WHEN DAN Rather arrived in Los Angeles to testify in the recent "60 Minutes" slander trial, lawyers for CBS sat him down and quietly told him to be prepared to lose the case. It wasn't that they thought they didn't have solid evidence on their side. They were just reminding Rather that the overwhelming majority of libel and slander cases heard by juries end up in judgments, sometimes preposterously lavish, for the plaintiffs.
As it happened, CBS News, Rather, "60 Minutes" and producer Steve Glauber, all cited in the $30 million suit, won. The jury ruled by a 10 to 2 vote early last week that they had not displayed a "reckless disregard for the truth" in the 1979 "60 Minutes" report "It's No Accident," which linked Dr. Carl A. Galloway, who filed the suit, with an insurance scam operating out of an L.A. clinic.
But for Rather and CBS, there was more to worry about than the jury in the courtroom. There was another jury waiting outside: the ladies and gentlemen of the press, who gave "60 Minutes" and Rather an unexpected roughing-up. It's a prosaic irony, but there it is: CBS News was on trial for allegedly practicing terrorist journalism and became to some degree the victim of it. To much of the public, it must have looked as though CBS was getting a taste of its own medicine and not liking it at all.
Although CBS was vindicated, what was lost in the winning? It's too early to predict whether the exposure--the sight of Rather dislodged from his "Evening News" anchor podium and sitting, instead, in a witness chair, dispatching hound-dog Texas colloquialisms in his own defense--will tarnish the credibility of CBS News in the public eye. Once all the wounds have been licked, there probably will be no permanent damage done, and the CBS victory may make potential litigants less sue-crazy in the future.
This wasn't, CBS hastens to point out, an "issues" case. "We really didn't look upon it as a big First Amendment thing," says Gene Mater, CBS News senior vice president. If anything was proven, other than the lack of "60 Minutes" culpability on this story, it was proven not by the trial itself but by press coverage of it. That coverage demonstrated that journalists do not band together in defensive collusion when a colleague is under attack. "The media" was nearly as tough on Dan Rather and CBS News as was the attorney for the doctor who sued the network. In some way, this may serve the public interest, but the treatment given CBS and Rather seemed to take the form of potshot rather than rigorous inquiry.
There is extreme resentment among some of those who work for CBS News over this. That may make them sound like crybabies, givers who can't take, but the hostile press CBS got wasn't by any stretch investigative or muckrakish; much of it was just snide. "60 Minutes" isn't snide. It didn't get to be the nation's No. 1 television show on snideness. Thus it's hard to take even perverse pleasure in the way CBS News and Rather got thwonked.
Among the broadcasts considered unfair by CBS insiders are "Entertainment Tonight," a predominantly silly syndicated series that specializes in showbiz news; and "ABC News Nightline," which devoted two lengthy segments to the trial. Some at CBS feel some print reporters also exhibited a particular pleasure in concentrating on the plaintiff's charges and ignoring the CBS defense.
Howard Stringer, executive producer of "The CBS Evening News," moved the entire broadcast to Los Angeles while anchorman Rather was on call as the key defense witness, and Stringer is still angry about the way the story was covered by others. "We're often criticized for dealing with personalities rather than issues, but a lot of our competitors got involved with the personalities and ignored the issues completely in this case," Stringer says.
Rather and others involved were anything but cocky and confident, sources say; the atmosphere became intensely emotional as the trial and the coverage wore on. Rather does not want to comment further, but those close to him say he became "depressed" by the fact that reporters from other news organizations were taking at face value whatever attorneys for the plaintiff told them on the courthouse steps. He is said by colleagues to feel that certain omissions in press coverage of the trial were "outrageous and unforgiveable."
For example, when outtakes from the "60 Minutes" segment were secured by attorneys for Galloway, "Entertainment Tonight" rushed them onto the air at full toot. Among the outtakes shown was one that gave the impression that Rather, correspondent for the original segment, chased and badgered an "innocent bystander" who had nothing to do with the case. In fact, say Mater and others who were at the trial, testimony revealed that the man, who was shooting still pictures of Rather and circling him in the outtake shown, was linked to the clinic being investigated, had ordered Rather and crew out of the building and had a criminal record. "Entertainment Tonight" never reported these facts, despite Mater's protests and requests for a clarification.
Some print reporters picked up the "innocent bystander" angle and reported it as fact.
Allegations that Rather made inadequate attempts to reach Dr. Galloway by telephone were also passed along unchallenged to viewers and readers. The impression given was that Rather had made two phone calls to Galloway and then given up. Mater says Simply-Not-True, that there were "many attempts" to reach Galloway, that calls were placed to him at his Lynwood office and that Rather left his card at the clinic for Galloway with a phone number that Galloway could call, collect, 24 hours a day in order to reach him. Mater further claims that in a deposition given by Galloway in an entirely separate case, he made reference to the fact that Rather, Glauber and "60 Minutes" were trying to reach him, which contradicts Galloway's assertion that he knew nothing of these attempts.
Galloway maintained that the signature on a clinic document that Rather held up to the camera on "60 Minutes" was not his but a forgery. Asked last week on the CBS News program "Nightwatch" if there were anything about the story that he would do differently now, "60 Minutes" executive producer Don Hewitt said, "If Galloway had transmitted to us the information that his signature was forged, we would have reported that he was claiming that on the air." This is the only change Hewitt would make, he said. From his office in New York, Hewitt said later last week that, despite the harshness of the spotlight aimed at "60 Minutes" during the trial, he was glad CBS fought the suit and did not, as would have been much quieter, settle it out of court.
CBS News senior vice president Robert Chandler says that while it is not strictly speaking CBS policy to shun out-of-court settlements, it is "a matter of practice when we think we're right." Only two such settlements have been made in the history of "60 Minutes," Chandler says, one for $5,000 and another that involved an exchange of public statements. No jury has ever found against "60 Minutes" in a libel or slander suit; in fact, Galloway's was only the second "60 Minutes" case ever to go to a jury. Most lawsuits "just sit there and languish," are withdrawn or are dismissed, Chandler says. He estimates that between 52 and 57 suits are pending against "60 Minutes" at this time.
Stringer feels there was disregard for the truth, reckless or otherwise, in reporting on the trial, in part because Rather, CBS News and "60 Minutes" make choice targets. Rather is king of one hill (the "Evening News" is always first in the ratings among the three network evening newscasts) and "60 Minutes" king of another. "There were too many people thoroughly enjoying Dan's discomfort," says Stringer. "There was too much of the giant-killer in the coverage. I think 'Nightline' enjoyed it too much. It was a little chance toshoot Dan down."
But Ted Koppel, the eminently unflappable anchor of "Nightline," says in response, "I think that's a little bit unfair. The very motive for doing the program we did had really nothing to do with this trial in particular." Koppel said the point of the "Nightline" show was to educate viewers on TV news-gathering techniques, such devices as "reverses" and "cutaways" that are basic grammar in TV reportage. Essentially they are editing devices. "Reverses" involve repeating questions, using a different camera angle, and thus can give the impression to the layman that an interviewee was "rehearsed" or given a second chance, as Galloway's lawyer charged at the trial.
On "Nightline," viewers were shown how TV reporters commonly use such devices as an accepted part of their trade. "There is nothing shabby about doing it," says Koppel. "Is it open to misuse? Yes. Is it misused? I think rarely, at the network level."
Koppel says he invited Rather to appear on the program, but Rather declined. John Chancellor of NBC News was also invited and was eager to appear, Koppel says, but NBC News president Reuven Frank forbade him to do so. Koppel also says he'll take the blame for the fact that the first "Nightline" segment devoted to the trial featured, as a participant, Accuracy in Media director Reed Irvine, but failed to identify him as a contributor to Galloway's legal costs. Associates of Rather say he finds it hard to believe this was an accident.
Hewitt phoned "Nightline" executive producer Bill Lord the day after Irvine's appearance to complain heatedly about this omission, Koppel says. But Hewitt says, "That is a monstrous lie . . . Ted Koppel is a terrific broadcaster, but if he said that, he is an 18-carat liar. They called me"--in the hope of getting him to appear on an upcoming show. Hewitt says he was returning a call to a "Nightline" staff member when Lord and Koppel got on the line, and that's when Hewitt mentioned Irvine's contribution to Galloway. Lord confirms this is what occurred. But then he adds, with more than a tinge of sarcasm, "That's a really important distinction, isn't it?"
Attempts to lure the volatile (and brilliant) Hewitt onto a later "Nightline" piece on the trial were prompted, Hewitt thinks, by the fact that "they knew they didn't do a very good job the first time. Look who they had on: Dan Schorr a former CBS newsman , who is certainly bitter about CBS, and Reed Irvine, who is a professional critic of CBS." But other than that, Hewitt says he has no complaints to voice about press coverage of the trial: "Who am I to sit in judgment of other men of the press?" he says, perhaps disingenuously. "Those guys do what they do for what they think are good and sufficient reasons. I'm not their editor, I'm not their publisher, so it's not for me to say whether their reasons are good and sufficient or not."
Ted Turner's Cable News Network, meanwhile, seemed to take noticeable glee during the trial in broadcasting, live from the courtroom, Rather's two days of testimony. Was this, as some at CBS feel, an attempt to make Rather look bad? A CNN spokesman says from Atlanta, "That's insane. Personally, I don't think Dan Rather looked bad in the first place." And she deni sweet bite out of our ass. When it's tempting to do it, somebody will do it."
The fact remains, it hurts. But maybe only for a little while. For Stringer thinks that CBS News comes out of its ordeal not bloodied but emboldened. "We raised the level of our togetherness here to a new high," he says. "It's going to make us even harder to beat."
Though Rather declined comment on the case directly, an associate at CBS News quotes him as making one statement about the whole affair--and for all he went through, Rather surely deserves to have the last word. "A doctor sold himself to a phony clinic run by his in-laws," he reportedly said. "The reporters who found him out and exposed him were the ones dragged through a trial. Those are the central facts, and they are something anyone who cares about journalism in this country should ponder." shoot Dan down."es that owner Turner, who has a passion for attacking the three networks, ordered the live coverage. He didn't know CNN was going live with the Rather testimony until he saw it on the air, the spokesman says. Turner "does not inject himself into the news operation of CNN," she says.
Some may see it as an act of unofficial justice that CBS News found itself wincing under the kind of scrutiny it applies to others. Perhaps it should always be open season on any news organization with the power that those of the three networks have. Even Stringer and his colleagues concede that to some extent being pilloried when the opportunity presents itself goes with the territory. Says one, bluntly, "Some people were bound to see it as a chance to take a big