By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2007 8:56 AM
I was extremely surprised by Dan Rather's lawsuit yesterday, but not as stunned as the CBS people I called, who just simply could not believe it.
No one was shocked that Rather is still mad at CBS -- he made that clear when he left the network last year, and more recently when he took that swipe at his old show being tarted up under Katie Couric.
No one was shocked that Rather still wants to argue about Memogate -- he's made clear in a number of appearances that he still thinks the Bush/National Guard story was right, even if it wasn't fully nailed down.
No one was shocked that Rather thinks big corporations such as CBS aren't foursquare behind aggressive journalism -- he's said that a thousand times, even while he was on the CBS payroll.
But that the man who succeeded Walter Cronkite, who was the face of CBS News for 25 years, would turn around and sue, rather than moving on with his life -- that was one heck of an eye-opener. For Rather is not just taking his old bosses to court, he is reopening all the wounds from that National Guard story, which even his friends would tell you was not his finest hour.
Here is my report:
In an extraordinary move that reflects the depth of his resentment toward his former network, Dan Rather sued CBS yesterday, charging that he was made a "scapegoat" for a discredited 2004 story about President Bush's National Guard record because CBS wanted to "pacify the White House."
CBS management "coerced" the veteran news anchor "into publicly apologizing and taking personal blame for alleged journalistic errors in the broadcast," says the $70 million suit, which also names Sumner Redstone, chief executive of the network's then-parent company, Viacom; CBS Chairman Les Moonves; and former CBS News president Andrew Heyward.
Several former colleagues said they were baffled by the move. "I think he's gone off the deep end," said Josh Howard, who was forced to resign as executive producer of "60 Minutes II" after CBS retracted the story. "He seems to be saying he was just the narrator.
"He did every interview. He worked the sources over the phone. He was there in the room with the so-called document experts. He argued over every line in the script. It's laughable."
Rome Hartman, a former executive producer of "CBS Evening News" who now works for the BBC, said: "It's got to be about this lasting sense of hurt and pride. I was flabbergasted. I just don't get it."
Rather's lawyer, Martin Gold, said last night: "Dan is bringing this lawsuit to restore his reputation. He's not doing this for the money," he added, saying that Rather would donate most of any court award to journalistic causes.
After serving as "CBS Evening News" anchor for a quarter-century, Rather agreed to relinquish the chair in November 2004, weeks before an outside panel criticized him and top network executives for airing a badly flawed story charging that Bush had received favorable treatment from the Texas Air National Guard in the early 1970s. He said at the time that he was stepping down voluntarily, but says in the lawsuit that CBS had "terminated" his anchor duties the day after Bush was reelected.
Rather was shifted to "60 Minutes," where he had a part-time workload. When CBS refused to renew his contract last year, Rather accused the network of failing to live up to its contractual obligations and offering him little more than an office if he were to continue.
CBS brushed off the suit, which alleges fraud and breach of contract, with a single sentence. "These complaints are old news, and this lawsuit is without merit," spokesman Dana McClintock said.
Rather, 75, who now hosts a weekly program on HDNet, a high-definition channel owned by Dallas billionaire Mark Cuban, says in the suit that CBS's actions "have cost him significant financial loss and seriously damaged his reputation."
The debacle over the National Guard story, which the suit says became known as "Rathergate," turned on 30-year-old memos said to have been written by Bush's late squadron commander. Several newspapers, including The Washington Post, and conservative bloggers gathered evidence that the documents were unlikely to have been typed on government typewriters of that era.
Several document experts hired by CBS said later that they had not authenticated the memos, as the network originally claimed, and the commander's former secretary said she did not type them. The source who gave CBS the documents, Bill Burkett, initially said he got them from a fellow National Guardsman. But Burkett later admitted he had lied to the network and could not establish that the papers came from the commander's files.
CBS aired the story on Sept. 8, 2004, at the height of the presidential campaign, hours after White House official Dan Bartlett did not challenge the authenticity of the memos when asked about them by CBS. Bartlett said later that he had no way of knowing on such short notice whether the memos were real.
Gold, Rather's lawyer, maintained that "nobody's proved the documents were forgeries. The way we look at it, it's more than likely the documents are authentic."
An outside panel, appointed by CBS and headed by former attorney general Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press chief executive Lou Boccardi, accused the network of having "failed miserably" to authenticate the memos and of making false and misleading statements in defending the story afterward. Three top executives resigned under pressure, and Rather's producer, Mary Mapes, was fired.
The uproar hastened the end of Rather's remarkable 44-year career at CBS, which stretched from covering the assassination of John F. Kennedy to conducting the last Western interview with Saddam Hussein. It also revived criticism that he was a liberal who was biased against Republican presidents dating back to Richard M. Nixon.
Bernard Goldberg, a former CBS correspondent and a sharp critic of Rather, said yesterday that the former anchor is a great reporter, "but the dark side is that he's unwilling or incapable of accepting responsibility. . . . This is the man who signed off his newscast with 'courage,' and now he's alleging 'they made me do it, they just put the words in front of me.' This is ridiculous on so many levels."
In the suit, Rather says he "played largely a supervisory role" in producing and vetting the story because he had been instructed to concentrate on his anchoring duties and covering a Florida hurricane and the Republican National Convention in New York.
Said Howard, the former executive producer, who is now a CNBC executive: "You can't have it both ways. He wasn't forced to read the script. He pressured us to put the story on the air."
Twelve days after the story aired, according to the suit, Heyward, then the news division chief, "instructed" Rather to read an apology on the "Evening News," despite Rather's "own personal feelings that no apology from him was warranted." In those on-air remarks, Rather called the story a "mistake" and added: "I want to say personally and directly, I'm sorry."
Those words, the suit says, caused the media and public to blame him for the bungled story. Heyward declined to comment yesterday.
The outside probe was "designed to give the appearance of fairness," but "its conclusions were preordained," the suit charges, noting Thornburgh's role in the George H.W. Bush administration and as a Republican Senate candidate.
To buttress Rather's charge that CBS wanted to mend fences with the White House, the suit points to a Time interview in the fall of 2004 in which Redstone said Bush's reelection would help Viacom.
"They sacrificed independent journalism for corporate financial interests," Gold said.
Asked why Rather would sue more than a year after leaving CBS, Gold said the former anchor was "a bit appalled" at new information he said had emerged involving a private investigator, Erik Rigler, who was hired by the network during the 2004 controversy. Rigler, a former FBI agent, "was trying to dig up dirt on Dan and Mary Mapes," Gold said, declining to elaborate.
When CBS came under fire over the story, Gold said, Rather told Heyward he wanted to hire an investigator at his own expense, but Heyward responded that CBS would retain such a person. Gold said, again without providing evidence, that Rigler concluded that the Guard memos were authentic and the story accurate. He was interviewed by the Thornburgh-Boccardi panel, which accused Rather and CBS of a "myopic zeal" to rush the story to air five days after obtaining the disputed papers.
Reached by phone, Rigler declined to comment last night.
Lynne Bernabei, a Washington lawyer who specializes in employment disputes, called Rather's suit "a hard case to prove" but said he might mount a credible argument that CBS had breached the contract by minimizing his airtime. Still, she said, "the fact that he made an on-air admission that he made mistakes makes it hard for him to prove some of the other claims that they misled him."
When Rather was transferred to "60 Minutes II" and, after its cancellation, the original Sunday "60 Minutes," CBS paid him $6 million a year under his contract but "allowed him to function in a very limited capacity," the suit says. Rather did about 10 pieces over a year for "60 Minutes," including stories from North Korea and China.
As further evidence of CBS's abandonment, the suit said, the network did not respond to criticism of Rather by "60 Minutes" veterans Mike Wallace and Andy Rooney, among others.
Rather clearly intended to make a splash with the suit: He has agreed to appear tonight on "Larry King Live."
Moving right along . . . Hillary, Obama and Mitt all have new TV spots, and I critique the early phase of the advertising campaign here.
Just when you thought the campaign might be detouring into substance comes this bulletin: Barack Obama isn't black enough for Jesse Jackson.
That's right, the 1984 and 1988 Democratic presidential candidate is questioning the racial credentials of the 2007 African-American candidate.
I see two possible explanations for this:
1. Jesse really misses the spotlight.
2. See number 1.
I mean, leaving aside the specific nature of the Rainbow Coalition man's criticism, what's he up to with that kind of remark? Isn't that the sort of language he usually denounces? Could a white candidate get away with something like that?
Obama, who did not come out of the civil rights movement--he's a bit too young, and grew up in Hawaii--has made a point of not running strictly as a black candidate. He is trying to appeal to voters across racial lines as well as party lines. Is that somehow an affront to the Jackson-Sharpton wing?
Here's the lowdown from South Carolina's biggest paper, The State:
"Jackson sharply criticized presidential hopeful and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama for 'acting like he's white' in what Jackson said has been a tepid response to six black juveniles' arrest on attempted-murder charges in Jena, La. Jackson, who also lives in Illinois, endorsed Obama in March, according to The Associated Press.
"Obama's South Carolina campaign pointed to a statement it released last week in which Obama called on the local Louisiana district attorney to drop the excessive charges brought in the case. 'When nooses are being hung in high schools in the 21st century, it's a tragedy,' the Obama statement said. 'It shows that we still have a lot of work to do as a nation to heal our racial tensions.' "
Conservative commentators are quick to fire back. Andrew Sullivan rips Jackson's entire philosophy:
"Jackson's 'acting white' remark is a sign of desperation -- of failure, of the bankruptcy of pure victim politics. It's racist; and it's offensive. But it's also an extremely encouraging sign. It could help illustrate one of the game-changing features of the Obama candidacy and open more eyes to the potential in the Illinois senator; and it could jump-start up a real debate among African-Americans about what their future politics should look like and express. Both are very healthy developments.
"Obama, after all, is not only running against Clinton and her well-oiled machine. He's also running against the failed past in racial politics. But part of his candidacy is about not explicitly returning to these tired and divisive racial themes, while articulating policies that he believes benefits whites and blacks in an interconnected America. The Obama campaign should thank Jesse Jackson for making the newness of Obama's racial message clear in a way that leaves the race-consciousness to others."
Captain Ed throws down a challenge:
"The fact that Obama has not exploited the incident for his own political gain makes Jackson think he's 'acting white.' Do the rest of the African-American community concur in this analysis? Does Jesse speak for them when he says that black people have less authenticity when they act carefully, rationally, and thoughtfully?"
Jackson must be feeling the heat: He put out a late statement that, while not retracting his comments, says that Obama has transcended race.
Of course, Obama has a much broader problem: He's behind. Slate's John Dickerson poses the question: "Is it time for Obama to panic?" Dickerson offers several possible strategies, including:
"Go after Clinton. It's been seven months since the first Obama/Clinton dust-up over David Geffen's negative remarks about Hillary. That spat didn't hurt Clinton at all. Two months ago, the two got into a name-calling match over who was more naive about foreign policy. Clinton came out of that fight stronger in the polls, too. Obama has been trying to paint her as a captive of lobbyists and unable to change Washington, but that attack hasn't worked, either. In June voters thought Clinton was the candidate who represented change in Washington, and they still do.
"Perhaps the problem has been that Obama's attacks have been too veiled. Speaking about the Iraq war last week, he said, 'Perhaps because of how much experience they had in Washington, too many politicians feared looking weak and failed to ask the hard questions--too many took the president at his word instead of reading the intelligence for themselves.' He was talking about Clinton, but not every voter would have picked up on that. Should he start making the attacks more explicit--perhaps arguing that the partisan GOP response to her policies is exactly what her presidency would bring? (Or should he at least keep sending his wife on the offensive?)
"The big downside is that if Obama goes after Clinton, he hurts his brand. He's campaigned against gutter-style politics. Clinton's big weakness in the polls is that people don't trust her. But if he went after her for that, it would get personal and ugly fast. Iowa voters in particular tend to look down on this kind of behavior."
Well, it was deja vu again on the Hill:
"A proposal that Democrats put forward as their best chance of changing the course of the Iraq war died on the Senate floor on Wednesday, as Republicans stood firmly behind President Bush," the NYT says.
"With other war initiatives seemingly headed for the same fate, Senate Democrats, who only two weeks ago proclaimed September to be the month for shifting course in Iraq, conceded that they had little chance of success. They said their strategy would now focus on portraying Republicans as opposing any change and on trying to chip away support from the White House as the war continued.
"The proposal that failed Wednesday fell 4 votes short of the 60 needed to prevent a filibuster and would have required that American troops be given as much time at home as they had spent overseas before being redeployed." The Dems picked up six Republicans.
Ryan Sager has a noteworthy observation about a poll that has Giuliani at 30 percent, Thompson at 22, McCain at 18 and at Romney 7:
"Mitt Romney's favorability rating is a mess. That is, it's negative -- fairly remarkable for someone who's been busy trying to shape his image for so many months.
" While Romney's favorable rating is the same as it was earlier this month, his unfavorable rating has increased and is now at its highest point to date (35%). Romney's ratings had improved following his win in the Iowa straw poll in August, after which 33% rated him positively and 24% negatively. Since then, his ratings have quickly deteriorated. Romney now has a net negative image in the eyes of Americans (27% favorable, 35% unfavorable), as was the case in several polls this summer.
"Almost all of this has to be attributable to Mr. Romney's 'flip-flopper' image (though, it's possible his Mormonism also plays a part)."
Dick Cheney must be a fast writer; he quickly took to the WSJ op-ed page to rebut Alan Greenspan's criticism of the administration's fiscal record.
O.J. is free once again, and anyone watching cable yesterday saw one of the most ridiculous sights in quite some time: helicopter footage of his car driving down the highway after he made bail, in a self-conscious attempt to recreate the low-speed Bronco chase of 1994.
The New York Post even follows him and "gal pal Christie Prody" onto his plane:
"Freed jailbird O.J. Simpson posted bail, rushed out of the pokey and hightailed it home to Florida yesterday.
"And, by the way, no hard feelings Vegas, the Juice said. 'It [treatment by Las Vegas jailers] was totally professional,' a relieved Simpson told the Post aboard a Fort Lauderdale-bound US Airways jet taxiing out of McCarran International Airport."
Now he can resume looking for the real killers.