Rather Sues CBS for $70 Million

Dan Rather, the former CBS Evening News anchor, names the network, parent company Viacom Inc. and three of his former bosses in a $70 million suit. Rather, 75, says the network made him a "scapegoat" for a discredited story about President Bush's National Guard service in Texas.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Dan Rather is suing the network where he was news anchor for more than two decades. His $70 million suit against CBS is part of the continuing fallout from a 2004 story on "60 Minutes." That story alleged that President Bush had received preferential treatment, allowing him to avoid much of his service in the Texas Air National Guard. Later, Rather was forced to address flaws in that story and admit his story relied on documents that were not verified.

Mr. DAN RATHER (Former news anchor, "CBS Evening News"): The failure of CBS News to do just that - 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.

SIEGEL: Six months after that apology, Rather left his anchor chair on the "CBS Evening News" and eventually he left the network.

NPR's Robert Smith joins us now. Robert, what is Dan Rather claiming in the lawsuit?

ROBERT SMITH: Well, it basically says that the actions of CBS during this time - 2004, 2005 - violated his contract and ruined his reputation. I mean, to break it down, he says that, first of all, that National Guard story. He says he didn't write it. He didn't vet it. He just voiced it. He didn't even report it. And when folks on blogs started to unravel the story, he claims that all of a sudden he was made the scapegoat. We just heard the apology that he gave on air.

He now claims in the lawsuit that that was written by a CBS publicist and he didn't really mean it, and they forced him to say it. And then after he left the anchor chair, his contract had said that he would be able to still be a reporter on "60 Minutes," sort of a graceful departure. Well, he now claims in the lawsuit that his - he didn't have support. They didn't approve his story ideas. And when they did air his stories, they aired on Christmas Day and New Year's when no one was watching.

SIEGEL: And has CBS said anything in response to those claims in the lawsuit?

SMITH: Very terse statement from the spokesman that says, I can quote the whole thing, "these complaints are old news and this lawsuit is without merit." And in some ways, the CBS spokesman is right. We have suspected these things for a long time. Dan Rather made it very clear that he felt he had been treated unfairly by the network - he has all along - and that he had been sort of railroaded into both the resignation and in terms of taking credit and apologizing for that story.

SIEGEL: But back to the story itself, which, I gather, Dan Rather now says he had very little to do with its actual reporting. Remind us again of what was wrong with that story.

SMITH: Well, you may remember those famous documents. They were supposed to be written in the 1970s about how George W. Bush in the National Guard had - how his superiors had allegedly sugarcoated his performance - that was the word -sugarcoat. And Rather said in the report, these docs had been authenticated by experts retained by CBS.

Well, within hours, blogs were comparing the fonts on these documents and showing, rather persuasively, that they probably weren't written on a typewriter and were, perhaps, written using Microsoft Word, which, of course, hadn't been invented in the 1970s. And part of the whole brouhaha was that Rather stood by it for two weeks and said the experts had verified them when, in fact, they really hadn't.

SIEGEL: Now CBS commissioned an investigation of this entire matter. How does that investigation figure in Rather's lawsuit?

SMITH: Well, it is part of the lawsuit because the commission was headed by Louis Boccardi, former head of the Associated Press, and former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, who had worked for the first President Bush. And Rather says this shows that the whole investigation was biased and he says it placed more blame on him than was warranted.

But you should remember that Rather wasn't actually formally punished for just voicing this report. But his producer, Mary Mapes, was fired, and several other staffers were sort of eased out.

SIEGEL: So at this point, Rather has no association - whatever - with CBS?

SMITH: No, he actually is reporting for a small cable channel called HDNet and he's doing investigative reports for them. And, you know, CBS is having its own sort of difficult times with Katie Couric as Dan Rather's replacement, and still remaining in third place.

And so the interesting thing about this lawsuit really is these former news giants, both Dan Rather and CBS, who had this long career together, now fighting over the story, which is two years old but still controversial.

SIEGEL: And they're both seeming to have fallen on harder times since then.

SMITH: Indeed.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Robert Smith.

NPR's Robert Smith, speaking with us from New York City.

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