused to send him,” thus “furthering its desire to keep Mr. Rather off the air.”
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