Dan Rather has been out of the anchor chair at The CBS Evening News for more than two years. There is wide agreement that the story which led to his departure, a report on George W. Bush’s Air National Guard service, was based on fraudulent, or at least unverifiable, documents. CBS commissioned an extensive investigation into the matter, Rather left the network, and the affair seemed over.
Until now. Yesterday Rather filed a $70 million lawsuit against his old employers, and it is based on a set of astonishing allegations that are sure to bring what became known as “Rathergate” back into the news.
In the suit, Rather alleges that he was forced to apologize for the Bush story as part of a conspiracy by top CBS management to ensure that no further damaging revelations about the president’s time in the Texas Air National Guard would become public. Rather also alleges that CBS hired a private investigator to re-report the original story — after Rather threatened to hire his own private eye to do the same thing — and that the investigator found the story to be accurate, only to have his findings suppressed by CBS as part of an effort to curry favor with the Bush White House. Finally, Rather alleges that CBS fired him over the story the day after Bush was reelected, despite his later claims that his departure was separate from the Bush story.
First, the apology. On Monday, September 20, 2004, nearly two weeks after the Bush story originally aired, Rather told viewers, “The failure of CBS News to…properly, fully scrutinize the documents and their source led to our airing the documents when we should not have done so. It was a mistake. CBS News deeply regrets it. Also, I want to say personally and directly, I’m sorry.” However genuine his words might have sounded, Rather now claims he was speaking under duress. “CBS management coerced Mr. Rather into publicly apologizing and taking personal blame for alleged journalistic errors in the broadcast,” the lawsuit says. CBS News chief Andrew Heyward “instructed Mr. Rather to read a public apology, written by [CBS management], for both Mr. Rather’s and CBS’s handling of the story. Despite his own personal feelings that no apology from him was warranted, Mr. Rather read the apology as instructed.” Moreover, Rather alleges, “as defendants well know, 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.”
Next, the cover-up. After the controversy erupted, CBS appointed a commission, led by former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, to investigate. According to Rather, it was all a sham. “CBS announced that it was conducting a thorough independent investigation into the underlying story of the broadcast and its production,” the lawsuit alleges, “when in fact its intention was to conduct a biased investigation with controlled timing and predetermined conclusions in order to prevent further information concerning Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service from being uncovered.”
Rather says the cover-up was part of CBS’s “plan to pacify the White House” and to “appease angry government officials” by offering up Rather as the “scapegoat for CBS management’s bungling of the entire episode.” (By bungling, Rather means the network’s decision to concede error, not the original accusations against Bush.) All this was particularly damaging to Rather, the lawsuit alleges, because “throughout his career, Mr. Rather has promoted, championed, and been emblematic of journalistic independence and journalistic freedom from extraneous interference such as governmental, political, corporate or personal interests.”
Next, the private detective. Rather writes that at the time the commission was appointed, he, Rather, told CBS that “numerous leads” about the Bush story “remained open which should be investigated.” The lawsuit says Rather issued a threat to CBS: “If CBS News would not continue to investigate [the leads], he would personally retain a private investigator to pursue them.” According to the suit, CBS News President Andrew Hayward “urged Mr. Rather to refrain from taking such action. He informed Mr. Rather that CBS News would retain a private investigator to thoroughly pursue all leads, and that all information uncovered by such investigator would be made available to Mr. Rather.” On the basis of Heyward’s promise, Rather backed off his plan.
According to Rather, the private investigator, a man named Erik Rigler, checked out the leads given to him by Rather’s producer, Mary Mapes. After looking into it, Rather says, Rigler “was of the opinion that the [documents] were most likely authentic, and that the underlying story was certainly accurate.” But CBS News, intent on currying favor with the Bush White House, covered up Rigler’s findings. Rather was never given Rigler’s report, and the Thornburgh Commission never mentioned it.
Finally, the firing. Rather’s lawsuit says CBS management told him on November 3, 2004 — the day after Bush was reelected — that he “was being terminated as anchor of the CBS Evening News.” The decision wasn’t made public until nearly three weeks later, when Rather announced that he would leave, effective March 2005. Rather said publicly that his decision was separate from the documents controversy. “It’s time,” he told the Washington Post. “It just felt right.”
Now, with Rather’s lawsuit, the time has come for still more discussion of Dan Rather, CBS, and the Bush Air National Guard story. At a time when the network is struggling in the ratings, public attention will snap back to one of the most painful events in its history. And we will undoubtedly learn more about what went on during those frantic days of Rathergate.