Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Dan Rather, the former CBS News anchor and host of Dan Rather Reports on HDNet, speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in May.
Dan Rather, the former CBS News anchor and host of Dan Rather Reports on HDNet, speaks at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in May. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
At 77, Dan Rather moves a bit slower than you may remember from his days as the globe-trotting anchor for CBS News. He's about 15 blocks and a million miles away from CBS — an anchor in winter, putting together reports with his producers for the HDNet channel at his offices in midtown Manhattan.
But Rather is still as intense as ever. He is pursuing a $70 million breach-of-contract lawsuit against CBS for the aftermath of his infamous, retracted story from September 2004 about President Bush's military service record.
"CBS broke with long-standing tradition at CBS News and elsewhere of standing up to political pressure, and, there's no joy in saying it, they caved ... in an effort to placate their regulators in Washington," Rather charges in an interview.
Deconstructing Rather's Story On Bush
In the Bush story, Rather cited newly obtained documents that he said proved conclusively Bush had received preferential treatment not only to get into the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War but to duck fulfilling all his military obligations.
The Sept. 8, 2004, report was aired just eight weeks before Election Day. Conservative bloggers slammed CBS and Rather immediately — poring over decades-old typefaces and fonts to charge the documents were forgeries. Former Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, the key source who provided the copies of the records — supposedly from the personal files of young Lt. Bush's commanding officer — changed his story about how he got them. Other sources, seemingly vouching for the records, said they were taken out of context.
After 12 long days of defending the story and attacking its critics, Rather and CBS backed down and apologized.
In the story's wake, lead producer Mary Mapes was fired. Other executives were forced out. The aftermath led to Rather's leaving CBS before his contract expired. Rather says he filed the lawsuit to flush out evidence that the story was true and that he got a raw deal.
The network said it would appoint a panel to figure out how its standards broke down. But Rather says the panel was tainted from the outset. And he says he can demonstrate that because of who was considered for the job.
After The Story Aired
In the course of the lawsuit, Rather's lawyers have obtained internal CBS memos showing that network officials and lobbyists bounced the names of retired Republican officials off other Republicans currently active in politics. CBS's top Washington lawyer was said to warn against picking retired Republican Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire because his selection was "unlikely to mollify the right."
"Pause and absorb that for a moment," Rather says, leaning in. "It can't be an independent panel if your goal is to mollify one political segment — in this case, the segment that's in power at this time."
Richard Thornburgh was named to the investigative panel. He was a Pennsylvania governor who also served as U.S. attorney general under the president's father, President George H.W. Bush.
Internal memos show the journalists at least discussed for the panel were largely ideological figures on the right — including Ann Coulter, Matt Drudge, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and others.
Ultimately, CBS chose Louis Boccardi, the former CEO of The Associated Press, the non-ideological wire service.
The Thornburgh-Boccardi report basically gave Rather a pass and blamed the producers who reported the story and the executives who oversaw it. The story was rushed to air for competitive reasons — USA Today ran a piece based on the same disputed documents the morning after CBS did — and Rather was covering a hurricane in Florida in the days leading up to the broadcast.
Rather and his team were also exonerated of any political agenda. But the report was nonetheless severe on the network for its failings.
"This was arguably the greatest embarrassment in the history of CBS News' otherwise wonderful journalistic tradition," says Andrew Heyward, who was president of CBS News at the time. He was originally a defendant in the Rather lawsuit but was dropped by the judge in the case.
Did CBS Try To Rig The Investigation?
Heyward disputes the idea the panel was compromised and said he never seriously considered appointing Limbaugh, Hannity or the like.
But Heyward said he very much wanted a respected conservative involved in the investigation, and Thornburgh fit the bill.
"This was my view of what we needed to do to cauterize the wounds and have a credible result across a broad spectrum, including our harshest critics," Heyward says. "I would do the same thing today."
Heyward says was there was no effort to protect corporate interests in Washington. Instead, he says, he succeeded in restoring the credibility of the network's news division in the public eye. He left CBS at the end of 2005.
Some journalists are questioning his approach, however.
"It's inexcusable that CBS would attempt to rig the panel," says Walter V. Robinson, the lead investigative reporter for the Boston Globe on President Bush's military record. "The idea that a serious news network would consider Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh to pass some sort of fair-minded judgment on something — it's mind-boggling."
Edward Wasserman, a Miami Herald columnist who teaches media ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., says, "If the president is the victim of calumny and slander, it's not just a private grievance of the political right."
"One of my regrets is that CBS decided to hand the case to the lawyers, rather than to convene a blue-ribbon panel of investigative journalists from print and broadcast .... [to] come back with a reasonable account of what they think CBS did or didn't do wrong," Wasserman says.
Where Rather Stands Now
Before the report was concluded, Rather announced he would voluntarily relinquish the anchor's desk the next spring. But he now says he was called in the day after the election and told he was out as anchor. After a bit more than a year as a little-used correspondent, Rather left CBS in 2006. He now says the story about Bush's military service record was true.
"Nobody has ever proven the documents to be anything but what they purported to be," Rather says. "What the documents stated has never been denied — by the president or anyone around him."
Rather's attorneys also point to public statements by Michael Missal, a lawyer in Thornburgh's law firm who helped conduct the investigation.
"It's ironic that the blogs were actually wrong when they had their criticism," Missal said in a speech back in March at Washington and Lee's law school.
"We actually did find typewriters that did have the superscripts, did have proportional spacing, and on the fonts, given that these are copies, it's really hard to say," Missal said. "But there were some typewriters that looked like they could have some similar fonts there, so the initial concerns didn't seem as though they would hold up."
Elements of those findings cropped up deep in the report. But given the firestorm online, Rather questions why they were not prominently placed among the report's key conclusions.
Yet Missal's acknowledgment is a far cry from saying those fonts actually matched typewriters typically used at American military bases in the early 1970s. And the Globe's Robinson says Rather is missing the larger point on the documents: They hadn't been proved to be true.
"I don't know anybody outside the CBS orbit who's looked at this — and looked carefully at it — who believes that CBS should have aired this report," Robinson says.
The investigative panel released its findings in January 2005. It did not ultimately conclude whether the documents were authentic. But it declared that CBS ignored clear warning signs and misrepresented the statements of sources, both on the air and in defending its original story.
One unequivocal result: Bush's military record was taken off the table as an issue during the home stretch of the presidential campaign.