By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 21, 2007
He's not giving up. He feels he has been wronged. He wants to prove it. And he is determined to stick it to CBS executives in the process.
"The only punishment they understand is the money," Dan Rather said yesterday, explaining why he filed a $70 million lawsuit this week against the network he called home for 44 years.
He said he hired "a team of people," with "money out of my own pocket," to investigate CBS's handling of the story that led to his downfall as anchor. And he still believes in the accuracy of that story -- that George W. Bush received favorable treatment from the National Guard -- even though CBS concluded it could not authenticate the 30-year-old documents involved.
"I'm surprised someone in government hasn't said, 'We have a wartime president whose military records are missing, can't be found. Let's use the power of government to find out exactly what happened,' " Rather said.
Many of his friends think he has lost it, that he has allowed his resentment at Leslie Moonves and other CBS executives who sent him packing last year to overwhelm his good judgment. They use words like "self-destructive" and "tragedy." They believe he is engaging in revisionist history, forgetting that the network doggedly backed him until its lines of defense crumbled, that its own document experts said they had warned the story's producers that the purported papers of Bush's late squadron commander could not be verified.
But Rather says he is fighting for what he called "the red, beating heart of our democracy," journalism.
"The story was true," Rather said. "The documents, I still believe them to be true. I believed them to be true at the time."
In a lengthy phone conversation, the 75-year-old journalist sounded consumed by the details of his case and his conviction that CBS abandoned him. He offered no proof that the network sacrificed him as a "scapegoat," as the lawsuit charges, to mollify the White House.
"Well, I'd like to gather more evidence. . . . One way to find out is to put people under oath," Rather said.
The closest he comes to acknowledging any flaws on his part is to say, "I've never said we did the story perfectly. I've never said I performed perfectly."
One problem facing Rather, who now works for the tiny cable channel HDNet, is that some of what he says now is at odds with what he said in 2004, when his "60 Minutes II" story caused an uproar at the peak of the presidential campaign.
Rather personally apologized on the "CBS Evening News" 12 days after the story aired. But yesterday he said: "I didn't want to apologize. I never apologized for what was in the story, the record of President Bush."
He said Andrew Heyward, then the CBS News president, pressured him by saying that he and his colleagues were a team and that an apology was important for the news division and for Rather's own reputation.
Rather insisted to reporters on Nov. 23, 2004, that his decision to step down as anchor the following spring was entirely voluntary. But yesterday he said Heyward and Moonves, the CBS chairman, had called his agent 20 days earlier -- the morning after Bush's reelection -- and said that he had to relinquish the chair immediately. Rather wound up staying until March 2005, which he says is close to the time he had planned to step down anyway.
CBS has limited its response this week to a one-sentence statement saying the suit has no merit, frustrating some staffers who would like to challenge parts of Rather's account that they see as fiction.
Rather disputed the notion that he was portraying himself as a mere newsreader on the National Guard story, uninvolved in the key decisions that were made. Still, he says top CBS executives bore responsibility for the piece.
"Anybody who knows me knows I love to report," he said. "I did what I could on this story." But he said he was busy at the time covering a hurricane, the Republican convention and Bill Clinton's heart ailment, along with his anchoring duties.
"Andrew Heyward took over the supervising of this piece," Rather said. "They didn't invite me, ask me, inform me when the final screening took place. I wasn't as deeply involved as I normally am." He said he had warned Heyward that "reaction to it could be thermonuclear."
But Josh Howard, the former executive producer of "60 Minutes II," said Wednesday that Rather was deeply involved in the story, to the point of arguing over every line in the script.
Across the television industry, executives are asking: Why now? Why, when memories of the botched story are finally fading and Rather is trying to build a second career, would he declare legal war on his former bosses and dredge up the worst moment of his career?
Here Rather wades deep into the weeds, talking about how a private investigator he hired dug up information on a "mystery man" -- an ex-FBI agent retained by CBS to look into the story once it came under fire. Rather said the network ignored this consultant's allegedly supportive findings and more recently, accused the former anchor of "harassing" the man.
In the aftermath of the 2004 segment, Rather said, he wanted to keep investigating the Guard story himself, but CBS executives "shut it down." CBS, for its part, was trying to obtain an independent assessment at a time when Rather's reporting was under attack. CBS subsequently named an outside panel, co-chaired by former attorney general Dick Thornburgh, which found the story badly flawed and blamed several top executives, including Heyward and Rather, for rushing the piece to air.
As a graduate of Sam Houston State University who battled his way to the top of the television business, Rather has long cast himself as the tough-talking Texan who took on the powers that be. In that vein, he is portraying the lawsuit as a challenge to the corrosive influence of conglomerates, including the one that paid him millions over the years. "I think we're going to find out just how much interference at the corporate level there is in national news stories," he said.
Industry speculation has it that CBS might seek a quick financial settlement to avoid the spectacle of its former star taking depositions from its top brass. But Rather dismissed that notion.
"I'm in this by myself," he said. "It's my money. I am prepared to take it all the way to trial."