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Think Again: CBS and Dan Rather—Doing the Right’s Dirty Work

SOURCE: AP/Henny Ray Abrams

Dan Rather's lawsuit against CBS was dismissed by a New York appeals court last week. In the suit he claims the network committed fraud by commissioning a “biased” and incomplete investigation of a “60 Minutes” broadcast in order to “pacify the White House.”

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Last week, a New York appeals court dismissed Dan Rather’s lawsuit against CBS. Rather contends 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 says the network committed fraud by commissioning a “biased” and incomplete investigation of a “60 Minutes” broadcast in order to “pacify the White House.” The broadcast presented as authentic documents from the Air National Guard showing George W. Bush went AWOL, which CBS aired less than two months before the 2004 presidential election.

Coverage of the decision in the major dailies, however, focused exclusively on the ironic disintegration of the relationship between the network and the former anchorman. Three articles appearing about the court’s decision each closed with earnestly sober quotations from CBS employees about the futility of Rather’s case:

The New York Times: “’Dan was a great anchor,’ Mr. Briskman [CBS chief counsel] said. ‘I hate the whole thing. The whole situation is pathetic. To have to fight Dan Rather is pathetic. I really wish the whole thing would just go away.’”

The Washington Post: “Jeff Fager, executive producer of ‘60 Minutes,’ told the Los Angeles Times in August, ‘It’s hard to watch’ Rather’s never-ending legal fight.

‘It’s like he is in some paranoid nightmare where everybody is out to get him. We’re all witnessing the poor guy thrashing around, tormented. … I can’t for the life of me understand why he’s doing this, how he could turn such a storied career into this train wreck,’ added Fager, who apparently got to know Rather not at all during their years working together.”

The Associated Press: “General counsel Louis Briskman said that action ‘is technically still pending, but it’s hanging by a thread.’”

These quotes, coming as they do from people on the CBS payroll, attempt to portray Rather as some crazy old grandpa who can’t get used to the idea that he’s been put out to pasture. What’s more significant, however, is the manner in which they obscure the major questions about CBS’s conduct during the so-called “Memogate” scandal that could be answered by the Rather lawsuit.

None of these articles offered much context regarding either the case, the investigation, or the report itself. At its core, this is a case about a major corporate media power failing to stand by its most famous reporter to avoid a battle with the Bush administration. It is also about the mainstream media’s coerced capitulation to right-wing critics of a supposedly liberally biased network. Remember, while the documents involving Bush’s alleged AWOL spree have never been authenticated, neither have they ever been disproven. The fact that almost everyone familiar with the case assumes that it is common knowledge that they were faked—when no such evidence exists—demonstrates just how successfully the right was able to determine this story’s narrative.

Documents released during the discovery process for Rather’s suit have revealed a great deal about CBS’s reaction to accusations of bias from conservative bloggers after the “60 Minutes II” story originally aired. They have also revealed the extent to which the network and its president, Les Moonves, have misrepresented their role in the production of a report by an “independent” panel the network enlisted to investigate the story. Without Rather’s lawsuit, all of this embarrassing information about CBS might never have been known. No wonder the executives and lawyers for the company are looking to wish it away.

To recap, two years ago, Felix Gillette of The New York Observer detailed the evidence that CBS used the scandal to force Rather out. In order to do this, the network appointed an “independent review panel” to adjudicate the journalistic practices of CBS News. Gillette reported in 2008 that CBS had considered appointing the likes of Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and even Roger Ailes to the panel. As Rather’s lawyers noted, “Only conservative lawyers were considered for the panel; their names were vetted by Viacom’s Washington lobbyists (as well as with unnamed ‘GOP folks’).” And CBS lawyers did not really disagree. They said the network “opened itself up to its harshest conservative critics to ensure that the panel’s findings would be found credible.”

Moreover it demonstrates that Rather was correct to question the network’s choice of Dick Thornburgh for the panel. Thornburgh had served as attorney general under George H.W. Bush. Jacques Steinberg reported that Thornburgh was approved after CBS executive Linda Mason, who was in charge of appointing members to the panel, found out that he had received “high marks from the GOP.” A Republican lawmaker was rejected because he wouldn’t “mollify the right.”

Days after the panel finished its report, Mr. Moonves sent a long memo to his staff that summarized the findings. Gillette writes:

“But one set of internal CBS e-mails (which turned up in the discovery process and was recently made public) would seem to suggest that if CBS executives refrained from directly influencing the panel’s final report, they were certainly contemplating doing so on the eve of its publication…

"In the e-mail back-and-forth, Mr. Heyward and Ms. Mason appear to be engaging in a bit of preemptive damage control. ‘Even if they had to expand the summary, we should consider this option if the big doc is too destructive,’ wrote Mr. Heyward. ‘[A]nd I wouldn’t hesitate to put that back on them—that they exceeded the mandate or violated our instruction to leave the organism alive after the cancer is removed.’”

Clearly, these network executives had little compunction about messing with the panel’s apparent independence.

And while the report certainly failed to prove the authenticity of the Bush documents, it was considerably hampered from the start by a lack of cooperation from relevant sources. The panelists contacted White House Director of Communications Dan Bartlett, who refused to answer questions addressed to George W. Bush. Bartlett argued that the panel was making an inquiry into CBS News and not the president. When he left the administration, Bartlett became a political analyst at CBS News.

The full truth about the report has never been and now probably will never be told. Nonetheless, in an attempt to condemn Rather and CBS News for the perceived irresponsibility of the original Memogate broadcast, media have also exhibited some irresponsible habits of their own.

When Rather’s lawsuit was announced, Tim Rutten insisted that it was “an act of ego,” and he made the false claim that the “60 Minutes” segment had been “wholly unsubstantiated.” Howard Kurtz referred to the “discredited memos” when, in fact, it was the CBS reporting that had been discredited and not the memos themselves. Kurtz and many others continued to ignore the truth about Bush’s spotty National Guard service.

Rather, who is already out millions on the suit, says he is preparing to appeal the court’s most recent decision. But whatever happens, it remains a mistake on the part of the rest of us to dismiss Rather’s legal action as the pathetic final act of wounded ego. CBS is never going to volunteer answers to any of the questions surrounding their response to the outcry over the “60 Minutes” report and are obviously pleased to do whatever they can to bury the entire affair. Rather is suing on behalf not only of his own reputation but also of history. And for that, at least, the rest of us are in his debt.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a distinguished professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals, was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at http://www.thenation.com/blogs/altercation and is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

Mickey Ehrlich is a freelance writer and an English teacher at Kingsborough Community College.

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